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Outdoor Fabrics Have Come a Long Way, With New Colors, Designs

Weather resistant and durable, these materials bring style to spaces inside and out

Covered Patio
Courtesy Nikki Klugh Design Group / Getty Images

​When Penelope Clark recently bought new furniture to refresh her backyard gazebo in Sierra Madre, California, she selected an outdoor fabric in navy blue that’s resistant to water, sun and stains.

“It’s surprising,” says the 65-year-old. “It’s really soft, not that heavy canvas. It’s a nice, lighter fabric.”

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Outdoor fabrics have come a long way

Innovations have created a new breed of synthetic textiles that are more durable, lighter and softer. They also come in more colors and patterns — from shells to modern geometrics — and some are even embroidered.

“It used to be that outdoor fabric was scratchy and stiff like boating fabric,” says Nikki Klugh, an interior designer and CEO of Nikki Klugh Design Group of San Diego, California, and Omaha, Nebraska. “Now it’s so soft because it’s made of microfibers from plastic. You can even clean them with bleach and water.”

Focusing on fabric, including rugs, is an easy way to refresh or upgrade your outdoor space, and to enjoy the last warm days of summer or the cooler breezes of fall. As these fabrics have become more sophisticated, they work well in high-use areas, like the patio or pool area or kitchens. They’re also helpful if you have pets. In addition, they can define areas for seating or dining outdoors while adding color, texture, softness and layers to accessories like drapes, pillows and umbrellas.

Since the pandemic hit, people have continued to focus on enhancing outdoor spaces, often creating a seamless passage from inside to outside with sliding glass doors or large windows, say interior designers.

“Choosing the right fabric can make or break an outdoor space, as it can either add to the overall ambiance or detract from it,” says Chloe Hughes, editor in chief of Foter Mag, an architecture, decoration and design website. Fabrics can “help make it more comfortable and functional by their ability to withstand the weather.”

Some popular brands include Covington Fabrics, Kravet and Sunbrella. Bella-Dura Home’s and Milliken Textiles’ new outdoor performance fabrics both come with a five-year warranty. Prices can be as low as $9 per yard, but most outdoor fabrics are $35 and up. Sunbrella lets you order samples for $4 each.

Before buying, research your options and consider a fabric’s characteristics based on the intended use. You’ll want fade-resistant material for items in direct sunlight and water-resistant fabric for open patios in areas that get afternoon rainstorms.

Here are some fabric suggestions and tips for using outdoor fabrics to add interest.

Back Patio
Getty Images

Invest in comfortable, durable seating

Whether you’re buying new outdoor furniture or upholstery fabric to do it yourself, consider how you live. If your patio is exposed to intense sun, consider a fade-resistant material. If you have pets, invest in an easy-to-clean, stain-resistant fabric like vinyl coated polyester mesh. Hughes suggests mesh fabrics, which are comfortable and look nice but cost less (from $10 to about $30 per yard). Consider cushions with zippers or snaps for easy removal and cleaning.

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Deena Brown, 50, of New Orleans, Louisiana, recently added a sitting area with wrought iron chairs and a chaise longue to her backyard. She was able to get removable cushions in durable yet attractive fabrics to add dimension, texture and softness. The chair cushions are in a colorful batik pattern, and the others are an iridescent turquoise.

striped throw pillow and cushions on an outdoor wicker chair
RobLopshire / Getty Images

Pillows provide colorful accents

If you plan to use your pillows often, consider a stain-resistant fabric including those made from acrylic yarns which are also often mildew-resistant. If they’re in direct sunlight, opt for a sun-resistant fabric. Cotton and linen are OK, too, and they cost less. Look for pillows with zippers or buttons for easy removal and cleaning.

Find the shade with weatherproof umbrellas

Umbrellas should have a UV screen to prevent them from fading in the sunlight, Klugh says. The latest outdoor fabrics for umbrellas also are water-resistant and breathable. Other popular umbrella materials includes bamboo, cotton and polyester.

Curtains and drapes add charm

Outdoor curtains or drapes can provide a stylish yet inexpensive separator between indoor and outdoor spaces or some seclusion around a gazebo, for instance.

“Curtains provide a sense of privacy and also allow natural light and air to flow through the space,” Hughes says. She likes Olefin, a synthetic fiber that’s resistant to fading and moisture. Curtains are also inexpensive, costing from $20 to $90, and can be machine washed and dried.

Brown also added long drapes in a light, airy fabric that she describes as “a cross between fairy wings and mosquito netting” around a backyard covered area instead of doors. “The whole idea is to create a sanctuary — you have your own private garden, Eden type of vibe,” she says. “You get the vibe of being outside but still feeling like the indoors.”

Comfortable deck seating arrangement under the awning.  Adirondack chair,Wicker chair,potted plants.
Solidago / Getty Images

Awnings and sunshades create comfortabe spaces

Instead of traditional canvas for awnings, look for synthetics like acrylic or nylon that are waterproof and stain resistant. Some silver-coated polyamide (PA) textiles reflect ultraviolet rays. Shade sails made of high-density polyethylene come in various colors and shapes, such as triangles, and are relatively inexpensive.

Choose table linens that wear well

Consider place mats made of acrylic, plastic or vinyl for their durability and ease of cleaning for uncovered outdoor areas, and those made of natural materials, such as cotton or seagrass, for covered outdoor areas like gazebos. Soft yet strong cotton or linen work well for napkins and tablecloths.

A fabulous table set for dining on the garden patio.
TimAbramowitz / Getty Images

Durable rugs find space inside and out

Rugs or carpeting can enhance indoor and outdoor living space by connecting colors already present while adding a touch of warmth and softness for your feet — even if you already have decking or pavers. They also help define seating areas and create conversation areas, Klugh says. In kitchens or high-traffic rooms, they can stand up to stains including spilled food or pet messes.

Look for outdoor rugs made of nylon, polyester and polypropylene that are resistant to water and stains, and are easy to clean. A polypropylene outdoor rug can cost anywhere from $30 to over $300.

Rugs made from natural materials like bamboo or sisal are better in covered areas, such as a porch, because they dry slowly after getting wet. Temporary outdoor carpet tiles are a good option for parties.

Other factors to consider

There is no one fabric for all uses. Most fabrics suited for upholstery or drapery are not well suited for sunshades and awnings, and vice versa, Hughes says. However, she adds, a general rule of thumb is the lighter the fabric weight, the more versatile the fabric.

Look for outdoor fabrics that complement your existing decor. Luxurious fabrics that are heavier and more textured may be suitable for a formal outdoor entertaining area, whereas lighter, breathable fabrics may work better in casual outdoor settings, such as a porch or patio, Hughes says.

To make your indoor-outdoor space cohesive, Klugh suggests choosing one or two colors from your adjoining indoor space, whether it’s the kitchen or family room, and using them for fabrics in your outdoor space. Because aging eyes have difficulty distinguishing between blue and green, Klugh, who is a certified True Color expert in Maria Killam’s Color Confidence Method, suggests using warmer colors, such as yellow, red and orange.

It’s not all about the furniture and landscaping of an outdoor space, Klugh says. Adding “layers, color and textures make a space come alive.”

How to Clean Outdoor Fabrics

Many of today’s cotton and synthetic fabrics used for pillow and cushion covers can go in the washing machine with bleach (chlorine bleach for whites and oxygen-based bleach for colors). For stains or fabrics that can’t be machine washed, treat them with a capful of heavy-duty, enzyme-based liquid detergent or a paste made of powdered soap and water; scrub with a soft brush and rinse with water. Tough stains, like grass and tree sap, may need a different treatment. Let most fabrics air-dry.

Larger items like tablecloths or rugs can be washed outside using a little elbow grease. To clean rugs, first sweep both sides to remove loose dirt and debris like leaves. For synthetic rugs, rinse using a garden hose. For synthetic or natural-fiber rugs, use a mixture of warm water and mild dish soap to wash and remove stains. Synthetic outdoor rugs are designed to withstand any kind of weather — even rain, snow and sleet. Consider removing natural-fiber rugs used in covered outdoor areas before storms when rain or snow can blow onto them.