The term ‘railroading’ refers to the layout of fabric on a piece of furniture, in relation to the way the pattern is arranged on the fabric.

It is important to pay attention to fabric direction with stripes and patterns, because this will have a direct impact on the end look of the furniture.  Especially patterns – some of them turned on their side make no sense!

Fabric is typically woven with the pattern running from selvedge to selvedge (seam to seam), repeated down the length of the roll.  Fabrics can be cut at any point, and the pattern matched up at the side and sewn to create wider panels of fabric.

This is great when you’re making curtains or cushions, or small chairs.  However, sofas are often long and wide, and seams in upholstery can be unsightly and create a weak point in the fabric, prone to damage.

Conventional fabric on a sofa

Image 1: Conventional fabric

Railroaded fabric is produced with the pattern running perpendicular to the bolt, essentially turned 90 degrees and running from one end of the roll to the other.  This means the fabric can be cut at whatever width as required, without the need for seams, giving a clean look.

Railroaded fabric on a sofa

Image 2: Railroaded fabric

Therefore, “Is this fabric railroaded?” means, “Can this fabric be run along the length of the sofa, with the pattern still running in the right direction?”

Plain fabrics and those with symmetrical patterns (such as dots or squares) can be applied both conventionally or railroaded, because it doesn’t matter which way the pattern runs – although if you’re using velvet, it’s important to find out if it’s railroaded because the pile can look odd brushing sideways.

Plain fabric on a sofa - conventional and railroaded

Image 3: Plain fabric, applied conventionally or railroaded

If you are having furniture upholstered, your upholsterer will understand the direction the fabric needs to go in.  But knowing the meaning of the term can arm you with the knowledge you need to ask the right questions.