What does ‘Railroading’ mean when used to describe Upholstery Fabric?

Railroading is a term you might run across when buying fabric for a home decor project, and here’s what it means in upholstery lingo:

When I first heard the term ‘railroading’ in my upholstery mentor’s shop, I thought ‘What the heck could fabric have to with being unfairly forced into something you don’t want to do?’ (the definition I found when I looked it up in the dictionary). I learned pretty quickly that railroading refers to the orientation of a fabric’s pattern or nap (directional weave) on the fabric bolt.

What is meant by ‘Up the Roll’ fabric?

Most home decor fabrics that you’ll run into are oriented ‘up the roll’, like this:

Railroaded fabric made simple


What is meant by ‘Railroaded’ fabric?

In some fabrics (this is less common – see why below), the pattern is oriented to accommodate wide applications, such as upholstery on a long sofa – without seams. This is called a railroaded fabric, and is identified on fabric samples with a graphic like this:

'railroaded' fabric vs 'up the roll'

Why choose ‘Railroaded’ over ‘Up the Roll’?

If we use a striped fabric as an example, the railroad reference becomes obvious (like ties running crosswise to the tracks):

striped fabric looks like railroad ties

Here’s that same striped fabric shown with the pattern running up the roll:

striped fabric will not fit across the sofa back without a seam

Using the ‘Up the Roll’ orientation would require seams in the middle of the sofa back – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but could make a difference in the look of the finished piece.

Why is ‘Railroaded’ fabric less common than ‘Up the Roll’ fabric?

The answer lies in Upholstery’s sister industries:

  1. Fabrics are made to be useful across ALL industries that utilize them – Drapery & Bedding as well as Upholstery
  2. The Drapery and Bedding industries prefer VERTICAL seams – curtains and duvet covers just do NOT play well with horizontal seams.
  3. The fact is, Drapery & Bedding uses a LOT more fabric than Upholstery, so naturally they get the attention when it comes to economics
  4. This is why MOST fabrics are up the roll, not railroaded

If this had been helpful to you, feel free to share this infographic:

fabric buying tips infographic

Find inspiring fabric design ideas on Upholstery Arts’ Patterns for Upholstery Design on Pinterest.

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