Fire retardant fabrics are used in everything from high-end upholstery to soft furnishings to schoolroom curtains - but what exactly qualifies a fabric as "fire retardant"? Read on to discover what makes a fabric count as flame retardant, how flame resistant fabrics are made and some of the practical matters of owning fire retardant upholstery.
What Makes a Fabric Fire Retardant?
Fabric can be classified as flame resistant or fire retardant fabric based on, unsurprisingly, the time it takes for the fabric to burn and at what temperatures it does so.
There are both British Standards and worldwide furniture standards that measure the flame resistance of upholstered furniture through testing. One such test, the BS 5852, rates furniture based on its ease of flammability.
The BS 5852 uses items such as a smouldering cigarette, a gas burner or gas flame, or a small stack of dry wood as ignition sources to test the quickness with which a particular fabric or piece of furniture catches on fire. Then the fabric or upholstered furniture is then ranked on a scale of one to seven based on its fire retardancy.
Fabric may be naturally fire resistant due to the fibre's innate properties - as is the case with wool - or it can be treated with a fire retardant chemical that resists heat and helps to extinguishes flames. There are different degrees of flame resistance, depending on the way the fabric was made or treated.
Certain textiles naturally resist fire better than other fabrics. Wool is generally considered the most fire retardant natural fiber, as it is difficult to ignite and may extinguish smaller flames on its own.
Silk also burns slowly, is difficult to ignite and may self-extinguish under certain circumstances.
Designers looking for a more natural drape and feel in their work will often opt for one of these flame-resistant fibers. While acceptable for use in private homes, untreated fabric will rarely meet safety requirements for commercial upholstery or decoration without additional treatment.
Acrylic, polyester and nylon are also all considered fire retardant fabrics, as they catch fire at a much higher temperature than natural fibers. These popular synthetic fabrics are still hazardous however - when they do finally catch, they melt rather than flame, creating a risk for high-degree skin burns.
Luckily, there are manufacturing techniques that bridge the fire-safety gap for nearly any type of fabric.
Fibers can be treated with a chemical solution to increase their flame resistance prior to commercial use. There are two types of treatment commonly used in fire retardant upholstery:
Coating: With the coating technique, a fire retardant back-coating is applied to the fabric in question. This stiffens the fabric, making it better for upholstery use. The coating technique is considered less suitable as curtain fabric however, as the drape of the material end up less natural than with other fabric treatments.
Dipping: Another common fire-treatment method is known as chemical dipping, which is more often used for fabrics made from natural fibres (or that have a high percentage of natural fibres). As the technique suggested, the fabric is dipped into a chemical solution, which absorbs into the fibres, creating a barrier between the fibre and the flame.
Should the fabric catch fire, the chemicals applied during the fabric treatment process are activated by the heat, triggering a chemical reaction which extinguishes the flame - similar to the way chemical fire-extinguishers work. The chemical treatment of the fabric during the manufacturing stage makes these safety properties inherent to the fabric itself.
The best fire retardant fabrics look and feel just like natural ones, and are rigorously tested for high safety standards prior to sale.
Although no fabric is fireproof, there are some fabrics manufactured with flame resistance built into their chemical structures. These fabrics are used in everything from bulletproof vests to firefighters' safety equipment, and are best known by their brand names such as Kevlar or Nomex. While these types of fabrics are more commonly used in welders gloves than in upholstery, they are extending the boundaries for the flame-resistant properties of fabrics.
Can I Wash my Fire Retardant Upholstery?
One of the most important factors when investing in fire retardant upholstery is understanding the manufacturer cleaning recommendations. While you can wash fire retardant fabrics, different washing techniques may diminish the flame resistant qualities, depending on the way the fabric was treated. Some of the coating chemicals are rendered less efficient when met with certain cleaning products, such as bleach or hydrogen peroxide. Others may be dry-clean only.
When choosing fire retardant upholstery or curtains, check with the manufacturer for their recommendations and be sure you stick to them. If specialized cleaning is going to be a hassle for you, it's best to shop around for a different type of fabric.
All FR-One fabrics are machine washable, and the effectiveness of the fabric won't diminish due to washing. However in the case of our cotton/nylon blends for example, washing the fabric with chlorine bleach will remove its flame-resistant properties.
Choosing the right fire retardant upholstery is an delicate balance between safety and design. Without a high retardancy, you may not meet safety standards, but a poorly-designed fabric might ask you to sacrifice design. The best fire retardant fabrics are high quality, design-forward and both natural looking and feeling. If you need help choosing flame resistant fabrics or fire retardant upholstery for your next design project, please contact us at FR-one.com and we'll be happy to help you out.