You’ll feel a hushed intimacy when you enter a room, or a niche, fitted with fabric walls. Echoes, footfalls, and conversations fade quickly and do not resonate, regardless of the height of the ceiling. Fabric-lined walls are a longstanding tradition, traced back to the hung tapestries of the Middle Ages and the silk wall hangings in the rooms of 18th-century nobility. Functionally, such a treatment kept drafty rooms warmer, as did carpeting, but covering the walls was even more effective. Using fabric on walls has always signaled wealth and good taste, given the material and labor involved. The concept continued through the Craftsman era, when burlap and other coarse textiles were affixed between the battens of wainscots, particularly in dining rooms.
Fabrics selected should be harmonious with the room’s décor. Silk damasks have always been popular for French or Neoclassical interiors, either covering entire walls or as panels inset and framed with decorative Arabesque moldings. Material woven to emulate tapestry has long been a favorite of 19th- and early 20th-century upholsterers, and is still available in myriad colors and patterns. When selecting a fabric, bear in mind that the weight of the material will be at the mercy of gravity—the heavier the cloth, the more chance of eventual sagging. For this reason, try to avoid upholstery-weight goods, instead seeking those suitable for lighter applications (as long as it does not inhibit the intended scheme).
Often, a layer of batting—a thin, puffy sheet of upholstery padding—is attached to the wall before it is covered, to add sumptuousness. The result is a slight fuller appearance, and you will hear no “thunk” if someone or something bumps the wall. Batting also deadens the acoustics in the room, for that hushed sensibility.
To further enhance the dramatic effect, various treatments can be given the edges of the fabric: hidden staples covered with upholstery gimp, trim, or ribbon; or decorative tack heads left exposed.
Fabric walls require little maintenance. Dust is the enemy of all fabrics and finishes, as it traps humidity against the decorative material and accelerates decay. Thus, a gentle vacuuming (low suction, with an upholstery brush accessory), done with minimal abrasion, ensures cleanliness and a longer lifespan for your wall treatment.
The effort required for fabric-lined walls is indeed more than for paint or wallpaper. But it is the ultimate treatment for a treasured nook, dining room, or bedchamber.
There are two basic methods for attaching fabric to walls: adhesive and mechanical. The former means applying liquid starch onto the wall with a roller and essentially pasting up the fabric and smoothing it as if it were wallpaper. This method requires less preparation, but eliminates the sound-deadening and luxury-enhancing batting. The mechanical method consists of “framing” the perimeter of each wall with a tacking strip such as lath that has been affixed into the studs, and then tacking or stapling the fabric onto the strips. If you have access to an air compressor, a $100 upholstery stapler makes this task far simpler. The treatment of seams in the adhesive method is the same as with wallpaper. Using the mechanical approach, either pre-sew the panels together with a sewing machine or blind-tack each consecutive panel to the previous with a cardboard backer as they are hung.Published in: Old-House Interiors March/April 2011