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Fire Retardant Fabric, Overview

When we talk about fire retardant fabric, we’re talking about cloth which has been tested to find out how quickly flames will spread through and across its surface. This can be a major factor when deciding which fabric to choose when re-upholstering or making from scratch. In the event of a fire, the more time you have to evacuate yourself and loved ones, the safer your home be if the worst happens.

Before we get into the finer details, it’s worth pointing out that the Furniture and Furnishings (Fire) (Safety) Regulations 1988, which sets out the standards for suitability in the UK, only applies furniture which is being sold commercially.

If you’re re-upholstering a piece of furniture for your own use, then there are no legal restrictions on what type of fabric has to be used. Not to say that it isn’t a good idea to choose an FR fabric, but the choice is entirely yours.

If you’re sending your furniture off to be professionally upholstered, however, then any reputable upholsterer will probably insist that you choose an FR fabric.

At Fabric Online we do stock a range of FR fabrics which are either inherently FR, or have already been treated to bring them up to standard.

FR Standards

There are a lot of FR standards out there, but only a few that the average buyer will need read up on.

UK Domestic Upholstery

Domestic upholstery standards, known technically as BS5852 : Ignition sources 0 + 1, applies to any fabric used in upholstery or large fixed furnishings. As above, this really only applies to goods being commercially sold for use in homes or other private property.

Tested in a lab, a rig is constructed and a sample of the fabric is wrapped (mimicking upholstered furniture). A lit cigarette and match are applied separately to separate rigs, and a lab technician will observe the sample for flaming and progressive smouldering. If no flaming or progressive smouldering is observed on either of the samples, then the fabric will pass.

UK Contract Upholstery

FR fabric in upholstery or large furnishings used in a contract/commercial environment (e.g. offices, restaurants, bars, pubs, clubs, hotels, etc…) must pass to a higher standard. Also known as Crib 5, the standard here is BS5852 : Ignition Source 5.

In terns of testing, the rig is set up in a similar manner as above for the cigarette and match tests. A small wooden crib is constructed according to the test requirements, propane diol is added to the crib, and the crib is ignited against the fabric providing the flame source. A lab technician will once again observe for flaming or progressive smouldering to the fabric or foam.

UK Contract Curtains

You’ll notice that we’ve skipped straight past ‘Domestic’ as far as curtain standards go. There’s simply no such thing. Curtains only need to pass to an FR standard if they’re being used in a contract environment. This is true whether you make them yourself or buy them from a shop.

Contract curtain fabrics must pass to BS5867 : Part 2, Type B.

And The Rest?

There are so many FR standards out there, especially on the international stage, that we couldn’t possibly cover them all here. Most of these are for special uses, such as maritime upholstery or severe contract (e.g. hospitals) cases, and many just aren’t relevant in the UK anyway. Different standards do exist though for things like mattresses, divans, wall coverings, etc… Feel free to ask in the comments if you have any questions!

One Last Thing…

It’s worth pointing out that all of these standards only aim to slow the spread of fire, not prevent it. Don’t be surprised if you light up a small swatch of FR fabric (very ill-advised, by the way) and it still catches on fire. It’ll still burn, it’ll just burn slower than non-FR fabric.

Fire Retardant Fabric

You’ll come across FR fabric in one of two forms: cloth which is inherently fire resistant, and cloth with has been treated with FR chemicals to make it fire resistant. Practically speaking there’s no difference – FR is FR – but treatment processes can alter a fabric’s properties – more on that later though.

Naturally Fire Retardant

Some fabrics are just naturally fire retardant without any treatment or additional finishing. The most common naturally FR fabric is wool (our own Glen Mhor and Glen Rosa ranges are great examples), which will usually pass to UK domestic upholstery standards.

Sometimes, however, it might not be enough to say that a fabric is ‘usually’ fire retardant. If you’re ever in a position where a fire officer might potentially be inspecting the premises, they may want you to provide proof that this particular fabric is fire retardant.

For that reason, and for peace of mind, some people do prefer to send a swatch off for laboratory testing.

Treated Fabric

The vast majority of non-FR fabrics can be treated to bring them in line with one of the various standards. You can typically expect one of two types of treatment, which can vary depending on the type of material and the standard you need the fabric to meet.

Backcoat FR Treatment

With a backcoat treatment, FR chemicals are bound within a polymer, a thin layer of which is applied to the back of the fabric (hence the name). The cloth is dried and cured to fix the polymer to the fabric.

How much backcoat goes onto the fabric depends on the standard that in needs to reach. You might need a thicker layer on a fabric to meet contract upholstery standards than you would for the same fabric to meet domestic standards.

Backcoat treatments are by far the most common for furnishing and upholstery fabrics, especially here at Fabric Online.

Clearcoat FR Treatment

Clearcoat treatments are a little more straightforward. The fabric is soaked in, and made to absorb, specialist FR chemicals. Once again the fabric is then dried and cured to lock in the treatment.

The treatment can give the fabric an additional stiffness compared to the non-treated article.

This type of treatment is only possible for fabrics that are capable of absorbing the FR chemicals (i.e. natural fibres). Synthetic fibres, such as polyester, can only be treated by backcoat. Typically FR coaters advise that a fabric needs to be composed of at least 75% by weight of natural fibres for this treatment to take.