Softly, softly approach... how fabrics add comfort to your home
Open-plan spaces can look architectural and cool but touch-feely fabrics really help add a sense of comfort
Modern interiors can be lacking in softness. But then again, thanks to improved insulation, double glazing, and underfloor heating, our rooms no longer really need to be cocooned in cosy fabrics. Fusty carpets have been replaced with hard floors and, where there once were heavy draft-excluding drapes, many windows are now left bare. Even wallpaper, which added a subtle layer of softness, is not as universal as it used to be. It's now possible to have a warm, dry, comfortable dwelling without swathing its surfaces in softness.
Like most interiors trends, this is a mixed blessing. "Without curtains, carpets and wallpaper, you can end up with a very echoey space," says Gwen Kenny, interior designer and owner of Divine Design. "You need a bit of softness to absorb the noise." Open-plan living areas, uncarpeted and without curtains, look cool and architectural. They're super-easy to clean. But add a gang of kids or a rowdy dinner party and you'll be unable to hear yourself think. Rugs, upholstered furniture, and even smaller objects like cushions and throws, can all play their part in absorbing noise.
Since most soft things for the home are textile based, the next challenge is whether to go for natural or artificial fibre (or a mixture of both). There's plenty of research to show that natural fibres are better for the health of the user and for overall sustainability and, left to her own devices, Kenny prefers greener healthier fabrics like wool, cotton, and linen. "We've done a good few projects that are 90pc green, but a lot of people think you're a heart-thumping hippy if you start talking about environmentally-friendly fabric."
Artificial fibres last a whole lot longer than natural ones, but there are pros and cons to this too. "A silk curtain will eventually rot in the sunlight," Kenny says. "But a polyester curtain will never rot." That's also true when you come to dispose of them. A discarded silk curtain will break down nicely in landfill, but the polyester one will be in the world forever." She also warns against the use of viscose as a faux silk element in floor rugs. "It looks lustrous when you buy it, but it's easily stained and soon disintegrates into a flattened sad experience of what it once was."
As always, there's a trade-off. Artificial fibres can improve the toughness of textiles and this, as Kenny points out, can be a boon to busy households. But a family that appreciates a bullet-proof fabric for their hardworking sofa might also enjoy pure breathable cotton sheets. And real feather pillows.
"I love feather-filled things," Kenny admits. "Duvets, pillows, cushions… You can scrunch them any way you want and they puff back up again. I think that's lovely!"
For Helen McAlinden, head designer for Foxford, softness is about the quality of the yarn. "We think of the handle of our cotton sheets as a combination of softness and crispness. They need to be soft to the touch, but smooth when you climb in between them." And, while some producers bedazzle the consumer with thread counts, McAlinden places a greater emphasis on the fact that their cottons are combed, rather than carded. "It's much more luxurious to the touch."
Foxford's new range at Arnotts comes in styles that range from Ethnic (beige, black and burnt orange) to Lagom, which she describes as: "the colours of clouds in the West of Ireland with a touch of blue and pink amid the grey." If you're dressing a double bed, expect to pay €125 for a duvet cover and €80 for a fitted sheet. Foxford will also soon be releasing a range in cotton and linen mix (50:50). "It's warmer than pure linen and you don't need to iron it!" McAlinden has designed the bed linen to co-ordinate with Foxford's cushions, throws, and the blankets that made the company famous. All of these are woven in Co Mayo (the bedlinen is designed in Ireland but woven in Portugal).
"The looms haven't stopped since 1892," says Joe Queenan of Foxford. "Although we have had a change of ownership."
Foxford has also put a lot of energy into staying abreast of fashion, hence the collaboration with McAlinden. "We may be old but we don't have to look old," Queenan says. "The best buzz I get in this company is seeing a young woman picking up a throw or a blanket. Then you know you're relevant."
Interestingly, Foxford's most expensive throw, a wool and cashmere mix (€150), is its most popular. It's also Foxford's softest, and that's probably not a coincidence.
On the international scene, contemporary designers are working hard to achieve clean minimal lines without abandoning softness.
The new Toptun range of upholstered furniture from the Ukrainian company Faina is based on what it describes as a "soft geometry". The armchair, upholstered in felt (€715 from Archiproducts), is "the embodiment of large and slightly clumsy bear that still can be found in Carpathian forests". Awww…
The Toptun range is part of a trend for furniture that is upholstered all over, but in an architectural way. It's soft, but not squashy, and the shapes are clearly defined. At the upper end of the market, the Ellica bed (€6,650) from Roche Bobois is upholstered in velvety nubuck with brushed chrome legs. "It's amazingly soft," says Dorothy Power of Roche Bobois. "Nubuck is like a suede. It's luxurious but fragile and it will age like a sheepskin coat. Some people like that aged look, but I think that it works better on a bed than a sofa." The range includes a six-drawer dresser (from €4,720) as well as a bedside table and an ottoman.
"People are turning away from shiny leathers and moving back to cosy fabrics on sofas," Power explains. "There's a lot of velvet around at the moment." But all velvets are not created equal. "A viscose and cotton mix will take much more abuse than a pure cotton velvet." Because it will last longer and wear more slowly than the purely natural fibre, it's the sensible choice for family living. But will it feel as velvety? "No, not quite."
Divinedesign.ie, arnotts.ie, faina.design, archiproducts.com, roche-bobois.com