What Is Railroaded Fabric?

What Does It Mean When A Fabric Is Railroaded?

When browsing fabrics online or in sample books, the fabrics are often described as 'railroaded' (RR) or 'up-the-roll' (UTR).  We've been asked about the difference rather often.

A railroaded fabric has the pattern oriented across the width of the fabric.  Imagine a roll of paper towels that has a stripe on it.  If the stripe runs across each individual sheet edge-to-edge, resembling short railroad ties, the pattern is 'railroaded' - hence the name 'railroaded'.  Some fabric descriptions shorten it to 'RR'.

When you unroll the paper towels and get continuous stripes running the full length of the roll the pattern is considered 'up-the-roll' (UTR) or 'normal'.  Here, the pattern is oriented along the length of the fabric.

Why Are Fabric Patterns Railroaded?

Railroaded patterns cover wide areas without seaming the fabric to continue the pattern beyond the fabric width.  Railroaded patterns are almost exclusively upholstery fabrics.  Again, imagine a long sofa back with a stripe running from top to bottom.  Unroll ten feet of a railroaded fabric and you have it covered in a single piece.  Like this:

Railroaded fabric cover wide areas in a single piece.

A normal or up-the-roll pattern would require a seam joining two widths of fabric to cover the piece.  Like this:

Normal or up-the-roll fabric requires seaming two pieces of fabric.

Why Are Many Fabrics Not Railroaded?

'Normal' (UTR) fabric patterns are the most universal.  Consider that window treatments or table cloths routinely exceed the typical 54" textile width.  A horizontal seam in an eight foot tall drape would look ... questionable at best.  Also, not ALL upholstered furniture requires the infinite widths allowed with railroaded patterns.  Railroaded patterns are most commonly seen in contract (commercial) market fabrics and upholstery specific fabrics with very large horizontal repeats in the patterns.

My Sofa Is Wide - Do I Need A Railroaded Fabric?

No.  But it would help when the pattern is a stripe or a mini pattern.  Upholsterers seam together widths of fabric all the time.  You've probably seen it without noticing.  Here is a sofa with seams in a random pattern (I've zoomed in to focus on the seams):

Pattern matching on a seamed cushion and back .

The seam would stand out more noticeably were the pattern a series of small diamonds or a stripe.

Even fabrics that are considered to be solid patterns cannot be turned sideways for long areas.  Most fabric has a weave pattern.  Some have a 'nap' - a direction to the raised threads.  The fabric reflects light differently when orienting the nap direction differently.  Here is an UTR velvet, seamed.  Even though the nap is aligned, the sections are distinct.  This specific fabric was only available up-the-roll.  Railroaded would have been preferable.

Sofa covered in up-the-roll velvet - seamed to cover the widths.

Sofa covered in up-the-roll velvet - seamed to cover the widths.

We check your fabric selections against the dimensions of your furniture and alert you to any concerns about pattern orientation before ordering your fabric.