What is the best fabric for outdoor cushions? Is Sunbrella worth the cost?

It can be difficult to find clear and correct information on outdoor fabrics and cushions.  Most sources of information come from vendors trying to push a specific product (which I myself am guilty of here, although I am trying to give unbiased information before I do so). Different fabric types have different advantages, and perhaps even more important than the fabric itself is how the fabric is dyed and treated. 
Close-up of Grey Sunbrella Club Cushion and Throw Pillow
There are 2 dyeing process: batch or piece dying, where dye is applied to the surface of already created fibers, vs. solution dyeing, where the polymer is dyed when it is in liquid (i.e. solution) form before it is made into strands.  Solution dyed fabrics are straight up superior to those that are batch dyed for outdoor products.  Solution dying is a more expensive process, but it makes the entire fiber the color you want it to be, instead of just having color on the outside of a white strand.  The analogy used in the industry is the difference between a radish and a carrot: If you cut a radish, it is red only on the outside, but if you cut a carrot, it is orange the entire way through. This is the most important characteristic for UV and sun resistance, and the reason that solution dyed fabrics can be cleaned with bleach. 

There are 3 main types of fabrics used in outdoor cushions: Polyester, Olefin, and Acrylic.  Natural fibers such as wool and cotton are never used in outdoor fabrics, because they absorb water and spills much more easily: a serious problem when you are dealing with the outside humidity and rain. 

Closeup of Club Chair with Vibrant Red Fabric Base and Back Cushion.

Polyester, Olefin, and Acrylic fibers are essentially plastic: they are made from petroleum products.  In the past, polyesters were usually batch dyed, meaning they had terrible resistance to sun fading.  More recently, fabric companies have been creating higher-end polyesters that are solution dyed to compete with the traditionally solution dyed olefin and acrylic fabrics.  The characteristics we compare fabric types on are sun fading resistance (called color fastness), water resistance (hydrophobia), and resilience to wear and use (rub test).  To rank all three (polyester, olefin, acrylic) solution dyed industry standard outdoor fabrics on a 5-point scale in each category in order of importance:

                Poly        Olefin    Acrylic   Poly (non-solution dyed)

Sun        4             4             5             1
Water     3             3             4             2            
Rub        4             4             3             3

The industry consensus is that acrylic fabric is the best overall fabric to use for outdoor cushions because of its superior resistance to the sun.  While we generally agree with this, one should note that acrylic fabric is at least double the price of olefin or a high-end poly, and it doesn’t hold up as well to physical wear.  You should consider the climate you live in as well: if it is a place like Arizona or California where your cushions have to endure a constant onslaught of high-intensity sun, the benefit of acrylic vs poly or olefin is significant.  However, if you live somewhere where there are far fewer hours of intense sunlight (*cough* Western New York), it is almost certainly not worth the extra money. Solution dyed Blue Fabric Club Chair Base Cushion

Finally, a UV or hydrophobic coating (such as Scotch Guard) can be applied to give the cushion additional protection from the sun and the rain. This could be done yourself, or done at the manufacturer level.  These coatings will help with water resistance, although the coating can be toxic, and will get rubbed off over time and will need to be reapplied.  Additionally, there are almost no cushions that are actually fully ‘water proof’, Sunbrella or otherwise: at the very least, water can get in through the zippers of cushions, so even if cushions are made with highly water resistant and treated fabric, there is still a point of weakness where water can enter.  We have made the mistake in the past of selling Sunbrella cushions to customers as ‘water proof’, only to have them complain later that water still got into the cushions after an intense storm.   

On the positive side, any high-quality outdoor fabric will dry quickly.  The zipper is the quickest exit out of the cushion as well: stand your cushions upright with the zipper on the bottom, and they will dry out in the sun and air in 30-120 minutes. 

Yellow Acrylic Fabric Lounge Chair Cushion
Is Sunbrella worth it?
First and foremost, Sunbrella is a brand of solution dyed acrylic fabric.  It is also about 50% more expensive than other solution dyed acrylics, which is already the most expensive of the base outdoor fabric types.  To give an example for us: a chat-set with 5 base cushions and 6 back cushions would have to have a price-tag of about $1000 more when going from a high-end solution dyed polyester to the Sunbrella brand fabric cushions.  However, Sunbrella does offer a longer warranty on sun protection, and has a coating applied at the manufacturer level which assists with water resistance. 

In our experience, Sunbrella fabric is an exceptional fabric for outdoor cushions, although as most of our customers live in Western NY which gets much less sun, we no longer think it is a good use of resources as we have learned more about cushions and fabrics.  As such, we are actually pivoting from our initial strategy of having all Sunbrella fabric, to an inventory primarily made up of high-end solution dyed polyester fabrics.


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