What is flame retardant fabric?

Living room with Odyssey BS 5867 curtain fabric

Selecting the ideal fabric for any space can be challenging. These challenges are even enhanced as we consider the safety standards and regulations that public businesses or institutions in certain sectors have to adhere to.

To help you, here’s our guide to flame retardant fabrics. We’ll describe exactly what flame retardant is, and how it works. We’ll also dive into whether you need flame retardant fabric for your business, and how it can help.

Flame retardant upholstery fabric

Flame retardant upholstery fabric is any textile that has been subject to the rigorous testing standards outlined by the BSI – the British Safety Institution. In making everyone safe no matter where upholstery fabrics are used, any upholstery fabrics must use flame retardant fabric unless it fits into one of the exempt categories.

These fire retardant exempt categories include:

  • Fabrics that include a high percentage of natural fibres (at least 75% of cotton, flax, wool, silk, viscose or modal) that use a flame retardant lining material underneath
  • Small cushions and loose dining chair fabrics (less than 60 x 60cm)
  • Antiques made before 1950 that don’t include foam stuffing

Whether your fabric choice is exempt from these testing regulations or not, it’s always a better option to ensure your textiles are flame retardant for obvious safety reasons. The majority of contemporary textiles are made with these regulations in mind. But how does flame retardant fabric work?

How does flame retardant fabric work?

Inherent Flame Retardant Fabric

Some fabrics are naturally flame retardant due to the fire-resistant fibres used to weave them. These are called inherent flame retardant fabrics. This type of flame retardant textile doesn’t involve the use of chemicals or extra treatments. These fabrics are also referred to as ‘fire resistant’ fabrics, rather than ‘flame retardant’ fabrics – as they have not been chemically treated.

Natural fabrics that are already flame resistant include wool and silk, which are tricky to ignite. In comparison, some other natural fabrics like cotton and flax are not fire resistant. They will ignite quickly and therefore need to be chemically treated in order to adhere to flame retardant standards.

Chemically Treated Flame Retardant Fabric

Making flame retardant fabric is a scientific process. It involves treating fabrics by applying specialist chemical finishes to the final textile, or by chemically treating each fibre before it’s used to create the fabric in the first place. Both methods of making flame retardant fabric are extremely effective. There are also additional techniques that can be used to make fabric fire safe:

Chemical Dipping

This is where the finished textile product is dipped into chemicals. The fibres absorb these fire retardant chemicals, thus making the fabric fire retardant itself. This works as the chemicals applied will activate whenever there is too much heat on the material. The resulting chemical reaction cleverly extinguishes the flame, much like a firefighter will use an extinguisher to chemically stop a fire in a building. There are 3 types of reactions that chemically dipped fabrics can use to slow or extinguish a fire:

  1. Vapor phase inhibition is the result of Bromine Flame Retardants, or BFRs. This is the most popular type of chemical reaction used to make materials flame retardant, as it’s highly effective. The active bromine chemical atoms are released as gases that extinguish or slow the fire.

  2. Char flame retardants form a protective layer over the fabric once a fire has started. It protects the material from damage resulting from the flame, but it also stops the release of fire forming gases.

  3. Quench and cool processes use endothermic reactions when excess heat is present. The minerals in the chemicals release extinguishing water molecules that cool and prevent burning.


Coating involves applying a back-coating to the underside of the textile. This flame retardant coating ensures the fabric doesn’t catch fire when excessive heat or flames are applied for a certain length of time. In turn, this significantly reduces the risk and spread of any potential fire – more so when we compare it to a material that hasn’t been specially coated.

The coating technique has the added result of making textiles stiffer. This means flame retardant coated fabric is more suitable for use as an upholstery fabric, since they lack the soft draping qualities that we often look for in curtains.

Do you need flame retardant fabric for your business?

The following is an explanation of which business sectors require flame retardant fabric, and why. It’s important to note that flame retardant labelled fabrics do not necessarily prevent a fire whatsoever. However, they are chemically (or inherently) flame retardant as they can work to slow the spread of any fire, while some treatments can help extinguish it. No fabric is completely immune to fire or damage, though we can take these steps to protect people and stick to safety regulations.

The main businesses that will need to use flame retardant fabrics (by law) include:

  • Hospitals and care settings

Vulnerable patients need to be carefully looked after, and one way to ensure their safety is with flame retardant bedding, curtains, and pillows. Often with limited mobility, patients would struggle to evacuate in case of a fire – so fire retardant materials in hospitals are a must.

  • Cinemas, theatres

In spaces where people are closely seated on their upholstered seats, a fire could be disastrous. Flame retardant seating and curtain fabrics can self-extinguish flames and prevent the spread of fire.

  • Restaurants, bars

Thankfully indoor smoking is banned, though restaurants and bars still work with fire to cook your food or present you with flaming cocktails! The soft furnishings in these settings should be flame retardant to avoid any accidents.

  • Hotels

Hotels need to use FR fabrics due to the risk of potential fire breaking out. Often large buildings that are heavily occupied, using flame retardant materials prevents the spread of fire and allows people to evacuate the building in time.

If you’re trying to find the best flame retardant fabric for your business or project, Edmund Bell has plenty to offer. We’re always innovating to keep up with safety regulations, and our future-thinking finishes ensure our textiles are both durable and safe. Rest reassured that our flame retardant fabrics are designed specifically with your customers in mind. Keeping everyone safe, yet retaining our keen eye for design throughout each Edmund Bell style.

Our fabric is just one example. A popular blackout available in an impressive range of 34 colours, the Zanzibar curtain fabric is a flame retardant option used throughout hospitality, education and domestic environments. Thermal and stain-resistant, this durable taffeta style fabric is the go-to option for those seeking a colour-pop curtain.

You can shop the rest of our flame retardant fabric ranges here. We also offer a variety of flame retardant curtain linings, complete with blackout, crease resistant, and colour options. If you see any of our drapery fabrics you like, but they don’t state that they’re fire resistant – don’t worry. All our drapery fabrics can be altered so they’re fire resistant. At Edmund Bell, our in-house finishing mill is where we apply all our finishes, including those for flame retardant fabrics.