Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Fibres in Fashion

In my previous textiles posts, I've written about fabric basics, woven fabrics, and knit fabrics, but high-level and technical discussions can only get you so far. Today's Tuesday crash course is going to touch on fibre content and common fabrics to get you started.

There are three great reasons to be aware of fibre content:
  1. Texture affects how your fabric feels, how it drapes and hangs, and many other verbs related to what your project looks like in the end.
  2. Care is important to track, since washing can affect the texture and size of your fabric. For example, if you make a shirt that you intend to machine wash and dry, it's best to wash and dry the fabric before you cut the shirt to size.
  3. Cost. Some fibres, like cotton, are easy to find and easy to use, and won't cost you too much. How much do you want to spend on your project?
Having examples can help you understand different fibres and how it can affect the feel and drape of your finished project. Luckily, you (presumably) have a closet full of clothes, which can provide you with a variety of fibre samples.

From the American Cleaning Institute

Off-the-rack clothes, or ready-made clothes, will often have a manufacturer's label to indicate brand and size, generally located at the back neck. Fibre content and care information might be on this tag as well, or on a different tag on the garment, usually along a side seam.

Grab your favourite items from your closet, and look for these tags. Look at how the texture of the fabric and the fit of the clothes change between items with different fibres. Granted, a lot of these characteristics come from the actual construction of the fabric and the garment, but you should be able to pick out some basic differences.

Below, I'll go through some very common fibres, accompanied by labels from my own closet. On some of them, you can see the care information, as well. Whenever I buy new clothes, one of the first things I do is flip up the bottom hem and go hunting for that fibre content and care tag. I imagine I look a little obscene in a clothing shop, actually.

Fibres can be generally put into one of two categories: natural, or manufactured.

Natural Plant Fibre: Cotton

Definitely one of the most common materials you'll find in fabric, cotton can be extremely versatile. Blended with other fibres as often as on its own, cotton is very easy to sew with. Most, if not all, quilting fabrics will be a plain weave cotton. Because cotton has been around for centuries, availability and experienced manufacturing practices can make cotton a very inexpensive choice.

Cotton does not have any stretch on its own, but can be knit into a variety of different textiles. Many cotton fabrics are durable enough to be machine washed and dried, and few people have cotton allergies.

A standard t-shirt, like this one from the Gap, is very likely going to be 100% cotton, though fibres are often blended, so that the resulting fabric benefits from different fibre characteristics.
Example fabrics: quilting cotton, muslin, broadcloth, denim, voile, jersey... you name it.

Natural Plant Fibre: Linen
Made with the fibres of the flax plant, linen is a fairly lightweight fabric, though it can be a little stiff, especially when it's new, which limits the amount of drape it has. Its breathability makes it ideal for summer clothes, though it is not quite as hard wearing or inexpensive as cotton, and tends to wrinkle extremely easily.
Example fabrics: plain weave linen, various knits

Natural Animal Fibre: Wool
Wool is the cotton of the animal fibres, as it is extremely versatile, and has been a part of our fashion history for millenia. Like cotton, it is less expensive than other fibres in its category. Unlike cotton, wool has a small bit of stretch in the fibre--though usually not too much on its own.

Often "wool" refers to sheep fleece, but wool can also come from specific types of goats, rabbits, alpacas, and other animals. Wool has some moisture-wicking properties, and great heat retention, which makes it great for knits and cold-weather clothing. Wool blends are common, especially for the more expensive types of animal fibres, like cashmere and mohair.
Example fabrics: boucle, fleece, suiting, various knits

Natural Animal Fibre: Silk
This tag has dimensions because it's actually a pillowcase!
Silk is another common animal fibre, made from the cocoons of silk worms. The longer, more continuous threads of silk make it smoother than most wools, and fine silks can create extremely luxurious textiles. This, combined with a slightly more involved (and to many people, unethical) collection process, makes silk a more expensive animal fibre, though silk has similar moisture-wicking and heat-retention characteristics as wool.

As a fabric, silks tend to be more slippery, and must be sewn with more care. Extra sharp needles (e.g., Schmetz Microtex) are recommended in order to prevent snagging fabrics. For really smooth or fine fabrics, like satins or chiffons, it's also a good idea to use some sort of stabilizer (e.g., Sulky products)
Example fabrics: crepe, charmeuse, chiffon, dupioni, georgette, satin, shantung

Manufactured from Plants: Rayon (viscose)
Rayon is made from wood pulp, which you would never guess if you wore it, as it is extremely silky and drapey, and makes for some extremely comfortable knitwear. It is, however, more difficult to care for than other fibres, as it should not be put in a heated dryer, and is prone to pilling. (The photo above shows the front of a knit top.)

There are different types of rayon fabrics, including lyocell (brand name Tencel), modal, and bamboo, just to name a few.
Example fabrics: charmeuse, crepe, jersey, taffeta, various knits

Manufactured Synthetic: Polyester
Polyester is an extremely versatile fibre, and its easy-care properties make it a popular choice for a variety of textiles. Polyester is made from petroleum products, and is very durable and long-lasting. Like many plastics (also petroleum products) it is not as environmentally friendly as natural materials. Depending on how the fabric is made, sometimes polyester textiles feel like wearing a plastic bag, since they have limited breatheability.

Many performance and sport fabrics are made from polyester, which relieves some of the breatheability issues, and some polyesters are made partially with recycled plastic, which may ease some minds.
Example fabrics: georgette, satin, sport/performance fabrics, taffeta, various knits, lots of fabrics with polyester blends exist!

Manufactured Synthetic: Acrylic
Another easy-care, reasonably inexpensive synthetic fibre, acrylic is a popular textile choice. (If you're a knitter, chances are you've come across acrylic yarn many times!) Like polyester, I tend to find that acrylic prevents moisture movement and is not breathable, although it is somewhat effective in helping to retain heat, at less cost than wool. Although modern acrylics can be manufactured to be extremely soft and pliable, low-grade versions can feel very crunchy in your hand.
Example fabrics: canvas/outdoor fabrics, faux fur, various knits

Manufactured Synthetic: Spandex
Spandex is also made under a few brand names, a common one being Lycra. Unlike most fibres, spandex is extremely stretchy on its own, and is usually blended with other, non-stretchy fibres. A blend of 95% cotton and 5% spandex is very common, which gives a garment the benefit of cotton (inexpensive, easy-care, well-structured) as well as the stretch of the spandex.
Example fabrics: blended with a ton of things, and possibly dance/athletic fabrics.

Obviously this is just a small sample of fibre types, since I was limited to what I could find in my closet, but this should hopefully cover most of them, for when you are buying fabric for your projects. I know I've definitely missed out hemp (a natural plant fibre), nylon (a manufactured synthetic), many manufactured plant fibres, and a variety of wools.

Once you start becoming more conscious about materials, you can't help but notice the differences between fabrics, and this is the first step to being a fibre snob. If you're interested in learning more, I highly recommend doing some google searches, or picking up a book on textiles--a lot of my fact-checking for this post I did using this book.

Next week will be a tutorial for making a simple project, to cover some sewing basics!

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