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Do you care what you wear?


A highly contentious issue at the moment within the Fashion industry is fabric types and how environmentally friendly and chemically abrasive a fabric is. In California, where I've been living for the past 3 years, people are very aware of this and favour fabrics made of natural fibres i.e. cotton, silk, wool, etc.


Whereas, generally in Cape Town where I come from people care more about the price tag and how a fabric looks and whether it is an easy-clean, wash-and-wear fabric.


And besides the price tag of silks and wools, they also need to be dry cleaned.


Now before I get into this whole debate let me just do a high-level overview of the main fabrics in the market and their main differences for those who may not have thought of this for a while.


Overview of Fabric Types

Fabric is woven or knit from yarn and yarn is spun out of fibre.  Fabric is usually classified by the type of fibre used to make it. Fabrics can be classified into Natural and Man-Made.  


Within the natural category, there are natural cellulose and natural protein fibres.  Cellulose are fibres that come from a plant, such as cotton and protein are fibres that come from an animal, such as wool and silk.


Then you get Manufactured cellulose fibres made from plant material that is processed with chemicals.  The processing causes a permanent change in the structure of the fibre and this is why it is classified as a manufactured fibre.  An example of a manufactured cellulose is Rayon where mulberry leaves, the silkworm’s natural diet, is melted down and extruded through a spinneret, which looks like a showerhead and extrudes liquid fibre into long filaments.


The final category is fabric made from synthetic fibres.  DuPont created the first purely chemical fibre, which we know as Nylon.  The raw material for synthetic fibres are often created from petroleum products or petrochemicals, which then undergo very complex processes necessary to spin the materials into fibre.  Well known synthetic fabrics are Acrylic, Polyester and Spandex/Elastane.

In the next section I want to get into some basic properties of natural vs manufactured and synthetic fabrics.  The natural fibre fabrics I will be looking at is Cotton, Silk and Wool.  The manufactured fibre fabrics are Rayon and Acetate. And the Synthetic Fibre Fabrics are Nylon, Acrylic, Polyester and Spandex.

Properties of Natural Fibre Fabrics

Cotton appreciated for its absorbency (hydrophilic), breathability (ability of a fibre to transmit air and moisture) and soft hand. A staple in the textile world, this versatile fibre is equally appropriate for infant’s wear, shirts, pants, dresses, sheets, towels, lingerie, etc. However, tends to shrink, wrinkles badly, does not drape well and ignites quickly and burns freely.

Silk has a wonderful drape, good lustre, does not build up static, warm to wear, but needs to be dry cleaned because weakened when wet and subject to shrinking.

Wool has wonderful drape, elasticity and resilience and a good choice for suiting, coats and dresses. However, also needs to be dry cleaned due to shrinkage and problems with pilling.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Natural Fibre Fabrics

Properties of Manufactured Fibre Fabrics

Rayon is cool to wear (thermal conductor) hydrophilic (absorbent) and wicks well (transfers moisture to the surface for evaporation).  As a result of its manufacture, the fibre is a filament, and it is lustrous with excellent drape. This draping quality together with its incredibly soft hand is what makes it so popular in today’s market. Rayon is the generic name and is also known as viscose.

Acetate was a further attempt at simulating silk.  Composed of cellulose fibres and chemicals, it is processed with acetone.  For this reason, it is the first thermoplastic fibre. Acetate is commonly used in linings and special occasion gowns with limited use due to its poor qualities.  The poor strength and abrasion resistance is often experienced in disintegrating linings of a favourite jacket or handbag.  The outside or shell fabric remains intact yet the lining is often shredded.  This is the nature of acetate. The fibre has maintained its market share because it offers beauty (hand, lustre and drape) at a low cost.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Manufactured Fibre Fabrics

Properties of Synthetic Fibre Fabrics

Nylon, called polyamide in Europe, is usually chosen for its light weight, natural transparency, incredible strength and abrasion resistance.  Conversely, nylon does have issues with static and pilling.  Nylon is often blended with other fibres to add strength, as it is the strongest of the commonly used fibres.  It is widely used for windbreakers, snow apparel and parachutes.  It is also a good choice for lingerie, swimwear and pantyhose.

Acrylic is the best wool substitute as it has superior thermal retention (keeps you warm), with good loft and bulk.  It is lightweight, and it can also feel as soft or softer than wool.  It is used for sweaters, blankets, mittens, scarves and all outdoor wear in blends with wool or by itself.  Acrylic offers warmth without weight and it is washable, unlike wool.  It is also less expensive and hypoallergenic.  This fibre competes really well with wool.

Polyester is the great chameleon of fibres, able to successfully imitate silk, wool and cotton and it does so at a lower cost. Polyester is the most used manufactured fibre, gathering more than one-third of the fibre marketplace.  Polyester has the biggest variety of end uses.  There exist more trade names and new product developments in polyester than in all other fibres.  Polyester has many outstanding qualities with resilience (wrinkle resistance), dimensional stability (shrink resistance), and elasticity (recovery from stretching) being the most outstanding.  This is the easy-care, wash-and-wear fibre.  It is the most commonly blended fibre.  Due to the great number of recycling programs available for polyester, it can be considered among the world’s most eco-friendly fibres.

Spandex known as Elastane in Europe is an elastomeric fibre, which means it can stretch 100% and recover.  This means that 5 inches will stretch to 10 inches.  Spandex is never used alone; it is always used in conjunction with other fibres. As little as 2% spandex will add stretch, movement and liveliness to any garment.  The fibre is always used in filament form because its purpose is stretch.  Lycra® is the most common trade name, produced by DuPont.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Synthetic Fibre Fabrics

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Deborah E. Young, Swatch Reference Guide for Fashion Fabrics, Third Edition, Bloomsbury























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