All About Fabric Fibers

Posted on January 16, 2019 by Molly Hannelly

Everyone knows our garments are made of fabric, but what are our fabrics made of? Fibers, of course! From 100% natural to fully synthetic, every fabric is made up of fibers. Those fibers dictate everything from drapability and shine to durability and comfort. Let’s take a look at how fabric fibers are classified, and what each fiber feels and looks like.

Fibers can be broken down into four classifications, whether they’re natural or man-made:

PROTEIN FIBERS (Silks)

Silk, wool, fur, and feathers are all examples of Protein Fibers. These fibers are taken from an animal, the most popular being wool from sheep or silk from silkworms. Alpaca fibers and Angora Goat fibers are popular, too, but are pricier and more luxurious. Although each fabric is different, protein fibers all have some properties in common. By and large, protein fibers tend to feature good absorbency, making them good for cool climates. They also conduct electricity away from the body while retaining body heat, shrink easily, and are heavily affected by heat. Protein fibers are known to drape beautifully.

Silk is taken from the cocoon of the silkworm and is then woven into textiles. It features a lovely shine to it and is most popular for blouses, ties, formal dresses, high fashion clothes, suits, and the like. Unfortunately, silk is intolerant to oil so any oil-based stains are there to stay. Silk should not be ironed on high heat, nor should it be steamed as water will spot the fabric for a period. When it comes to sun, silk is about as delicate as I am, which means they change colors quickly, so avoid leaving them in sunny areas when not in use.  It’s also not a very resistant fabric, and abrasions may occur with ease. Because of this, dry cleaning is highly recommended. For a silk garment you’d like to wear often, think about using silk blended with other fibers, such as rayon organza or polyester satin.

PROTEIN FIBERS (HAIR AND DOWN)

Wool is made of the hair of a variety of animals, including sheep, llamas, camels, goats, and sometimes even rabbits! It’s a cohesive fabric that’s got a lot going for it; it’s wrinkle, flame, and abrasion resistant, drapes beautifully, and recovers well from stretching. Unlike silk, it’s sunlight resistant and features no shine or luster, except for mohair which does, in fact, have a high luster. Wool shouldn’t be bleached and is the perfect fabric for outerwear, blankets, and sweaters. It is important to note that wool can pill easily, and is a beloved snack of the moth, so remember to pick up some mothballs for storing your wool garments. Let’s look at some of the most popular forms of wool.

Angora is a type of rabbit that is particularly fluffy. It’s slightly warmer and lighter than regular wool, but is also more abrasion prone and felts in high humidity. Typically blended with wool, angora is often used for felting, suiting, and sweaters.

Llama is a popular type of wool, and the animal is bred for that exact reason. Llama wool varies in color and coarseness. Their undercoat is much finer, while the outer coat is coarse. Although not quite as elastic as sheep’s wool, it is just as insulating. Lightweight and durable, llama wool maintains its coloring exceptionally well.

Mohair, the wool of an angora goat, is commonly used in linings, pile fabrics, suiting, upholstery fabrics, braids, dress materials, felt hats, and sweaters. This alternative to sheep’s wool is washable and dyes well, and will not matte, felt, or pill. Smooth and strong, Mohair is a very resilient fabric, and the fibers are long and lustrous.

Alpaca was once known as the “fabric of the Gods,” since only royalty in the Incan Empire were able to afford it. This is because Alpaca hair has a beautiful shine to it, but it grows quite slowly, making it difficult to produce en masse. Soft, silken, and highly insulating, it is still seen as a luxurious fabric, while being more accessible to those not related to Gods and the like. Armani is a big fan of alpaca, using it for a variety of suiting applications. The yarns can be spun heavier or lighter, and alpaca wool features a natural elasticity.

Merino sheep produce the renowned Merino Wool, which features a fantastic softness, shine, and breathability. It’s finer than most wools, making it a little less resilient and a little more expensive. Commonly used for sweaters, coats, hats, gloves, and scarves; if Alpaca is the fabric of the gods, Merino is the fabric of princes and princesses.

Cashmere is made up of a very fine, lightweight fiber coming from the Kashmir goat. Found in Kashmir India, Tibet, Iran, Iraq, China, Persia, Turkestan, and Outer Mongolia, cashmere is known for its soft hand, since it comes from the belly of the Kashmir goat. Kashmir goats are either white, black, brown, or gray, but cashmere can be dyed many colors. Incredibly warm but not very durable, cashmere is often used for suits, coats, and jackets. When formed into a knit, cashmere makes a wonderful sweater but is also lovely as a scarf or robe. It’s somewhat scarce as it can be difficult to produce, making it a coveted luxury fabric.

Camels may illicit images of animals excited about getting halfway through the week, but they actually produce a warm and functional fiber. Sometimes blended with wool, camel hair is often collected when the camel is molting. Luxuriously soft and warm, camel fiber is mostly used in outerwear applications and is sometimes blended with wool. Camel wool is naturally water repellent and features a strong, smooth, and lustrous hand.

Virgin Wool is exactly what it sounds like; the first shearing of a lamb. Virgin wool is the softest of its kind, and is very fine. Despite its softness, virgin wool is water resistant and excellent for cold weather applications like sweaters or the softest slippers you’ve ever owned.

CELLULOSE FIBERS (SEEDS, COTTON)

Cotton, hemp, and linen are all examples of cellulose fabrics. Typically made from seeds or bast, which is a fiber found in the bark or phloem of a plant, cellulose fibers make the perfect summertime fabrics. Not only are they lightweight and great at conducting heat away from the body, but they also absorb perspiration quickly. Although fabrics made from cellulose fibers do wrinkle easily, they can be laundered safely with detergents and are heat tolerant enough to be ironed thoroughly. They don’t pill or build up static and are a highly cohesive fiber. That being said, cellulose fibers don’t recover from stretching well, tend to shrink, and can be harmed by acidic stains, so any fruit stain or similar should be removed immediately. They are prone to mildew, so don’t put these fabrics away damp, and are quite flammable. Thankfully, cellulose fibers are resistant to abrasions and feature a low luster.

Cotton is perhaps the most popular natural fiber in the world. In use since 5000 B.C.E., it is made from the fibers of the cotton plant. It is both soft, breathable and is used for a variety of applications. Often fashioned into denim or jersey, cotton can also be made into towels or sheets. Susceptible to dyes, most denim fabrics tend to withstand high temperatures and are easily washed.

CELLULOSE FIBERS (BAST)

Linen is a common fabric made from the bast of the flax plant. In use since 8000 B.C.E., Mummies were wrapped in linen as a symbol of wealth. Coming in a variety of weights, linen is breathable and absorbent. It’s ideal for warm weather, and gets softer with every wash and wear. Linen is very strong but does wrinkle easily.

Also known as rhea or China grass, Ramie is a naturally woody fiber similar to linen. Taken from a shrub grown in South-east Asia. China, Japan, and southern Europe, the fiber is stiff, more brittle than linen, and highly lustrous. Though ramie fibers are long and fine, they can be heavily bleached to make them extremely white. It doesn’t recover well from stretching, but it’s much stronger than linen despite the fact that it’s half the density. It’s strong, coarse, absorbent, and takes dyes extremely well.

With a similar feel to linen, hemp is a fiber made from the cannabis plant. It’s been in use since 8000 B.C.E. Hemp is incredibly versatile, environmentally friendly, and easy to produce. It’s most commonly fashioned into canvas, and is mildew and mold resistant. Hemp is the easy-going plant you'd expect it to be, as it doesn’t pill and is bleach resistant.

Although used as a fabric textile today, bamboo was originally used as the boning in corsets. Bamboo is a natural, ecologically friendly plant that has very short fibers. These short fibers can be spun into yarn, which is then made into bamboo linen. Very little bamboo linen is produced because the process is so arduous. Most often, bamboo is produced into viscose or rayon, which in that form would then be considered a manufactured cellulose fiber.

MAN MADE MANUFACTURED CELLULOSE

Man Made fabrics are typically made up of natural fibers that have been melted down by chemicals, so they tend to perform similarly to their natural counterparts. Manufactured cellulose fabrics are man-made from cellulose fibers like cotton or flax. The first manufactured fabric only came about in 1889, and it was artificial silk. Flexible, versatile, and easily cared for, man-made fabrics are here to stay.

Viscose is a fiber made of regenerated cellulose fibers. It is often referred to as Rayon, which is a brand of viscose. Viscose is an excellent fabric, as it drapes beautifully, absorbs dyes well, and is quite soft. It can shrink very slightly in high temperatures but won’t melt, and is resistant to moths. It’s highly absorbent and unaffected by household bleaches and chemicals. Viscose is excellent for both apparel and home applications. Modal, Lyocell, Cupro, Tencel, and Bemberg are all in the Viscose/Rayon family, those of which being fibers made out of other regenerated cellulose fibers.

Acetate is one of the first manufactured fabrics, created in the early 20th century. Often used as a silk alternative, acetate gained popularity because of its ability to hold a pleat and reaction to heat. Acetate is an excellent choice for budget evening wear, and is well known for its antistatic and stain resistant properties, perfect for prom dresses!

MAN MADE MANUFACTURED FABRIC (PROTEIN)

Not only does soy make the perfect “milk” for a dairy-free latte, but soybean protein fiber is also an excellent and renewable botanic protein fiber. It is the only fiber categorized as a man-made, protein-based fiber, and features moisture absorption, ventilation, and warmth, making it perfect for activewear or sleep apparel. It drapes beautifully and is incredibly soft, almost like cashmere but much more accessible.

MAN MADE MANUFACTURED (MINERALS)

Since the dawn of time, gold has been a representative of royalty and opulence. Made into slim, lightweight threads, it was woven into fabrics. This was just the beginning of metal in fabric textiles. Nowadays there are foil types, which use a strip of metal foil coated in plastic, and metalized types, which includes fabrics that are treated with vaporized metals. Color pigments can be added to both types, to create vibrant and unique fabrics. These fibers can be found in everything from knitting yarn and trimming to eveningwear and swimsuits.

Glass fibers are typically used as a reinforcing agent, as opposed to the main component in a fabric. Although often found in more industrial applications, Mood’s Color Reflective Fabrics are an excellent example of how glass can be used for fashion and function. Using glass beads, light is reflected from the fabric, which is perfect for night time activewear or couture looks. Glass fibers tend to be similar to polymers and carbon fiber, but cheaper and easier to work with.  

MAN MADE SYNTHETIC FIBERS

Synthetic fibers are wholly man-made via chemical synthesis, instead of using natural fibers broken down by chemicals. There are a variety of synthetic fibers, all of which can be used to make a range of textiles

Nylon is a well-known fabric used in women’s tights, lingerie, tents, and a variety of other fashion and textile applications. It’s incredibly abrasion resistant and isn’t easily damaged by chemicals. Elastic and lustrous, nylon can be resistant to some dyes. It returns to its original shape with ease and is fast drying. Nylon is also resistant to moths and pests, making it perfect for outdoor activities like hiking or camping.

Polyester is the lightweight, resilient, and crease-resistant fabric that makes up many of the fabrics we wear. Smooth, crisp, and springy, polyester is washable and resistant to mildew and moths. Polyester is made up of a group of condensation polymers that are shrink and stretch resistant and is not damaged by sunlight or weather.

While wool and cashmere tend to be quite pricey, the synthetic alternative, acrylic, is cost-effective. Often spun into yarn, this fiber can be a wool or cotton alternative, depending on how it’s spun. Acrylic is ideal for winter apparel and faux fur. Modacrylic is a subsection of acrylic that is particularly soft and resilient, ideal for linings or faux fur.

Olefin a strong, lightweight fiber made up of polyolefin. It’s quite resistant to soil and stains, abrasions, and mildew. It’s even chemical resistant, quick drying, and colorfast. Olefin is commonly found in apparel and home furnishing.

Vinyl isn’t just another word for records, but a plastic made up of ethylene and chlorine. Resistant to moisture, durable, and easily recycled, Vinyl is an excellent choice for jackets or furniture. Vinyl can be produced in a variety of colors, both transparent and solid.

Aramid is commonly used for military fabrics since it is durable and heat resistant. Created in the 1960s by DuPont, it’s perfect for protective or thermal apparel.

Elastane, commonly referred to under the brand names spandex or lycra, is a phenomenally stretchy fiber that’s lightweight and flexible. Unaffected by sweat and detergent, this is the perfect fiber for athletic wear and bathing suits.

Lurex is a type of yarn that is made up of synthetic metallic fibers. Lurex is flexible and dye resistant, and typically blended with other fibers. It’s very strong, making it perfect for a variety of applications.

What fibers are your favorite to work with? Although I can’t resist cashmere, I do love a good acrylic wool! Let me know in the comments, and feel free to save the full infographic below!

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