The Different Types of Fabric: Beginners Guide

The Different Types of Fabric and How to Care for Them

There are many different types of fabric. All fabrics are made from one of only two different types of fiber — natural and synthetic. Natural fibers originate from plants or animals, while synthetic fibers are produced by chemical processes. 

 

Fabrics Made from Natural Fibers

Most natural fibers you will be familiar with and can be used for different types of fabric. These are fibers such as cotton, wool and silk. These fibers occur naturally and were not invented by humans.

1) Cotton

Cotton is one of the oldest used fabrics in the world. Obtained from the Cotton plant, it is breathable, very hard wearing, tear-resistant and particularly heatproof. The fabric is also extremely absorbent, but it dries very slowly.

Untreated cotton has a dull surface, creases badly and may shrink a lot.

The treatment makes the fabric resistant to shrinking and creasing. In addition, a special treatment with caustic soda, known as mercerizing, makes the fibers more durable and gives them a slight sheen. Cotton is reasonably priced, but finishing and mercerizing make it more expensive. 

Considering using cotton as your primary fabric for sewing? Make sure you know which sewing needle to use for cotton. 

How to Care for Cotton

White and pale-colored cotton can be machine washed at up to 95 degrees and colors up to 60 degrees. Finer, specially treated cotton fabrics should not be washed at over 40 degrees.

Easy-care cotton should be shaken out after washing, and then will only need to be ironed on the ‘wool’ setting or not at all. Cotton should be put in a tumble drier only if the care label expressly allows it. 

 

2) Linen

Linen is notorious for creasing.

The creasing is caused by a natural substance in the fibers and cannot be entirely smoothed out by processing or treatment.

Linen has a smooth, matt-glossy surface. It is very hardwearing, extremely tear-resistant when wet, and very suitable for summer clothing because of its good absorbency and rapid moisture release.

How to Care for Linen

Linen may be washed at 95 degrees. However, depending on how it has been finished or if it is dyed, a lower washing temperature should be selected.

Here too you should take heed of the manufacturer’s care instructions, as linen sometimes has to be dry cleaned, especially in the case of lined garments. If it is tumble dried there is a risk that it will shrink. It is best to iron linen slightly damp or with plenty of steam. 

 

 

3) Wool

Wool is one of the main types of natural fiber, itcomes from sheep, but small quantities of animal hair from other sources such as cashmere, mohair, angora, alpaca, llama and camel hair may be mixed in. 

The description ‘new’ or ‘virgin’ wool may be used if it contains no more than 7% of foreign fibers. The description ‘pure new wool’ —  most commonly seen in the UK — allows a proportion of only up to 0.3% of other fibers. 

Fabrics described as ‘100% wool’, ‘pure wool’ or ‘wool’ may be made of lower-quality wool or reprocessed wool that has been regenerated from used wool products. If a woolen fabric is labeled with the wool mark, it is high-quality, pure virgin wool that has been tested by the International Wool Secretariat.

Wool hardly creases at all, keeps you very warm and is breathable.

How to Care for Wool

Wool felts very easily, so you should be careful when cleaning it. Small dirty marks and also smells will vanish if it is given a good airing in a moist atmosphere after each wearing.

If the manufacturer’s label says ‘machine washable’ it is safe to machine wash it on the wool program; anything else can only be hand-washed, without rubbing or wringing.

Wool should never be put in a tumble drier but should be dried flat on a towel. 

Expensive garments such as men’s and ladies’ suits must definitely be dry cleaned. Wool can be pressed with your iron on the wool setting with a pressing cloth between the iron and the fabric, or using a steam iron. 

 

 

4) Silk

Silk is a single long fiber, obtained from the cocoons of the mulberry silkworm.

It is particularly comfortable to wear as it is pleasantly cool in heat and warming when the weather is cold. It quickly releases moisture from the skin. 

How to Care for Silk

Silk may be washed by hand at 30 degrees. However, if you do not want to take any risks, you should always have silk dry cleaned.

In any event, you should follow the instructions on the manufacturer’s label.

Because dark colors may easily bleed, wash these separately in order to avoid discoloring other articles of clothing. Rinse the silk well and add a spoonful of vinegar to the water for the last rinse. This will refresh the colors and add a slight sheen.

Tumble driers are taboo for silk!

 

Fabrics Made from Artificial Fibers

Many different types of fabrics are made from artificial fibers. Artificial fibers are invented by humans, they do not occur naturally. 

1) Viscose

Viscose consists of pure cellulose, the basic component of all plant fibers.

Because of harsh chemical treatment with caustic soda, carbon disulfide, and sulphuric acid, it counts as an artificial fiber.

Viscose can be processed to resemble various materials such as silk, linen or cotton, from matt to very shiny. The flowing drape of a viscose fabric is always the same, from the sheerest to the heaviest quality. 

How to Care for Viscose

Viscose can be machine washed at 30–40 degrees on the ‘delicates’ program using mild detergent but should not be tumble dried unless the label says otherwise.

It is fine to iron viscose on the silk setting and you can sometimes even raise the temperature to the cotton setting. Viscose is easiest to iron when slightly damp.

 

2) Acrylic, Polyamide, Polyester

These synthetic fabrics are also known under the trade names Perlon, Nylon, Dralon, Orlon, Trevira, Diolen, etc. In recent years artificial fibers have lost something of their earlier bad reputation, as they have been further developed and their quality has continued to improve.

Often some of the purely natural fibers have been less pleasant to wear than artificial fibers, because of poorer processing.

Interesting new developments such as microfibers are technically highly developed artificial fibers that can be made into extremely fine yarns.

Microfiber textiles are ideal for functional wear. They are very densely woven, repelling wind and rain while allowing sweat to evaporate outwards, leaving the skin pleasantly dry. 

How to Care for Acrylics and Other Artificial Fibers

The different types of artificial fibers are easy to care for, but it is important that the temperature should not be too high. They may be machine washed at 30 degrees with a mild detergent.

Almost all artificial fibers may also be tumble dried. With microfiber, you should not use fabric softeners, otherwise, its water-repellent property will be lost. 

 

Fabrics Made from Mixed Fibers 

There are more different types of mixed fibers than natural and artificial combined.

Natural fibers are mixed with synthetic fibers so that, depending on the intended use, the good properties of all the components can be used, while eliminating the less good as far as possible.

For example, depending on how they are combined, mixing with artificial fibers may reduce creasing or improve the tear resistance of natural fiber.

The durability of nylon can be combined in a mixed fiber with the warming property of wool; adding the stretch effect of the extremely elastic artificial fiber elastane, also known by the trade names Lycra and Spandex, makes every material into a comfortable fabric for close-fitting garments.

The range of possible combinations is infinite and new fabrics are being developed all the time. 

Care for Mixed Fibers

As a rule, mixed fibers are easy to care for and can be washed in the machine. However, you should always pay attention to the manufacturer’s care instructions. If in doubt follow the care instructions for delicate materials.

If you do not trust yourself, it is best to wash the fabric by hand.

The type, purity, and proportions of the fibers in the mixture are not the only determining factors; the method of processing the yarn into a cloth also has a decisive influence on the different kinds of fabric.

Below you will find an overview of the different types of fabric.

 

Overview of Woven Fabrics & Their Uses

  • Acetate – Soft-flowing lining material with a dull sheen, similar to viscose or satin.
  • Batiste – A very fine transparent fabric made of cotton, linen, artificial fibers or mixtures. 
  • Brocade – A high-grade Jacquard weave, often made with shiny thread.
  • Chenille – Similar to velvet, but the pile is visible on both sides. 
  • Chiffon – Wafer-thin, transparent fabric, usually made from silk or mixed fibers.
  • Cord or corded velvet – Lengthways ribs of various widths from needlecord to jumbo in velvet look with a directional nap. 
  • Crêpe de chine – Fine, soft-flowing material with a slightly grainy feel, usually made from silk or mixed fibers. 
  • Crinkle or crash – Fabrics that have been permanently creased during or after weaving. 
  • Denim – After a number of washes, the twill weave with a colored warp and white weft produces the typical look of faded jeans. 
  • Duchesse – Very glossy satin fabric made of silk, viscose or artificial fibers. 
  • Felted wool – Woollen fabric that is tumbled and roughened after weaving, giving it a felt-like surface. 
  • Flannel – A fabric usually made of cotton, viscose or wool. The roughened reverse side is very warming and soft to the touch. 
  • Gabardine – Thick, high-grade cloth with an effect of fine diagonal lines created by the way it is woven. 
  • Georgette – Fine, flowing fabric, usually made of silk or wool and with a slightly grainy feel. 
  • Muslin – Light, loosely woven fabric made from cotton or wool. Often used for scarves and nappies. 
  • Organdie – Crisp, transparent material made from cotton. 
  • Organza – Similar to organdie, but made of silk and slightly crisper to the touch. 
  • Poplin – Smooth fabric with fine crosswise ribs created by the way the threads link during weaving. 
  • Satin – Very shiny fabric with a soft feel and flowing drape. Especially fine when made of silk, but often made from artificial fibers. 
  • Taffeta – Shiny, stiff and rustling. Taffeta is popular for grand evening dresses. Made from silk or artificial fibers. 
  • Terry toweling – Fabric with woven-in loops. In velour toweling, the loops are cut.
  • Tulle – Crisp, transparent fabric, often used for underskirts or for decoration. 
  • Tweed – Mottled, nubbly threads, often in two colors, are woven together to make this fabric. 
  • Twill – Similar to gabardine, but the diagonal ribs created by the weave are coarser. 
  • Velour – Soft pile fabric, usually made from wool, often used for coats and jackets. 
  • Velvet – Heavy fabric with a silky feel and thick pile on one side. Made from cotton, silk or viscose.
  • Voile – Transparent, soft-feel fabric, often made from cotton. 

 

Overview of Knitted Fabrics & Their Uses

  • Ajour – Fabric with a very fine hole pattern. Often looks as if it has been embroidered. 
  • Faux fur – Imitation fur that can either look deceptively like real fur or be very imaginatively patterned. 
  • Jersey – Stretchy knitted fabric, from fine, thin cotton to thick wool jersey. 
  • Knit – Fabric that looks like hand knitting.
  • Nicki Velour – Stretchy jersey fabric with a velvety surface.
  • Rib-knit – Has the stitch pattern of knit 1, purl 1 rib and often looks as if it has been hand-knitted.
  • Sweatshirt fabric – Jersey or knitted fabric, often fleecy on the inside. 

 

Overview of Non-Woven Fabrics & Their Uses

These do not need to have the edges neatened as they do not fray. 

  • Felt – A fabric pressed together from sheep’s wool and animal hair. 
  • Plush – Very soft, thick fabric, which often has a fur-like surface and is very light. 
  • Polar fleece – Fleecy microfiber fabric, which has the breathability of microfiber and also keeps you very warm. 

 

Right and Wrong Side of Fabric

When working with different types of fabrics you will often come across instructions such as ‘right sides together’, ‘right side to the wrong side’ etc. You can tell which is the right or wrong side of the fabric as follows.

The wrong side of the fabric is always the side that will not be seen from the outside when the garment is finished — i.e. the side facing the body. With printed fabrics the wrong side is usually pale in color; on woven fabrics, the pattern looks the ‘wrong way round’ and with knitted fabrics, you can recognize the sides that look like plain and purl stitches.

The right side is the ‘good’ side, visible from the outside. On printed fabrics, you can recognize it by the stronger colors, and the patterns appear the right way round. Woven fabrics often have a stronger structure on the right side.

On many fabrics, it may be hard to distinguish between the right and wrong sides. This is often the case with plain-colored woven fabrics. The best thing to do is decide for yourself and mark all the wrong sides of the pattern pieces with a cross using tailor’s chalk. When cutting out and sewing up, take care to put the same sides together.

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