Popular fabrics

Fabrics have changed considerably since the 1950’s and 60’s with the advent of man-made fibers. Up until then the only fibers available to make fabric from were wool, cotton, silk and flax (linen).

Clothes are made from fabric. Fabric is made from either fibers or filaments, these are the little wisps of cotton and strands of polyester that are spun together in order to create thread. The difference between fibers and filaments is their length, cotton fibers are usually very short whereas filaments are very long. Silk is the only naturally occurring filament.

The length and width of fibers and filaments is very important in determining the characteristics of the piece of fabric they make. Shorter fibers are spun into ‘fuzzy’ thread and yarn because there are so many ends to stick out and resulting fabric seems rougher and bulkier. Longer fibers give a better quality thread and resulting fabric.

Filaments need to be spun together also as on their own they do not have much width – diameter, and need to be twisted together.

Popular fabrics:


Nylon, often seen on labels as Polyamide is exceptionally strong. It was the first man made fabric readily available and was originally developed to be a replacement for silk in order to make parachutes during the Second World War. It is made from coal, air and water, and extruded into filaments of varying widths. It is used on its own and also with various other fibers to enhance their strength. Its uses range from stockings and underwear to guitar strings, carpets and bullet proof vests!


Wool is wonderful for keeping you warm. Wool comes mostly from shearing sheep. The fleece is washed and scrubbed after shearing to remove all dirt and natural oils. The wool is then ‘carded', this is done in order to get all of the fibers running the same direction. After this the wool is combed through to separates the fibers into lengths of up to 2 inches. The shorter fibers are used to create yarn for fuzzy woolen bulky knits and tweeds, the longer fibers are better used in suiting fabric (worsteds) and fine sweaters. Also important is the diameter/width of woolen fibers, the thicker fibers are used in carpets and upholstery, only the finer fibers are suitable for clothing.

Wool can also be obtained from other animals such as camels, goats and alpacas.

Mohair comes from the Angora goat which originates from the Himalayas. These goats, which have been imported all over the world, produce resilient wool with a real shine, although when woven looks identical to sheep's wool. Angora fur actually comes from rabbits, this is the exceptionally soft wool found in expensive sweaters. Cashmere comes from mountain goats in the Kashmir region of India, these fibers have a very small diameter with lots of crimp which makes garments made from this super soft and warm yet light and airy feeling.


Cotton is the most used fiber in clothing worldwide. Its usage is believed to date back thousands of years. Its cultivation and spinning is thought to have started in India, spreading across the Mediterranean and then to Europe. The cotton plant is very durable as is the resulting cotton which can even withstand boiling washes in washing machines! It is also very absorbent and comfortable to wear. The downside of cotton is that is can shrink in the wash due to the porous nature of the fibers, also it creases very easily which is why it is often blended with polyester which doesn’t crease much at all. After the cotton plant flowers, it takes a number of weeks for the petals to fall off leaving a seed pod. This pod ripens over a few more weeks and when it can’t get any fatter it pops revealing seeds and their fluffy white fiber protection. This protection is what is harvested, deseeded and sent to the mill where it is drawn, combed and spun into thread. As with wool, it is the width and diameter of a particular cotton fiber that determines it quality and usage. The longest fibers make the most expensive shirts but most clothing is made from average length fibers.


The legend behind the discovery of silk is that it was discovered by a Chinese princess Hsi Ling-Chi in 2640 BC. She was supposed to have accidentally dropped a silkworm cocoon into hot water and was inspired by the thread that began to unravel.

For thousands of years the Chinese guarded their silk production secrets that allowed them to export silks to the royalty of Europe. 4,500 years later and the silk moths have been farmed to the point that they can no longer fly. Once the moths lay their eggs they are collected and the caterpillar/silk worm that hatches is fed on mulberry leaves.

It can take 4 - 5 weeks before the silk worm is ready to spin it’s cocoon, it latches onto a twig and spins the silk thread around itself for a couple of days. Then the cocoons are collected, baked to kill the worm (I wonder if this is a problem for strict vegetarians), the cocoons are then placed in hot water to remove the sticky from the silk and to reveal the threads end. The cocoon is then unwound or unspooled. If the silk fiber breaks then it can be used to make ‘spun silk’, this is of lesser quality, brushed versions of it are known as ‘raw silk’.

‘Wild silk’ is the name given to silk harvested from silk worms that eat a diet other than mulberry leaves.

One of the main qualities of silk is its immense strength whilst being so light the filament is very fine and the smooth. This gives silk the shine that can only also be achieved by man-made fibers. It is also very warm to wear as silk does not let heat escape readily, however it absorbs water well so cannot be ruled out for the summer.

The quality of a silk fabric is measured in units called ‘momme’. Washable and lesser quality silks are usually from 6 – 12 momme, better quality silks, for example crepe de chine, can be from 14 – 18 momme, and the best silks such as those used for suiting fabric, are the heaviest up to 22 momme.

The silk that is considered the finest, most high, quality is ‘shantung’ or ‘duppioni’. This can be double weaved so that 2 colours can show through at once. The fabric has a brilliant sheen and is crisp to touch but does not crease. It doesn’t stretch too far so is best suited to lose fitting garments and also better dry cleaned.


Linen is thought to be the world’s oldest and also most important fiber that is up until cotton came into widespread use in the late 18th century. Linen is made from the inner bark that is found in the long stems of the flax plant. Flax plants tend to grow in warmer temperatures, when harvested the stems are cut near the root and then left in water for a few days for the inner unusable part of the stem to naturally degrade. When the usable fibers are ready they are washed and spun.

The flax plant stands tall and strong, the fibers have a strength in them that is passed onto the resulting linen fabric making it exceptionally hardwearing. However the plant stands straight as does its fibers, this means resulting cloth is meant to run one way, and if bent in the wrong direction can lose its shape very easily. This also plays a part in the easy creasing of linen fabric. Folded linen can bend the fibers till they snap which is why it is advisable to refold linen clothes from time to time if they are not worn.


Rayon was the very first man-made fiber, patented in 1855 by George Audemars. It is made from wood pulp, usually from pine trees, chemically treated until it forms a grey sludge. This sludge is forced through a kind of shower head thing called a ‘spinneret'. This produces long strands that are hardened in an acid, then chemically treated again to make them tougher and spun into thread. Two specific kinds of rayon are called viscose and Cupro.

Rayon has been a popular fabric since its mass production in the late 19th century, particularly for hosiery as it gave the look of silk without the high price. Rayon and similarly produced fabrics such as viscose are used in clothing, household furnishing, medical and other industrial products including nappies. In garments it hangs a bit like cotton and is very absorbent but to the point that some old vintage rayon clothing may well disintegrate in the washing machine. Modern rayon is usually coated to allow for machine washing but for vintage clothing make sure its hand wash or dry clean.

Some more similarly produced fabrics are acetate and triacetate. These are made from wood and short cotton fibers, these fabric types don't fare well with heat or alcohol but are used in the linings of coats and jackets as they don't wear and bobble like cotton would. Triacetate is the washable version.


Acrylic and Orlon are synthetic fibers made from coal, water, petrol and limestone. These fibers are produced by forcing melted acrylic through a spinneret to make fine filaments which are then chopped short and crimped to look like wool fibers. These pretend wool fibers are then spun to create an acrylic wool that you would be hard pushed to tell the difference from sheep’s wool.

Acrylic wool is relatively easy and cheap to produce, moths don’t like to eat it and it is machine washable. It is usually found mixed with other fibers including sheep’s wool in low cost jumpers and cardigans. It is also used for sports socks as it keeps its shape and can be very elastic – good for hikers as is less likely to cause blisters than cotton blends. The only problem with acrylic fabrics is that they bobble fairly quickly when worn and washed.


Polyester is a popular synthetic fiber that was first introduced by DuPont in 1953. It has a bad reputation for trapping heat and sweat (think 100% cotton for underwear), and also for being used in ‘cheap’ products. However it has plenty of good points such as it keeps its shape and doesn’t disintegrate in washing machines at high temperatures. It is blended with other fabric types such as cotton to help clothes made from them to keep their shape. However it can be tough or impossible to remove oily type stains from polyester.


Spandex was developed originally as a substitute for rubber during the Second World War. It is a very stretchy fiber and can keep stretching and regaining its original shape time and time again. It is also lightweight, soft and smooth, all important factors in it being so popular in sportswear.

Lycra is the brand name used by DuPont; they started marketing spandex in 1962 and are currently the world’s main producer. However spandex is used only as a small percentage of the fibers in clothing fabric. This is because it is fairly expensive and only a small amount is needed to help enhance the main fabric with its stretch and lightweight strength.