As a designer you will need to build up knowledge of fabrics and their properties. Essentially, these will become your “palette”. You need to learn how fabrics feel and behave. You can start by touching, feeling and looking closely at the fabrics around you and gathering information about their construction and composition. Consider what you are wearing. Do you know which fabrics your clothes are made from? With experience you will be able to tell what a fabric is made from simply by touching or “handling” it, but that knowledge takes time to acquire.
The textile industry is huge. Every season new developments in fabric manufacture and technology are revealed at exhibitions such as Premiere Vision in Paris. Designers travel to these exhibitions from all over the world to buy fabrics for their next collections.
We have provided a list of fabric types below to help you to get started in learning about the fundamentals of fabrics. Fabrics come in all sorts of weights and finishes. Some fabrics are more appropriate for garment construction than others. Some are intended for specific purposes, such as those used for the production of uniforms, outerwear and evening wear.
Most fabrics are manufactured with fibres twisted or spun together to form long strands known as “yarn”. The yarn is knitted or woven to make the finished fabric. The thickness or the number of fibres, the texture of the yarn, the degree of twist and the variations of weave or knit lead to an enormous variety of finished products. In addition to woven and knitted fabrics there are non-woven materials such as plastic or felt which can also be used in garment construction.
The following list of fabrics is something that you can refer to as and when you need to. The list is by no means comprehensive; there are millions of fabrics commercially available, in countless combinations of yarns and constructions. However, if you are unsure about a particular fabric, if you find a fabric that you have not come across before you can always try to source information online.
The following fabrics are divided into three main categories: natural, manufactured and synthetic.
Cotton is cellulose, vegetable fibre sourced from the pod of a plant. It is also a “seed hair” which means that it has fluffy fibres that envelop the seed of the cotton boll. The short cotton fibres are called “linters” or cotton lint. Cotton is perhaps the most versatile of natural fibres. It can be woven and finished in numerous ways to provide an endless variety of fabrics. In its natural state, cotton is a good conductor of heat; it allows heat to pass away quickly from the body, therefore cotton clothes are popular in the summer; particularly in hot climates. There are two types of cotton yarn; carded and combed. The carded yarn comes from the short fibres and is usually slightly coarser and thicker than combed cotton yarn. This comes from the longer cotton fibres which are normally more tightly twisted. Cotton absorbs dyes readily, so it can be produced in a wide range of strong colours. It is also very suitable for printing.
Linen is a cellulose fibre from the woody stalk of the flax plant. It is the oldest known fibre and the strongest one known to grow naturally. The staple linen fibre varies in length from 25 cms to 50 cms, which gives linen fabric a smooth, lint free surface. Linen creases easily as it has less elasticity than other fibres. It absorbs moisture and dries quickly. Like cotton, linen is an excellent conductor of heat and as such it is ideal for wearing during the summer and in hot climates. Unlike cotton, linen does not absorb dye easily and consequently, tends to be left white or natural in colour.
Silk originated in China. The silkworm is the larva of a moth. Caterpillars hatch from the eggs and they spin cocoons. In order to protect the silk filaments, hot air is used to suffocate the chrysalis inside the cocoons and to dry out any moisture. The cocoons are carefully sorted as only the perfect ones can be used for reeling. The others are used for spun silk. The skeins are soaked in a soapy, oily bath to soften and remove natural gum or sericin secretion on the silk filaments. This can take place either before or after weaving or knitting. "Throwing" is the term used for the twisting of raw silk multiple filaments into yarns before they are woven or knitted.
Raw, or “thrown” silk is obtained from cultivated or domestic Mulberry silkworms. Continuous filaments of up to 800 metres in length are reeled from the cocoon.
Wild or “Tussah” silk is reeled from the cocoon of the wild silkworm which lives on oak leaves. The filaments are coarser and more irregular than raw silk and give the resulting silk fabric more texture. Wild silk is usually left in its natural colour, which ranges from shades of brown to greyish green.
Spun or “waste” silk is made from short fibres taken from damaged cocoons, uneven fibres from the end of cocoons and reeled waste. This is spun into yarn and the resulting fabric is less smooth and lustrous than raw silk, but softer and warmer to touch. This yarn is often used in pile or nap fabrics such as velvet and is used in the production of Shantung silk. Silk has stronger and longer filaments than other natural fibres. It is a resilient natural protein fibre and like wool, is a non-conductor of heat, so it is warm to wear. Silk is light, strong, elastic and absorbent and it takes dye well.
Wool and other animal fibres:
Wool is the natural protein hair fibre derived from the fleece of a sheep. The best quality wool can be found on sheep which have been specially bred for yielding wool. Different breeds of sheep provide a range of textures including fine, medium, long and crossbreed wool.
Wool is spun, processed and woven or knitted to produce fabric. Wool yarns are often combined with other yarns such as polyester or silk to produce fabric with a specific construction and performance.
Virgin wool is new wool which has never been processed. Re-processed or re-cycled wool is made from woollen scraps and fibres that have been knitted, woven or felted: although these have never been used they are reduced to their fibre state again and re-processed.
Wool does not conduct heat or cold and therefore wool fibres have excellent insulation properties. Wool absorbs dye well. Modern finishes and treatments mean that most types of wool can now be washed without fear of shrinkage. Woollen fabrics are used in tailoring because they can be shaped, moulded and shrunk by steam pressing.
Other animal fibres:
There are many animal fibres which have similar qualities to wool. Often they are used in luxury fabrics which are light and have a soft, warm handle. These fibres include: Angora (rabbit hair) Camel, Mohair (from the Angora goat), Cashmere (from the soft under hair of the Cashmere goat) Vicuna (from a rare, wild animal which lives high in the Andes)
Manufactured fabrics: Rayon, Viscose and Acetate.
Rayon was originally developed to imitate silk and became known as “artificial silk”. Rayon is one of the weakest of all fibres, losing up to 70% of its strength when wet, although it recovers this strength when it is dry. Rayon is developed from regenerated cellulose obtained from cotton linters or wood pulp. The cellulose is chemically reduced to a liquid solution which is forced through a spinneret or a very fine nozzle and then drawn out into filaments. When it cools, the solution hardens. Rayon fibres can be left long as filaments, or cut into short lengths called “staple fibres”. Filaments or fibres can be twisted together to make yarn of the desired thickness.
Viscose is made from wood pulp. The properties of viscose fibre can be altered by adding various chemicals. Like Rayon, viscose comes in either spun or filament form. Filament viscose tends to have a smoother, cooler appearance and handle.
Acetate Rayon was the first manufactured thermo-plastic fibre. Although derived from cotton linters, the cellulose acetate is different enough from viscose to be given a separate identification. Acetate is often used for linings.
Synthetics: Acrylic, Nylon, Polyester
True synthetics are manufactured from a combination of chemical units. Special dyes and dying methods have been developed in order to colour them. Synthetic fabrics are water resistant, waterproof, and/or breathable. Synthetic fabrics have been developed which also repel dirt and odours. Synthetic fabrics wash easily and are quick drying. They are also resistant to mould and insects such as moths.
This light, high bulk fibre produces light, warm yarn with a very soft handle and looks similar to wool.
Nylon is stronger, more flexible, more elastic and easier to dye than other synthetic fabrics. The advent of nylon changed dressing habits throughout the world. The hosiery and lingerie industry embraced it, and the nylon stocking was born.
Nylon is manufactured in a similar way to Rayon and other synthetics; Nylon fabrics can be warm or cool depending on how they are constructed.
Polyester is processed in a similar way to Nylon, but the chemical compounds are different. Polyester can be produced as a continuous filament or spun into yarn from staple fibres.
Stretch fibres: Latex, Elastomeric (Spandex, Lycra)
Filaments of cotton, Rayon or other synthetic yarns are wound around a core of rubber latex. This results in a highly elastic yarn.
“Spandex” and “Lycra” are the brand names of elastomeric yarns. They have replaced latex yarns because of their unbeatable stretch, excellent recovery, lightness and durability. Originally reserved for the lingerie market, developments in elastomeric yarns have meant that they are now incorporated in an enormous variety of fabrics, providing excellent fit and comfort.
Amongst other things, non-woven fabrics are used for interlinings and disposable fabrics. (Think of “J Cloths”) They are made by bonding or interlocking fibres by mechanical, thermal, solvent or chemical means. Non-woven fabrics can be made from any natural, manufactured or synthetic fibres.
PVC or polyvinyl chloride is a soft and pliable, fully washable, waterproof, non-woven fabric.
These can be made from glass, minerals or metal. In the 1950’s non-tarnishing metallic yarns with plastic coatings were developed. These could be washed or dry cleaned. Metallic yarns could be twisted around a core of cotton or Nylon for added strength and woven or knitted to produce fabrics. Fibreglass is used for industrial purposes, in fire protective clothing for example.