When it comes to buying the right garment, it’s not only about fit and design but also about choosing the right material for a certain garment. It all comes down to what need and use you have from that particular garment. When done right and choosing the right materials for the right garment, you will end up with a durable, versatile and functional wardrobe that suits your every need.
Fibers, yarn and fabrics
A fiber is where the whole process of creating your garments begin. A fiber or filament is a strand or thread with a long, thin and flexible structure that is the base for constructing most fabrics. These fibers can be categorized in to three major groups: natural fibers, regenerated fibers and synthetic fibers.
The fibers are spun or twisted together in order to create a continuous length of fibers that make up the yarn. Yarns can come in many different forms and variations depending on the mix of fibers used when creating the yarn, as well as how hard or soft spun the yarn is.
When the fibers has been spun into yarn a fabric is created through different techniques, such as weaving, knitting and felting. Depending on the mix of fibers used to create the yarn as well as how you then choose to combine different yarns together in order to create a fabric is what determines the different properties of the fabrics.
Silk is a natural protein fiber that comes from the excretion from the cocoons of the Bombyx mori larvae. The larvae have been cultivated through many centuries of selective breeding. The continuous filament is collected by destroying the moth before it chews its way out of the cocoon. Ending up with a fiber that is soft and luxurious and that can be spun into a yarn.
The fiber has a triangular cross-section with rounded corners, this allows for the fibers to reflect the light at many angles giving some silks a shimmering look. Silk has a smooth soft texture and unlike many of the synthetic fibers silk does not feel slippery.
Silk is one of the strongest natural fibers, but when the fibers are wet or when it’s exposed to sunlight it looses some of its strength. Silk has a high emissivity for infrared light, making it feel cool to touch. Many people tend to describe this property as if silk is breathable, which it is, but it actually means that silk does not absorb the heat from the body.
Some people might think of silk as a very delicate fiber, but the truth is that it is not. But due to the properties of silk, it is today used to create light fabrics that could not have been made with any other fiber. The lightness of the fabric is created through the weaving of the yarn and through the delicate state of the fabric.
Since silk is protein based fiber it also means that some enzymes found in detergent will split the chains of proteins altering the properties and feel of the fabric.
Wool is a fiber that is obtained from sheep and other animals, such as cashmere and mohair from goats and other types of wool from camelids. Wool is produced in follicles, which are small cells located in the skin of the animal. Wool consists of protein, together with a few percent of lipids.
Wool fibers in general contains a core of air, this core is what allows wool to retain heat and impede heat transfer in general. Wool is classified by the thickness of the fibers, the thinner the fiber the finer and softer the wool.
Du to the structure of the fibers wool does have a tendency to begin pilling, which is a completely natural process. There are different ways to try to prevent pilling, one way can be spinning the yarn harder, but that also creates a less soft touch. The softer the feel, the looser the yarn has been spun and therefore the more likely it is to start pilling.
Pilling occurs because of the branch like structure of the wool. When the ends of the wool fibers meet they get stuck in each other. The more fibers that gets stuck together, the more pilling will occur. Therefore it is also important to treat your wool garments delicately, because this will also prevent pilling.
Cotton is a soft, fluffy staple fiber that grows in a protective case, around the seeds of the cotton plant. The fiber is made from almost pure cellulose. The fibers are often used to create a soft breathable textile, that is easy to maintain through washing.
The cotton plant is a shrub native to tropical and subtropical regions around the world, including the Americas, Africa, Egypt and India. In order to attain a successful cultivation of cotton, a long frost-free period, plenty of sunshine and a moderate rainfall is required. These conditions are met in subtropical and tropical seasonal periods of dryness, although most cotton is produced in regions where water is limited.
The cotton industry has long been criticized for its use of pesticides, working conditions in the plantations and the amount of water needed to make a successful production. A bigger and bigger amount of the world’s production of cotton is now made organically, meaning that the use of pesticides are banned. Some claim that in order to produce organic cotton, compared to the regular method, the amount of water needed is multiplied 6-10 times. Which does make the production of organic cotton somewhat troublesome, since the water is then prioritized to be used on crops instead of using it as drinking water.
Cotton is one of the most used fibers for clothing because it is comfortable to wear. But cotton does not hold dye very well and with each wash the surface and colour of the garment looks a little bit more dull. Cotton also has a tendency to crease a lot and does require ironing in order to remove creases. Some cotton forms does however not crease as much and with these cotton forms you are able to create silk like fabrics that does not require the same amount of ironing.
Linen is a textile made from the fibers of the flax plant. Garments made from linen fabrics are valued for their exceptional coolness and freshness in hot and humid weather. The flax fibers are very strong, absorbent and dries a lot faster than cotton, but due to the length and lack of elasticity in the fibers linen has a tendency to crease easily.
The flax fibers are collected from the “inner bark” or phloem, of the stem. The fibers can be sorted into two groups, the shorter tow fibers used for coarser fabrics and the longer fibers that are used for finer fabrics. The quality of the finished linen product is dependent upon growing conditions and the harvesting technique used. In order to secure the best possible fibers flax is either hand-harvested by pulling up the entire plant or the plant can be cut very close to the root. After harvesting the plants undergo several processes in order to isolate the fibers.
Linen fabrics are known for their texture, which is due to the structure of the fibers. The high conductivity of the linen fibers are what makes linen feel cool to the touch. Linen fabrics get softer over time, every time the fabric is washed the fibers gets softer. Even though the fibers of the flax are very strong and it is one of the few fibers that are stronger when wet. However due to the lack of elasticity the constant creasing in the same place will tend to break the linen fibers, which can cause a deterioration over time.
If prepared properly linen has the ability to absorb and lose water rapidly, it’s this property that makes linen desirable in warm and humid summers. Due to the tendency for linen to crease it is often required to iron it frequently, this done best when the fabric is slightly wet.
Rayon is a man-made fiber created from regenerated cellulose fiber, that comes primarily from wood pulp. The wood pulp is chemically converted into a soluble compound, which is then chemically solidified, resulting in fibers made of nearly pure cellulose.
There are many different variations of Rayon which can imitate the feel, texture and properties of natural fibers such as silk, wool, cotton and linen. Some of these variations go under different names depending on both the technique and process under which the fibers are developed as well as what properties the fibers will have. The name Rayon (Viscose) isn’t the name for just one fiber but the name of a group of fibers. Such as Modal, Cupro, Lyocell, Tencel, acetate and triacetate.
Modal and Cupro were some of the first sub types of Rayon that was created. The fibers were initially designed to mimic silk and was called artificial silk. Modal is stronger and more stable when wet than other rayon fibers, yet it has a soft touch very similar to cotton. The difference between Modal and Cupro is that Cupro was made to imitate silk where as Modal was made to imitate cotton. Cupro has the shimmering look of silk as well as the fine delicate structure of silk.
Lyocell and Tencel was developed later on as a more eco-friendly version of Rayon. It is made from wood pulp, usually eucalyptus trees because of their fast growth. Some of the environmentally benefits are that it is a renewable raw material, it is fully biodegradable. Similar to the rest of the Rayon fibers these fibers have a good absorbency, is soft, drapes well, has a great durability and is crease resistant. Although in their wet state, the material changes properties and become much more crisp and delicate. The fibers have low elasticity in their wet state and if stretched to far they might break, but when the fabric dries up it returns to its original state.
Due to the high demand of more environmentally friendly processes from renewable sources other fibers has have been developed. These materials are often named by the source of the raw material, such as soya and bamboo.
Acetate and Triacetate
Acetate and triacetate are another regenerated fiber made from pure cellulose, but they are not to be confused with Rayon, since the process is quite different and the resulting fibers also present different traits.
Rayon is made from the natural cellulose polymer, the older acetate process reacts cellulose with acetic anhydride to form cellulose acetate. Fabrics made from acetate have a soft handle, a good drape and a crisp touch, but it has poor durability and poor sunlight resistance. The thicker and firmer the construction of the cloth, the better durability and performance.
Triacetate has better properties than Acetate, it dries quickly and is more wrinkle and sunlight resistant, but it still has a lower durability.
Polyester is a category of polymers that contain the ester functional group in their main chain. There are many different variations of polyesters, with slightly different structures. Polyester is produced from petroleum products by a complex manufacturing process and the use of various chemicals. Simply told the process is as follows: the raw material is melted, then spun into yarn, processed again and then made into fabric.
Polyester fibers are very durable, they are resistant to both shrinkage and stretch. The fabric can easily be dyed doesn’t loose colour and are easily washed and dries quickly. The fabric is also wrinkle resistant and mildew resistant, which are properties that most natural fibers does not possess. Even though polyester has many great properties, due to its petrochemical origin, they are water-repellent which does make the material less breathable. That is also the reason why polyester does have a tendency to prove more difficult to get rid of odor from sweat.
From when polyester first emerged until today, technology has made leaps in improving the polyester fibers. The polyester that you can buy today can have the same properties as silk, but still be as durable as polyester. Some polyester fibers can even be made by recycling plastic materials and turning them into new and wonderful fabrics. For many, this has proved a turning point for the use of polyester, since not only are we now able to create a material that can be made from otherwise discarded materials but any new product that is made can also be recycled and reused. And since the properties of some of these fabrics are so like the natural fibers, they are sure to become even more used in the future. There is even some types of polyester that is biodegradable, however these types are not widely used.
Nylon is another type of synthetic fibers and the common name for this family of synthetic polymers is polyamide. It has the same origin as polyester and is made from petrochemicals.
The process of creating nylon is like with polyester, a complicated process. But simply told, the raw material is melted, spun and then drawn after cooling to manufacture the desired fabric.
Nylon is widely used in a variety of industries, we best know this product from women’s hosiery. The process of making nylon is both energy and water intensive and has a big environmental impact.
Nylon fibers are durable, but just like polyester its petrochemical origin limits both its heat conductivity and moisture absorbency, which means that fabric does not breathe when worn. A nylon fabric that is loosely woven or knitted has a tendency to lose shape and crease, compared to more heavier woven or knitted fabrics. Nylon is widely used in many different types of garments especially knitwear. Due to its durability and less flexible fiber, it can help keep shape and when combined with breathable fibers like wool and mohair it just adds strength to the knitwear and can not be felt by the wearer.
Acrylics form another big group of synthetic fibers. The raw material for this fiber does not exist in nature, they are made from mineral oil or other hydrocarbons the manufacturing process involves several hazardous chemicals.
The fibers are very soft and are often used in knitwear, both because of it’s less delicate state compared to wool and it’s durability and easy to care for properties. Knitwear that are made in pure acrylics tend to lose shape over time, even though the acrylics does have a high durability. This is because of the lack of elasticity of the fibers.
Elastomeric is another type of synthetic fibers. The manufacturing process of this fiber is more complex than any of the other synthetic fibers. Elastomer is a combined term from elastic polymer, also known as rubber.
Composed of polyurethane, elastomeric fibers can, as it name implies, add elasticity to fabrics when mixed with other fibers. An elastomeric fiber can stretch up to three times its original length and when released it recovers rapidly and fully to its original length. Elastomeric fibers are very durable and more elastic than rubber. Although over time when exposed to heat these elastic fibers can lose their elasticity.
Elastomers are often combined together with cotton in order to create elastic kits known as jersey that is widely used for t-shirts, underwear and many other things. But over time elastomers has a tendency to yellow, which many people mistake for discolouring of the cotton. An item like a jersey t-shirt should therefore not be ironed or exposed to heat as it might lose its elasticity.