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:
- Cellulose Fibers, which comes from a plant
- Protein Fibers, which comes from an animal
- Mineral Fibers, which comes from a mineral
- Synthetic Fibers, which are purely chemical
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.