Have you ever wondered why one of your blouses is more comfortable in hot summery weather, while another one makes it hard to survive the very same day? Or which material is the best choice for particular needs and situations? Perhaps you already know the answers, but still have problems figuring out what a garment is actually made from, because its label contains an abbreviation instead of a full textile name?
If you are confused about any of the above, then this article is for you. It will tell you everything you need to know about textile composition and characteristics, as well as commonly used abbreviations used by producers.
Let's start with the most basic difference: natural (plant or animal origin), artificial and synthetic materials.
Natural fibres are fibres that are made out of natural materials that come from plants, animals, or minerals. These raw materials create threads and yarns which are then woven to become natural fabrics. Natural fibres can be of animal origin, such as silk and wool, or plant-based, for example cotton, linen, or jute.
Natural fibres have many advantages. For instance, they are:
Highly absorbent, due to having a strong affinity for water as well as their basic structure. They will help keep your skin dry.
Breathable due to their structure, which is rather hollow. This allows them to be highly permeable, meaning that any excess heat or odour is passed through the fabric instead of being held within it.
Hypoallergenic: some fabrics, like wool, silk and cotton, are naturally hypoallergenic and possess anti-bacterial characteristics, which makes them recommended for people with sensitive skin or allergies. This makes them unlike synthetic materials, which have the potential to irritate the skin and lock in unwanted odour.
Temperature adaptive: natural fabrics are able to adapt to suit any climate. They keep you warm when it is cold, and fresh and cool when it's hot.
Eco-friendly: they usually have a smaller environmental impact than synthetic fibres because not as many chemicals are used during their production process. Furthermore, being sourced or grown from nature, they are biodegradable and also sustainable as the source of the materials can be replaced or regrown.
|Silk is a natural fiber produced by insects as a material for their nests and cocoons. The most common type of silk is made by silkworms. Silk is made primarily of a protein called fibroin and is known for its shininess and softness. It is highly absorbent, so helps keep you dry in hot weather or in stressful situations. It requires great care, and should be hand washed if possible, or placed in a washing machine with ‘cool or ‘delicate’ settings; in addition it doesn’t like direct sunlight. The most commonly used 'mulberry silk' version refers to a type of tree whose leaves, resistant to pollution and easy to grow, are the main source of nutrition for silk worms.
Wool is a textile made from the hair of various animals. There are various types of wool fabrics that have slightly different characteristics. Wool in general is a very warm, absorbent, and durable fiber. It is water-resistant, thanks to the lanolin oils produced by animals.
Merino is a superfine wool variation that comes from the Merino sheep breed. It is one of the softest types of wool, and is popular for its texture, breathability, and versatility. It is often reported that merino wool is less scratchy than traditional wool, but it can pill over time, as broken fibres become entangled.
Shetland wool originates from sheep native to Scotland’s Shetland Islands. It is soft, shiny, and thicker than merino wool. However, it can be itchy when worn close to bare skin.
Alpaca and llama fibres are quite similar to each other. They are soft and fine, with an incredibly soft, luxurious texture that is highly-insulating and much warmer than sheep’s wool. Alpaca wool is durable and traps heat well, but it does not hold its shape as well as other wool types. Alpaca fleece can be lighter or heavier. It does not contain lanolin, making it a hypoallergenic yarn that’s great for babies or sensitive skin.
Cashmere is incredibly soft and fluffy to the touch, and getting softer with wear, but it is weaker than conventional wool and pills easily. It is expensive mostly due to coming from the undercoat of Kashmir goats from South Asia, which only shed a limited amount of wool once a year.
Mohair is produced from the hair of Angora goats. It is shiny and lightweight, with a fluffy, soft texture that some people find irritating to the skin. Despite the fluffiness, mohair is warm and highly durable. It can easily be dyed into a variety of different colors.
Angora wool is a fine yarn type that is produced from the hair of Angora rabbits. It is fluffy and shiny, similar to cashmere in softness and equally (if not more) expensive. It is also up to seven times warmer than sheep’s wool. It lacks elasticity, so is often blended with other yarns.
Organic wool is not chemically treated, processed, or altered. This applies to both the yarn itself and the sheep it comes from. Organic wool can be expensive and delicate, but it’s great for the environment.
Virgin wool is a lamb’s wool that comes from the first shearing of a young sheep.
With all kinds of wool it is important to air the material regularly, and take good general care in order to avoid unwanted visits by moths that find wool a tasty treat. Wool requires delicate hand wash or dry cleaning as it can easily shrink or stretch and lose shape. On the other hand, due to its antibacterial features it only needs to be washed rarely. It can even be put outside into the wind, or frozen to disinfect it or get rid of smells, which it absorbs more easily as natural fabric. If it pills, it can be easily fixed with a fabric shaver (lint remover).
Cotton is made from plant fibres from the cotton plant, which is primarily composed of cellulose, an organic compound crucial to plant structure. It is a soft and fluffy material, but also very durable and often used to make t-shirts and undergarments. It does not pick up static, is easy to colour and holds colours well. In terms of disadvantages, it is important to know that its dark colour durability is low, it can shrink, takes longer to dry, can wrinkle easily and is not very elastic. Organic cotton is produced without any toxic pesticides, synthetic fertilisers, or genetically modified seeds (GMOs). This usually implies a sustainably managed fabric production process, though it is not always a given without proper certifications or transparency, due to its price. If possible, look for a GOTS or OCS certification.
Linen, hemp, juta - quicker to dry than cotton, do not generate static, do not shrink, but on the other hand can wrinkle a lot. Linen is made from flax, which can be grown without fertilizer and planted in areas where most other crops cannot survive, and can also be used in its entirety (seeds, oil, and crop), meaning there’s no waste. Hemp is a textile sourced from a quick-growing, specific type of cannabis plant, that doesn't exhaust the soil, and doesn’t need pesticides. It's durable and non-irritating to skin. True hemp doesn’t require certification, and is organic as well as being biodegradable.
|Artificial materials – originate from natural sources but chemicals are used in their production
Elastan, spandex, lycra - very high flexibility, lightproof, and durable. Used as an addition to blend with other materials to improve their flexibility.
Cellulose textiles can be matt or shiny, are generally very soft, have a cool feel to the touch, are easy to colour, durable, do not absorb statics easily, are highly absorbent, but can wrinkle. They can be washed at low temperatures, because their durability is lowered when the textile is wet.
Rayon is a fabric which is made from cellulose taken from plants, which then undergoes several chemical processes; viscose is a type of rayon that uses different chemical substances.
Rayon can be made with cellulose from a variety of plants, while viscose is made from wood pulp or cotton linter. Viscose rayon is less durable than other types of rayon because it is made with a comparatively high concentration of caustic soda compared to other types of rayon.
Lyocell is a higher quality and less chemically-intensive form of rayon. It is a cellulose fibre, made from dissolving pulp and then reconstituting it. Unlike rayon made by the viscose process, lyocell production does not use harmful carbon disulfide, which is toxic. It is 50% more absorbent than cotton, softer and better when it comes to absorbing moisture. It drapes well, and can be dyed in a wide range of colors, needing less dye than cotton to achieve the same depth of colour.
Tencel is a trademarked lyocell type. It is produced with sustainable practices and responsible sourcing not guaranteed in other lyocell production processes.
Modal is made from wood pulp taken mainly from beech trees. While the pulp is natural, the production process involves less chemicals than the production of rayon viscose. It is more delicate and softer than lyocell.
Bamboo is also a type of viscose fibre that comes from a fast-growing, regenerative crop that doesn’t require fertilisation and is made into a sustainable material when mechanically processed (bamboo linen or bast fiber). When correctly formed, bamboo is highly absorbent, soft and comfortable, making it widely used by sustainable brands.
Cupro is a cellulose fabric made from cotton waste. It is made using linter, tiny silky cotton fibres that are too small to spin. The linter is dissolved into a mixture of copper and ammonium, dropped into caustic soda, then spun into fibre. Cupro is considered an alternative to silk, it is soft and moisture-absorbent, but unlike silk can be machine washed.
Acetate and triacetate are the same types of fabric, with the latter being an improved version of the former. Both are made from combining wood pulp from trees with acetic acid and using further substances during the process, which can be a closed loop thus creating unnecessary waste. The final fabric is soft, wrinkle-resistant, has a great drape, and is easy to dye and care for.
Polyester is based on fossil fuels, and is very durable, quick to dry, resistant to abrasion, mildew and moths, and does not shrink. It blends well with other textiles and is recyclable. However, it is also not very absorbent, not breathable, and easily generates static.
Polyamide (nylon) is very durable, is quick to dry, resistant to abrasion and does not shrink or wrinkle. On the other hand it is non-absorbent, non-breathable, and sensitive to sunlight.
Acrylic has a similar feel to wool, is thermoplastic, does not wrinkle, but is non-absorbent and easily pills. It cannot be recycled.
Well, there is our guide to materials and textiles, we hope it helps you when choosing clothes in the future! Look out for more useful posts from Aware Concept!
And to help you out during your next shopping tip, here is a list of commonly-used abbreviations of most available fabrics:
AF Other Fibres
BB Bamboo viscose
CV Viscose (Rayon)
HL Cotton / Linen Mix
LI Flax / Linen
MO Modal (Modal Cotton)
ME Metallic Fibre
PM Metallised Polyester
PU Polyurethane Fibre
VI Viscose (Rayon)
WK Camel Hair
WV Virgin Wool