Fibres, Yarns & Fabrics – An Overview

You asked, I listened – after quite a few requests for a more in-depth look at fibres, I’ve decided to focus on this topic a little more around here. To begin with, let’s clarify some fibre fundamentals. What is a fibre? What is the difference between fibre and fabric? Which one do the tags on our clothes tell us about?

“Satin is poor man’s silk.” my boss declared confidently as we talked fibre content of some ties that had just come in. No, no, no! This, my friends, is all wrong. Between this and the time he called rayon a synthetic (it’s a semi-synthetic, and I am a nerd), I have to do some serious correcting around here :P

fibre yarn fabric

  • Fibres are the raw materials used to make textiles. They are filaments (long pieces) or staples (short pieces) that come from animals, plants or chemicals processed in a lab.
    Fibre content such as cotton, silk or wool describes only what the textile is made of, not how it’s put together.
  • Yarns are made up of many fibres spun together to make long strands. Depending on how they are spun, different yarns can vary greatly, even if they are made of the same fibre. Think of the fine threads that make up a wool suit, compared to the chunky yarn used to knit a thick wool sweater.
  • Fabrics are the result of weaving or knitting yarns together to form cloth. Depending on how the yarns are woven or knitted, the result can be hugely different. Think of your cotton jeans compared to a thin cotton t-shirt.
    Fabric names such as satin, twill, voile etc. describe how the yarns are put together to make the fabric, not what the fabric is made of. So for example, satin is a type of weave. It can be made of rayon, silk, nylon… and they are all satin.

This can be a little confusing, especially as it’s used wrongly in everyday conversation so much. Why do we call this a satin dress (describing it by it’s fabric), while this is a cotton t shirt (describing it by it’s fibre)? To give a parallel, let’s look at food. Food metaphors always seem to sort things out.

wheat flour baking

  • Fibres are like the wheat grains – the raw materials before processing.
  • These are then made into flours, of which there are different types (wholewheat, self-raising, bread etc.) In our little metaphor, yarns are like flour.
  • This flour is then made into various finished products – cakes, biscuits, bread, etc. These are like the fabric that results from putting the yarns together in certain ways.

So calling satin ‘poor mans silk’ is like calling cake ‘poor mans wheat’ – you’re comparing a finished product with a raw material, and it makes no sense. Cake can have wheat in it, but it doesn’t have to. And wheat can be made into cake, but it could also be made into many other delicious things. Satin can be made of silk, but it doesn’t need to be in order to be called satin. And silk can be made into satin, but it could also be woven or knitted into many other types of fabric.

How is this useful to know (apart from giving me small moments of smugness at work) ? Well, the tags on garments describe fibre content – they’ll tell you that your jeans are made of 98% cotton and 2% elastane, not that a twill weave was used to make the fabric.

While this is super useful when shopping, washing and caring for your clothes, it doesn’t tell the whole story. The way the fibre was made into yarns and then fabric also plays an essential part in what you can expect from a piece of clothing and how you should look after it. In a recent post on preventing pilling, I compared two different polyester tops. One had been ravaged by those annoying pills, while the other was looking pretty sweet. Why? Differences in fabric. Not fibre, but fabric.

I hope this is a useful basic overview, do let me know if you have specific questions! I always love to hear feedback :)

Original Image Sources
Cotton boll by Judy Baxter
Warping machine by Biblio Archives
Denim by Sheeshoo
Voile by Horrigans
Knit by Beeplo

Wheat by NDSU Ag Communication
Flour by Josie

Flour label by kt ries
Cupcake by Niall Kennedy
Bread by Benediktv
Cookies by Kimberley Vardeman via Wikimedia Commons

All images used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license

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10 thoughts on “Fibres, Yarns & Fabrics – An Overview

  1. Wow, as I am looking more and more into sustainable clothing that is preferably also low maintenance, I have tried studying up on fibres but never thought about the way the fabric is made! I would love tot hear more on this topic. E.g. the post on pilling taught me the difference between knitted and woven fabrics which made me realize why I find some skirts extremely unflattering and clingy – they’re all knitted, making them too stretchy and flowy in contrast with woven skirts that usually look more structured… Knowing these things makes it easier to define what works for you (and might be especially useful during online shopping).

    • Glad to hear it was useful, Liesbeth! It’s something I’m planning on covering in more detail in the future. Knitted skirts would definitely look more flowing rather than structured, and it’s great to know these things so you can shop with purpose and get exactly what you want out of your clothes.

  2. A little confused why would satin be viewed ‘poor mans silk?’ I love my silk satin shirts, a little too high maintenance if anything….

    • Hi Sarah,
      Lack of knowledge, really. Many people think satin is a fibre or that silk is a fabric, and that’s where the confusion comes from. Silk satin shirts sound lovely (and yes, maybe a little high maintenance :P )

  3. That’s a very interesting “basics” explanation! In the city I’ve lived for years (Lyon), there is a museum about silk and the ways they used to make the fabric, as it was very famous for its silk work until the beginning of the 20th century (“les canuts”). Of course, I can imagine fabrics are no longer made that way, at hand with huge wooden machines, but it gives an idea of how fabrics are really made.

    What I’d love to hear about though, is a kind of fibre/fabric guide from you! What type of fibre to favour for the environment or ethics, what type of fabric should be more restistant that others… For example, last winter when I tried various cashmere brands, I noted there were different types of cashmere, depending on the wool used, but also on how many threads were woven together to create the yarn etc. I’d have loved to know what these differences made in terms of comfort and durability, to make an informed choice of price/quality ratio.

    • Thanks Kali, I will work towards putting something together :) . As in most cases, it’s not a very black and white situation. Bamboo, for example, is fast-growing and doesn’t need any fertilizers or irrigation – all good stuff. But the process of making the bamboo into fabric uses very toxic chemicals, which not only threaten the factory workers but also pollute waterways and the air. This kind of pros and cons situation applies to most fibre types, so it’s difficult to make clear cut recommendations. But I like your suggestions to consider comfort and durability too, since this would hopefully mean you could buy less. And price is always an essential thing to factor in!

  4. Thank you Emma- I had no idea of the difference between fibres, yarns and fabrics. I’ve developed the habit of looking at labels on clothes before I buy them to see what they’re made of (i.e the fibre composition, I now realise) but hadn’t realised that the way the fabric is constructed makes a big difference in the longevity of the garment. I too thought that satin was a poor man’s silk, because I was under the impression it was a man-made fibre. Thanks for the informative post!

    • Glad it was useful Clare! That is a great habit to have, and hopefully this can build on that. If you’ve ever wondered why two things that are made of the same fibre can look and act so completely different, this is why.

      About the whole satin/silk mix up, that’s exactly it – people think satin in a synthetic, but actually it’s a process.

  5. Pingback: Shopping Accountability and Budget Update – March 2014 | Recovering Shopaholic

  6. Wow! Emma!

    Accomplished AND articulate! (You have good reason to feel smug! ;-)

    You better explained this (& more concisely) than 10 websites. Thank you!

    I realize, of course, that I’m reading this belatedly, but was so impressed I just had to comment.

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