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
- 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.
- 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
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