Textiles, fabrics and cloth

“What a strange power there is in clothing.” ― Isaac Bashevis Singer

Cloth is such a basic part of our lives that most of us don’t give it a second thought as we wear it. We’re concerned mostly with its color and the way it looks, but how did it get that way? How is it made? It has been with us ever since human civilization took root, evolving along with us, meeting our needs along the way, diversifying, becoming stronger, more beautiful and more comfortable along the way.

In this article, I will look at the various kinds of cloth you might see today. I realize that most of you don’t usually see fabrics by themselves, because most of you buy your clothes ready-made — so perhaps this will motivate you to visit a fabrics store, pick some out for yourselves and take it to a tailor to have a suit or a dress made for you.

Cloth

Terminology

  • Textile is a flexible woven material consisting of a network of natural or artificial fibers often referred to as thread or yarn. Textiles are formed by weaving, knitting, crocheting, knotting, or pressing fibres together (felt). 
  • Fabric refers to any material made through weaving, knitting, spreading, crocheting, or bonding that may be used in production of further goods, such as garments.
  • Fabric is measured in units such as mommes (a momme is a number that equals the weight in pounds of a piece of silk if it were sized 45 inches by 100 yards), thread count (a measure of the coarseness or fineness of fabric), ends per inch (e.p.i), and picks per inch (p.p.i).
  • Cloth may be used synonymously with fabric but often refers to a finished piece of fabric used for a specific purpose.
  • Thread usually refers to thinner, individually stronger, more processed fibers, pulled into long strands in factories.
  • Yarn is produced by spinning raw fibers of wool, flax, cotton, or other material to produce long strands. This used to be done manually, although now that practice is being lost as its production has moved into factories. 

In summary, textiles is the general term given to flexible woven materials that can be used for clothing or building or other purposes. Fabrics is the term used for textiles generally meant for wearing. Cloth may or may not be used interchangeably as a synonym for fabrics but most often refers to a finished, processed material specifically used for clothing.

There are four main sources for the fibers used to make textiles: animal (wool, silk), plant (cotton, flax, jute/hemp), mineral (metal, basalt, asbestos, glass fiber) and synthetic/petroleum (nylon, polyester, acrylic).

Animal textiles

Wool refers to the hair of the domestic goat or sheep, which is distinguished from other types of animal hair in that the individual strands are coated with scales and tightly crimped, and the wool as a whole is coated with a wax mixture known as lanolin (wool grease), which is waterproof and (somewhat) dirtproof.

Woollen refers to a bulkier yarn produced from carded, non-parallel fibre, while worsted refers to a finer yarn which is spun from longer fibres which have been combed to be parallel. Wool is commonly used for warm clothing. Cashmere, the hair of the Indian cashmere goat, and mohair, the hair of the North African angora goat, are types of wool known for their softness.

Other animal textiles which are made from hair or fur are alpaca wool, vicuña wool, llama wool, and camel hair, generally used in the production of coats, jackets, ponchos, blankets, and other warm coverings. Angora refers to the long, thick, soft hair of the angora rabbit, not to be confused with the angora goat. Qiviut is the fine inner wool of the muskox.

Silk is an animal textile made from the fibres of the cocoon of the Chinese silkworm which is spun into a smooth fabric. There are two main types of the silk: mulberry silk produced by the Bombyx Mori, and wild silk such as Tussah silk. Silkworm larvae produce the first type if cultivated in habitats with fresh mulberry leaves for consumption, while Tussah silk is produced by silkworms feeding purely on oak leaves. Around four-fifths of the world’s silk production consists of cultivated silk.

Plant textiles

Cotton, flax, jute, hemp, modal and even bamboo fibers are all used for clothing. Pineapple and ramie fibers are also used in clothing, generally with a blend of other fibers such as cotton. Nettles have also been used to make a fiber and fabric very similar to hemp or flax. Fibers from the stalks of plants, such as hemp, flax, and nettles, are also known as “bast” fibers.

Acetate is used to increase the shininess of certain fabrics such as silks, velvets, and taffetas.

Lyocell is a man-made fabric derived from wood pulp. It is often described as a man-made silk equivalent and is a tough fabric which is often blended with other fabrics, such as cotton for example.

Mineral textiles

Stage curtains and fire blankets are made from asbestos and basalt fiber.

Glass fiber is used in the production of spacesuits, ironing boards and mattress covers, ropes and cables, reinforcement fibre for composite materials, insect netting, flame-retardant and protective fabric, soundproof, fireproof, and insulating fibers. Just think, you’re sleeping on glass fibers every night…

Metal fiber, metal foil, and metal wire have a variety of uses, including the production of cloth-of-gold and jewelry.

Synthetic textiles

All synthetic textiles are used primarily in the production of clothing. Polyester fiber is used in all types of clothing, either alone or blended with fibres such as cotton. Aramid fiber is used for flame-retardant clothing, cut-protection, and armor. Acrylic is a fiber used to imitate wools, including cashmere, and is often used in replacement of them. Nylon is a fiber used to imitate silk; it is used in the production of pantyhose. Thicker nylon fibers are used in rope and outdoor clothing.

Spandex (Lycra) is a polyurethane product that can be made tight-fitting without impeding movement. It is used to make activewear, bras, and swimsuits. Olefin fiber is used in activewear, linings, and warm clothing. Olefins are hydrophobic, allowing them to dry quickly. Ingeo is a polylactide fiber blended with other fibers such as cotton and used in clothing. It is more hydrophilic than most other synthetics, allowing it to wick away perspiration. Lurex is a metallic fibre used in clothing embellishment.

Milk proteins have also been used to create synthetic fabric. Milk or casein fiber cloth was developed during World War I in Germany, and further developed in Italy and America during the 1930s. Milk fiber fabric is not very durable and wrinkles easily, but has a pH similar to human skin and possesses anti-bacterial properties. It is marketed as a biodegradable, renewable synthetic fiber.

Carbon fiber is mostly used in composite materials, together with resin, such as carbon fiber reinforced plastic. The fibers are made from polymer chains through carbonization.

My favorite fabrics

Those who know me have heard me speak on this subject quite a bit: I prefer natural fabrics, made from animal or plant textiles. They’ve been around for thousands and thousands of years, have proven their worth, qualities and compatibility with human skin, have become part of our collective cultures and traditions and that’s what attracts me to them.

I love cotton and wool. They’re my favorites. I wear linen in the summer, but I don’t like it too much because it wrinkles a lot, especially when driving. It’s hard to stay elegant when you look like a crumpled piece of paper, so I reserve linen for sheets or shirts, not coats or pants. I also wear silk sometimes, but mostly as scarves in the colder seasons.

I’ll continue to explore different facets of fabrics in future articles so stay tuned. This article and future ones along the same lines are part of my new series, “The Elegant Gentleman“. I invite you to subscribe here and join me on my Facebook Page to stay up to date with the latest news on the project.


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