Fabric Know How – Fibres

On Saturday 17th June we had our first fabric know how talk and swap at the studio.
We have always included textile education in our classes – how can you select the right cloth for your design if you don’t understand what fibre the yarn is made from, the weight and weave.

We decided to remove the cloth session from our courses and open it up to all our clients, those in private tuition and the sewing bees.

This is a brief introduction to our talk on fibres and fabrics.


Fibres come from natural, man-made or synthetic sources; it can be short staple lengths, or long continuous filaments.

  • Staples can vary in length from 2cms to 6cms.
  • The only natural filament is silk.
  • Fibres are classified into three groups, natural, man-made and synthetic.
  • Each fibre brings its own characteristics and properties, such as lustre, strength, warmth, coolness and so on.



Natural Fibres

The two most common plant fibres are cotton and linen. Ramie is derived from Chinese nettle and bamboo is a new emerging fibre.  Initially the processes involved into making bamboo into yarn were similar to man made processes. This has improved but it makes the yarn very expensive.

The most used hair fibre is wool (described as fleece).  There are different breeds of sheep producing very different fleece.  Merino is know for its beautiful soft lustrous fleece.  Other hair fibres are luxury and high priced, cashmere is one of these and is usually blended with another fibre such as wool produce a lovely silky, soft sheen cloth.

I have include silk and fur under animal because both are obtained through the death of the source.  Pelts and skins are not a fibre but create a whole cloth to make from.  Silk is obtained from the cocoon of the a moth; the larvae is killed and the cocoon is unwrapped producing a long filament.  The filament may be cut into staple lengths or the waste is gathered and used as a staple.

Fibres are spun into yarn, the longer the staple the smoother the yarn.

Sea Island, Egyptian and Pima cotton are long staple length cotton producing a high quality cotton.

Fibres have different characteristics, such as softness and wicking. The chart gives you a guide to the most commonly used fibres.

Fibre Characteristics




  • Absorbent
  • Strong when wet
  • Conducts heat
  • No static
  • Dyes well
  • Matt appearance
  • Wicks moisture
  • Not colourfast in  dark dyes
  • Shrinks
  • Heavy when wet
  • Slow drying
  • Not resistant to pests- moths
  • Flammable
  • No elasticity
  • Very absorbent
  • Strong when wet
  • Excellent abrasion resistance
  • No static
  • Little shrinkage
  • Lustrous appearance
  • Dries faster than cotton
  • Wicks moisture
  • Not colourfast in dark dyes
  • No elasticity
  • Flammable
  • Good abrasion resistance
  • Good elastic recovery
  • Absorbent
  • Wicks moisture
  • Dyes well
  • Retains heat
  • Good colourfastness
  • Poor strength
  • Elongates easily
  • Shrinks
  • Heavy when wet
  • Slow to dry
  • Not resistant to pests
  • Lustrous
  • Soft hand
  • Very good absorbency
  • Easily dyed
  • Very fine yarn
  • Regulates body temp
  • Expensive
  • Involves death to worm.
  • (Peace Silk)
  • Not colourfast to light
  • Very soft
  • Cool hand
  • Absorbs dyes well
  • Matt – staple
  • Shiny – filament
  • Very absorbent
  • Moderate cost
  • Polluting emissions
  • Hazardous chemical waste
  • Weak when wet
  • Shrinks when washed
  • Not recyclable
  • Excellent strength
  • Excellent abrasion resistance
  • Washes well no shrinkage
  • Can be recycled
  • Does not wick
  • Not absorbent
  • Stiff
  • Static
  • Becomes brittle with sunlight
  • Soft but can be heat set
  • Fast drying
  • Hard wearing –abrasion
  • Strong
  • Blends well with other fibres
  • No shrinkage, washes well
  • Recyclable
  • Static
  • Non absorbent
  • Pills
  • Melts under high heat
Note:  Choosing fabrics for ethical concerns may seem a simple choice of not selecting man made and synthetics but the argument is more complex than this.  Cotton crops are very thirsty and often water is diverted from food production.  It is a labour intensive industry and many workers are exploited.

There have been improvements in reducing emissions and recycling chemicals.

You can select a good ethically source natural fibre but then the finishing and dying of cloth uses chemicals that are harmful to the environment. ~Okay so you wont have all those nasty chemical finishes on your cloth but then you will be surprised over how it creases, it washes terrible, stains, irons badly and is attacked by moths.  This finishing extends the life of cloth greatly.

My advice is choose natural where you can.  Look after your clothes.  Recycle them.  Do not buy and bin after a couple of months. Follow Fibre to Fashion website and blog which will keep you updated on ethical debates.

In our next fabrics post we will review two main weaves, plain weave and twill weave.