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Tutorial 9 - Fabric Basics Part 1 - Fibers

There are two things you need to keep in mind when you're talking of fabrics. The first is what fiber you're using, and the second is how it's woven into a fabric. It's kinda like food. The first is what ingredients went into the food, like chicken vs. turkey, and the second is how you cooked it, like baking vs. frying.


First we'll talk about fibers. Fibers are grouped into two major categories: Natural fibers and Synthetics. Natural fibers are found somewhere in nature. For example, cotton and flax come from plants. Silk comes from cucoons. Wool comes from sheep. Synthetic fibers are ones that are made in labs by chemists.

Natural Fibers

Natural fibers can be further divided into groups depending on what their major chemical makeup is. Protein fibers are mostly proteins, and they usually come from an animal. Wool and silk are both protein fibers. Cellulose fibers are made of plant material. Cotton and linen are cellulose fibers. Protein fibers are more elastic, making them more easily tailored and eased. Cellulose fibers are softer and more absorbent.

Cellulose Fibers

The most common fiber in fabric stores today is cotton. Cotton is a cellulose fiber; it is made by spinning together fibers from the cotton plant. Cotton is 'breathable', meaning it is cool and comfortable to wear; 'wickable' meaning it absorbs water and sweat and holds it away from your body; and highly absorbent. It also washes easily, dyes well, is durable and long-lasting, weakens from exposure to high temperatures and prolonged sunlight, shrinks greatly when washed the first few times, and wrinkles easily.

Linen is another common cellulose fiber. Linen comes from the mashed-up stalk of the flax plant. Linen can be very stiff, but if it is washed instead of dry cleaned it will get very soft. Linen also shrinks greatly during its first few washings, wrinkles incredibly easily, can develop a shiny spot if ironed too long, is much stronger than cotton, does not develop lint easily, is breathable, wickable, and somewhat absorbent, and it washes easily and dyes fairly well. It is very long lasting, but can weaken with prolonged creasing (like repeated pressings of the pleat down the front of a pair of pants).

Other less common cellulose fibers are hemp, jute, and ramie.

Protien Fibers

Silk is a protien fiber made from the cuccoons of silkworms. If you're animal-friendly, check up on your silk, because most often the worms are killed in the silk process (if you let them live they break out, breaking the silk fibers of the cuccoon). Silk is incredibly strong - a fiber of steel will break before a fiber of silk the same size. It is somewhat wickable and very breathable, dyes well, and doesn't shrink as much as cellulose fibers do. Sunlight, perspiration, and high iron heat can weaken and yellow silk. Silk has a residue from the cuccoon that makes it somewhat stiff. If you want to keep that stiffness silk is dry-clean only, but if you want to remove the residue and soften the silk you can wash it in a washing machine.

Wool is the hair of an animal that is spun into thread. Most common is sheep's hair, but many kinds of animal hair can be used: llamas, camels, rabbits, horses, and dogs have been used in the past. Sometimes the wool is further named for the animal it came from, for example, angora wool comes from an angora rabbit. Hair has an outer layer of scales called a cuticle, these scales can lock together without weaving forming a fabric called felt. This process can also make wool shrink incredibly when washed improperly. Wool is very elastic, making it the usual choice for tailoring. It is also very absorbent, taking up to 30% of its own weight in water; it is very breathable and, contrary to popular belief, can be quite cool; it is dirt and flame-resistant, wears well, holds a crease, doesn't sag as much as other fabrics, and can get shiny with improper ironing.


Synthetic fibers are man-made liquids that are pushed through an extruding machine (think a really small spaghetti extruder, or the play-dough snake making machine you had as a kid). There are two basic types: cellulose base and chemical base. Cellulose base are made from either left-over fibers from cellulose fabrics, or from pulped plant material (like a tree) forced into a fiber shape. Chemical are made in laboratories like plastics.

Cellulose Base

Rayon is the most common cellulose base synthetic. It is often made from the byproducts of cotton or linen production, which is reused into a fiber. Other common cellulose fibers are viscose and fibranne. Because they are made of the same thing as natural cellulose fibers, synthetic cellulose fabrics have much of the same characteristics. They are strong, absorbent, stretch easily, wrinkle easily, and burn when exposed to flame.

A newer, but related, fabric is bamboo. Bamboo is more like rayon than cotton because it is chemically altered. No one can just cut down a bamboo plant and beat it into fibers. Instead the bamboo plant is rendered into a fiber with a chemical. As well as the characteristics listed above Bamboo has also proven to be slightly antibacterial.

Chemical Base

Polyester is the most common chemical based fabric. It is most commonly used for its resistance to wrinkling. It is also very strong, but it often has a plastic-looking shine, and when exposed to flame it melts, not burns, which can be dangerous.

Acetate is a very weak fiber that is often used to imitate silk. It is not breathable or wickable at all, but it dries fast and resists fading and wrinkling. As well as melting when exposed to flame, it will also dissolve in acetate, which is used in fingernail polish remover and some glues like superglue.

Acrylic is a synthetic wool look-alike. It is washable, wickable, dries quickly, and resists flame for a bit before melting.

Nylon is a silk look-alike that is stronger and lighter than any other fabric. It is elastic, smooth, and dirt resistant, melts easily, and is weakened by chemical and sweat exposure. It melts very easily and should be pressed on the lowest setting, and can yellow or pill during washing.

Spandex is very elastic and can be stretched to many times its original length and still retain its shape. It is easily washed and dried, absorbs somewhat, and can be pressed on low heat.


( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
(Deleted comment)
Nov. 17th, 2006 08:47 pm (UTC)
Acetate doesn't resist sun-fading that well, and chemicals (particularly the oils and salts that the human skin produces) can fade it badly over time. Pull out an old acetate wedding gown or bridesmaids dress and you'll see handprints, particularly if the design had the wearer holding or pushing the parts of the gown down regularly.

"Microfiber" polyester often doesn't have the plasticky sheen that older styles of polyester did. It's purely a process matter, though, it's the same petrochemical base.

Lycra Spandex is almost always blended with other fibers, most commonly cotton or nylon. Most "spandex" only contains 5-15% Spandex.
Nov. 17th, 2006 11:52 pm (UTC)
Cool, thanks, I'll add these in.
Nov. 18th, 2006 12:06 am (UTC)
Oh, BTW, "Lycra" is DuPont's brand name for spandex fiber, there are other manufacturers (like Bayer) who also make spandex, but Lycra is best-known. There's a great article from a chemical engineering standpoint at Chemical and Engineering News.
Nov. 23rd, 2010 08:12 pm (UTC)
you sure did your homework! Found you through the CosplayTutorials twitter. Thanks for the wonderful posts :3
Nov. 23rd, 2010 08:19 pm (UTC)
Thanks for the compliment! Can you link me to that twitter, I'm unfamiliar with it, but I probably should be if they're linking me :D
Nov. 23rd, 2010 08:35 pm (UTC)
sure, it's pretty much this http://twitter.com/CosplayTutorial
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )