Textiles are made up from natural or man-made fibres or a combination of both. “Fibres are thin, hair-like structures” (Blair, n. d: online) that are categorized into two types: long filament fibres and short staple fibres. Natural fibres are usually staple, whilst man-made fibres are filament, with the exception of silk that comes from a natural source. These raw fibres are spun to produce a long, continuous thread referred to as yarn, which is then used in a series of methods that include, stitching, knitting and weaving in order to produce a fabric.

The content, construction and finish of a fabric can determine it’s aesthetic and functional qualities. This essay will explore the classifications and characteristics of fibres, yarns and fabrics, expanding on colouration and finishing techniques. (Udale, 2008)(Hallet & Johnston, 2010)(BBC Bitesize, 2011) Natural fibres are produced and obtained from plants and animals; they are 100% biodegradable and contribute towards a greener planet. Cotton and linen are two of the most popular plant fibres recognized in the textile industry.

Cotton is a soft fibre extracted from the seeds of the cotton plant; it is used to produce 40% of the world’s textiles from clothing apparel to home furnishings. It is durable, absorbent and provides natural ventilation, which is useful in hot weather. Linen comes from the stalk of the flax plant and has similar properties to cotton but is less flexible and will crease a lot easier. With more than 70% used in apparel, linen is a popular favourite in summer as it washes well, is highly absorbent and dries easily, allowing the wearer to feel cool and fresh. Corbman, 1983)(Udale, 2008)(IYNF, 2009) Animal fibres such as wool and silk are also widely recognized in the textile industry. Wool is a soft, springy fibre that grows from the skin of sheep and various other animals. “Merino sheep produce the finest and most valuable wool” (Udale, 2008: p. 43) in comparison to other breeds. Merino wool has a versatile nature because of its ability to absorb moisture and regulate body temperature. The crimp in the wool adds bulk, creating tiny ‘air pockets’ that can trap and retain body heat, acting as an insulator during cold conditions.

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In warmer conditions, these air pockets will act as a barrier against external heat, whilst the hollow fibres absorb perspiration aiding the body’s natural cooling system. Wool is prone to shrink when washed in hot water and can also pill with excessive wear, but it has many other desirable qualities that often give it an expensive price tag. It is inflammable, crease resistant and very strong, deflecting water and odour. The quality of the wool will depend on the breed of sheep or animal producing it, with some wools feeling coarser than others. Very fine quality wool is used to make high-end fabrics for use in luxury garments… Coarser wool is used for heavy blankets, topcoats, outerwear, and upholstery products” (Sierra trading post Inc, 2011: online). Cashmere and mohair are extremely soft, luxury wool fabrics produced from certain breeds of goat; the Alpaca and Angora rabbit are animals that also produce smooth, luxury wools. (Woolsports Clothing U. S. A, 2011)(Sierra Trading post Inc 2011) Silk is a delicate fibre sourced from the cocoon of the silkworm. The cocoon is made up of a liquid silk produced from the insect that hardens to form a filament.

This long, continuous thread that can measure up to 1500 meters in length, is spun around the insect for protection (IYNF, 2009). A highly sought after fabric, silk is “lustrous, smooth, lightweight, strong and elastic” (Corbman, 1983: p. 8); it has good drape and like wool, can regulate body temperature. There are two main types of silk: cultivated silk and wild silk. Cultivated silk is a lot smoother, finer and stronger than wild silk, as the larva inside is killed before hatching; this preserves the filament to be unravelled as a continuous thread.

Its properties have made silk popular in the production of high-end, luxury fashion, lingerie and a range of household textiles such as curtains and bed sheets. Its desirability and expensive price has prompted cheaper man-made imitations. (Udale, 2008)(IYNF, 2009) “Man-made fibres account for 68% of fibres used worldwide” (CRFS, 2010: online). In the textile industry, man-made fibres are categorized into two main types: cellulosic polymers and non-cellulosic polymers. Cellulosic polymers are derived from the cellulose extracted from natural sources, such as plants and trees.

The cellulose is then chemically treated to produce fibres such as rayon, acetate and triacetate. Non-cellulosic polymers are those that are produced synthetically from different chemical compounds in order to produce fibres such as nylon, polyester and acrylic. (Udale, 2008) Often referred to as artificial silk because of its silk-like aesthetic, rayon was one of the first man-made fabrics to be developed having been in production since 1885 (Udale, 2008). Constructed from the cellulose of wood pulp, it was made to “simulate natural fibres as well as to provide characteristics of its own” (Corbman, 1983: p. ). Like cotton, it is soft, comfortable and versatile; it blends well with other fibres, and is often used for evening gowns as an alternative to silk because of its good drape. It is also a highly absorbent material that can be dyed easily. The durability of rayon is fairly low, it is easily damaged through abrasion and can shrink when washed, prompting dry clean aftercare instructions. (Swicol, 2010). Acetate is silk-like in appearance but handles differently. Like rayon, it is produced from wood pulp or cotton linters and is also a thermoplastic fibre, meaning it can be heat set into a desired shape.

Triacetate is an improved acetate fibre, posing many similarities to acetate, whilst eliminating its weaknesses in terms of durability. Unlike triacetate, acetate cannot withstand normal machine washing and with an extreme sensitivity to heat, it can shrink or melt under excessive temperatures. They are both shape retentive fabrics that absorb little moisture, require minimal ironing and are often used to make pleated garments because of their thermoplastic nature. Despite such a low rate of absorbency, these acetate fibres can dye and print beautifully. (Udale, 2008; Fabric Manufacturers, 2011) Most synthetics have similar properties. They are not particularly breathable, so many are not as comfortable to wear as natural fibres” (Udale, 2008: p. 50). This is why cotton and linen are such favoured summer fabrics because they create natural ventilation, and why sweat suits are 100% synthetic (IYNF, 2009). Synthetic fibres are also known for being heat sensitive and should be washed and dried under a cool setting to preserve the fabric. Nylon is a strong, yet light, resilient fibre with a smooth surface that deflects dirt; it is commonly used for hosiery and lingerie.

Polyester is another strong synthetic that is probably one of the most used and essential man-made fibres, donating its properties to a wide range of purposes, from industrial fabrics, to home furnishings and apparel. It is crease resistant and blends well with other fibres where it may be used to reduce creasing, enhance softness and add drip-dry properties because of it’s non absorbent nature. Acrylic is a soft, warm fibre that is often used as a cheaper alternative to wool because of its similarities in terms of the way it looks and feels. It is hypoallergenic and washes well but like wool, it is prone to pilling. Corbman, 1983)(Udale, 2008) Yarn is produced from the interlocking of staple or filament fibres to form a single thread through a method called spinning. As mentioned previously, the majority of natural fibres are staple, whilst man-made fibres are filament because of the process they are put through during fibre production. During this process, the fibres are “forced through small holes in a shower-head style structure, creating long, continuous fibres” (Udale, 2008: p. 55). Staple fibres are put through a twisting process, which holds the short fibres together in order to create a strong cohesive yarn.

When blended with natural fibres, synthetic filament can be cut down to resemble staple fibres (Cyberfiber Online, 2001). Blended yarns are used a great deal in the textile industry and can give a fabric certain qualities it would not possess alone. “Aesthetically a blended yarn may have better handle and drape… [it] can also add function and reduce the cost of a fabric” (Udale, 2008: p. 55). Common blends will often consist of both natural and synthetic fibres, such as polyester and cotton for easy handling and reduced crease, and acrylic and wool for reduced cost.

Lycra is another fibre that is widely used in blends to give added stretch and shape retention, especially suitable for sportswear and fitted clothing (BBC Bitesize, 2011). “The colour of a fabric can inspire, motivate and attract a designer or consumer to a particular item of clothing” (Udale, 2008: p. 56). Colour is added to a fabric through the process of dyeing, in which a coloured substance is impregnated into the fibres of a textile through a series of methods. Vat dyeing is the most common form of application where a textile “is immersed in dye and gradually brought to the boil.

Alternatively [it] is allowed to sit and soak for several hours or days” (Practical Action, n. d: online). Other dyeing techniques such as tie-dye, batik and ikat are all methods of colour resistance that prevent the dye from evenly colouring a fabric; these methods involve direct application and are ideal for producing patterns. Dyes are produced naturally or synthetically and can be applied at any stage of production. Natural dyes are sourced from plants, insects and minerals, and have provided civilisation with a way to transfer colour to fabric for thousands of years.

Plant-based dyes such as weld, madder and turmeric can all be used to dye natural fibres such as wool, cotton and silk. Indigo, which is primarily used in the production of blue denim, was once sourced from plants only. Today, due to new developments in technology, the majority of indigo is now produced synthetically. Chrome yellow and chrome green are both mineral dyes produced from chromium compounds; red dyes such as cochineal and kermes are produced from dried insects (Anderson, 2009)(HubPages Inc, n. d)(Udale, 2008).

Natural dyes are categorized into two types – adjective and substantive. Adjective dyes require the use of a mordant such as, tannin, iron or chrome alum to help a fabric absorb the dye; different mordants produce different shades of colour. Substantive dyes such as indigo and turmeric “do not require a mordant, [but one] can still be used to increase the color and shade range of the dye plant” (Blue Castle Fiber Arts, n. d: online). Although natural dyes can be seen as an eco-friendly option, there are several disadvantages to their usage.

The majority of natural dyes are entirely dependent on the growing season, they are time consuming to produce, and the colours are less permanent and lack consistency between batches. Some mordants are also very toxic and therefore harmful to the environment. Consequently, natural dyes are now used in limited quantities, having now been replaced with synthetic imitations in response to newer fabrics (Anderson, 2009)(Udale, 2008). Synthetic dyes offer more variety, they are cheaper to make, easy to apply and a lot more colourfast.

These dyes fall into several categories that include basic dyes, acid dyes, disperse dyes, reactive dyes and direct or substantive dyes. Each dye category is “formulated for different fabric types and for specific effects” (Udale, 2008: p. 60). Finishing is a process that involves the application of certain techniques in order to enhance the aesthetic and functional qualities of a textile. These techniques are often applied to a finished fabric, but can be used at any stage of the production process.

Basic finishes, such as scouring, de-sizing, bleaching and mercerization are “necessary to prepare a fabric for dyeing or printing” (Udale, 2008: p. 64). Scouring removes the impurities from a fabric such as oil, dirt and starch whilst de-sizing removes any strengthening agents added during yarn construction. Bleach is a whitening agent; it can improve the absorbency of a fabric, which helps along the dyeing process, but can ultimately weaken the fibres. Man-made fibres do not always require the use of bleach and so it is often used to remove any natural colourings from fibres such as cotton, wool and silk.

Mercerization is another preparatory process mainly used on cotton for improved lustre and strength; mercerized cotton has a greater dye affinity than non-mercerized cotton but it is also more expensive. (Corbman, 1983)(Textile Exchange, n. d) The aesthetic of a fabric is all about the way it look and feels. An aesthetic finish can give a fabric certain qualities such as lustre, texture, drapability and surface appearance. “Calendering is a mechanical process that finishes fabrics by passing them between a series of [heated] rollers” (Wuest, n. : online); the resulting effect produces a smooth, shiny surface. Fabric made from wool or thermoplastic fibres such as polyester and acetate, can be heat set to form permanent pleats or crinkles; stonewashing can be used to give fabrics a slightly faded, worn out appearance (Udale, 2008). Performance finishes can give a fabric certain functional qualities. With the constant development of new technology, fabrics can now hold anti-static, crease resistant, stain repellent and breathable qualities. A crease resistant finish on a garment allows the user to wash and wear and is often used for school uniforms.

A waterproof finish is often used for outerwear and is achieved by coating the surface of a fabric with a layer or wax, rubber, polyvinyl chloride or polyurethane. (Udale, 2008) “Some finishes are critically important in providing safety for the user” (Wuest, n. d: online). Flame retardant finishes can be used for mattresses, carpets, upholstery and most importantly, fire fighting apparel. Chemical resistant lab coats may also be treated with a flame retardant finish to protect the wearer. “Finishes can last the lifetime of a fabric or may wear off with time” (Udale, 2008: p. 4), either way, they are the key elements to an end product. Having researched into the development of fibres, yarns and fabrics, it appears that synthetic manufacturing has revolutionized the industry. These days, it is often difficult to tell first hand, whether a fabric was produced and dyed using natural resources. With technology moving away from natural fibres and steering towards man-made imitations, that not only cost less but are easily available, the demand for natural fibres has diminished. Ultimately, this leads us to question where the future of fabrics lie.

In light of the current economic situation, are consumers still willing to pay the extra price for a product that has a cheaper alternative? Or will the environmental benefits of using natural resources, be enough to overthrow their rivals in the emerging green economy? In my opinion, there are strong possibilities to suggest that the use of man-made fibres will continue to grow. Accounting for 68% of the world’s fibres (CRFS, 2010), man-made fibres are racing ahead of their rivals, providing the qualities that natural fibres have failed to deliver.


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