• Kaine

Sewing 106 - What are Fibres and Fabrics?

Updated: Jan 30

I am not an expert on this topic. I usually refer to other resources when trying to identify the unlabeled fabric. In fact, I was reluctant to delve into this topic in the first place, until I recently had a conversation with some friends and realised that most people do not know the difference between fibres and fabrics.

Types of Fabrics and Fibres

In a nutshell, Fabrics are made from Fibres. These fibres are either Natural or Man-made. Examples of Natural Fibres are Cotton, Linen, Wool, Bamboo and Silk. Examples of Man-Made fibres are Polyester, Nylon and Rayon. These fibres are either woven together or knitted to create fabric or textiles. All fabrics may be stretchy or non-stretchy, although knitted fabric by their very nature are usually stretchy.

In this day and age, odds are any fabric you come across maybe a mix or blend of two or more fibres creating a unique combination. Such as Wool and Linen, Polyester and Cotton, etc. Fabrics may also have special finishes such as anti-wrinkle or a sheen, these can affect the quality of the fibre.

Personally, I am not too worried about knowing the exact name of a fabric, rather I try to figure out how best to launder it and sew it. A good tip is to cut out a small swatch, wash it, iron it and stitch it to see how it handles before you make anything out of it if you find yourself unsure of the type of fabric you have.

Basic Fibres

cotton plant
Cotton Plant (Wikifarmer.com)

Cotton - It is a soft, fluffy staple fiber that grows in a boll, or protective case, around the seeds of the cotton plants. The fiber is most often spun into yarn or thread and used to make a soft, breathable textile. The use of cotton for fabric is known to date to prehistoric times, it was the invention of the cotton gin that lowered the cost of production that led to its widespread use, and it is the most widely used natural fiber cloth in clothing today. (Source)

flax plant linen
Flax plant (decktowel.com)

Linen - It is a textile made from the fibers of the flax plant. Linen is laborious to manufacture, but the fiber is very strong, absorbent and dries more quickly than cotton. Garments made of linen are valued for their exceptional coolness and freshness in hot and humid weather. (Source)

Wool (Wikipedia.com)

Wool - It is the textile fiber obtained from sheep and other animals, including cashmere and mohair from goats, qiviut from muskoxen, angora from rabbits, and other types of wool from camelids (Source)

silk worm cocoon
Silworm cocoon (Britannica.com)

Silk - It is obtained from the cocoons of the larvae of the mulberry silkworm. Silk's absorbency makes it comfortable to wear in warm weather and while active. Its low conductivity keeps warm air close to the skin during cold weather. It is often used for clothing such as shirts, ties, blouses, formal dresses, high fashion clothes, lining, lingerie, pajamas, robes, dress suits, sun dresses and Eastern folk costumes. For practical use, silk is excellent as clothing that protects from many biting insects that would ordinarily pierce clothing, such as mosquitoes and horseflies. Fabrics that are often made from silk include charmeuse, habutai, chiffon, taffeta, crepe de chine, dupioni, noil, tussah, and shantung, among others. (Source)

bamboo forest taiwan
Bamboo forest (Wikipedia.com)

Bamboo - A bamboo textile is cloth, yarn, or clothing that is made from bamboo fibres. While historically used only for structural elements, such as bustles and the ribs of corsets, in recent years, different technologies have been developed that allow bamboo fibre to be used for a wide range of textile and fashion applications. Bamboo yarn can also be blended with other textile fibres such as hemp or spandex. Modern clothing labeled as being made from bamboo is usually rayon. (Source)

polyester fabric
Polyester Fabric (whatispolyester.com)

Polyester - As a specific material, it most commonly refers to a type called polyethylene terephthalate (PET). Fabric woven or knitted from polyester thread or yarn are used extensively in apparel and home furnishings, from shirts and pants to jackets and hats, bed sheets, blankets, upholstered furniture and computer mouse mats. Industrial polyester fibers, yarns and ropes are used in car tire reinforcements, fabrics for conveyor belts, safety belts, coated fabrics and plastic reinforcements with high-energy absorption. Polyester fiber is used as cushioning and insulating material in pillows, comforters and upholstery padding. Polyester fabrics are highly stain-resistant (Source)

nylon fabric
Nylon (Textileschool.com)

Nylon - It is a generic designation for a family of synthetic polymers. Nylon is a thermoplastic silky material that can be melt-processed into fibers, films or shapes. It is used as a substitute for silk and many other things (Source)

rayon fabric
Close up of Rayon fabric (Wikipedia.com)

Rayon - It is a manufactured fiber made from regenerated cellulose fiber. The many types and grades of rayon can imitate the feel and texture of natural fibers such as silk, wool, cotton, and linen. The types that resemble silk are often called artificial silk (Source)

Basic Fabrics

A disclaimer for the list below. There are generic English names for fabrics, but depending on the Locale or the market you are shopping at, the names may differ. What I have chosen to do here is to use the names, I know, are most commonly used in the Nigerian Market.

Poplin - It is a strong fabric in a plain weave of any fiber or blend, with crosswise ribs that typically give a corded surface. Poplin is now made with wool, cotton, silk, rayon, polyester, or a mixture of these. Being a plain under/over weave, if the weft and warp threads are of the same material and size, the effect is a plain woven surface with no ribbing. Shirts made from this material are easy to iron and do not wrinkle easily. (Source)

Handkerchief (Cotton Lawn) - Lawn cloth or lawn is a plain weave textile, originally of linen but now chiefly cotton. Lawn is known for its semi-transparency, which can range from gauzy or sheer to an almost opaque effect. Lawn cloth commonly is used for dresses, blouses, nightwear, underwear, lingerie, curtains, collar cuffs, shirting, infant wear, and handkerchiefs. (Source)

Ankara / Waxprint /Dutch Wax - They are industrially produced, colorful cotton cloths with batik-inspired printing. the fabrics are sold in 12 yards as "full piece" or 6 yards as "half piece". The colors comply with the local preferences of the customers. Mainly clothing for celebrations is made out of these. (Source)

Atiku/ Senator - Cotton Brocade or Jacquard Fabrics, usually for Men's Native clothing

Aso Oke - It is a hand loomed cloth woven by the Yoruba people of Nigeria. Aso oke means top cloth in the English language. Usually woven by men, the fabric is used to make men's gowns, called Agbada, women's wrappers, called iro, and men's hats, called fila. Usually made from Cotton, Silk or Metallic Threads (Source)

Adiire /Kampala - (Yoruba: tie and dye) textile is the indigo-dyed cloth made in southwestern Nigeria by Yoruba women, using a variety of resist-dyeing techniques. It is made from Cotton. It is Similar to Batik Fabric

Brocade (Jacquard) - It is a class of richly decorative shuttle-woven fabrics, often made in colored silks and with or without gold and silver threads originally from China (Source). Similar to Jacquard (A Brocade like fabric made by using a Jacquard Loom)

Chequer (Check/Gingham) - It is a pattern of modified stripes consisting of crossed horizontal and vertical lines forming squares (Source). This covers several types of fabrics that are woven in this manner and can be made from cotton, wool, or other blends/Plaid/Houndstooth)

Shirting (Cotton Broadcloth) - It is a dense, plain woven cloth, historically made of wool. Since the early 1920s, the American market has used the term broadcloth to describe a plain-woven, usually, mercerised fabric woven with a rib and a slightly heavier filling yarn, used for shirt-making, made from cotton or a polyester-and-cotton blend (Source)

Lining (MDG/Polyester Lining) - Strictly speaking, the lining is any fabric you use underneath your main fabric to give the garment structure, support, and extra weight or thickness. If you ask for lining in the market you usually get either a Matte silky polyester fabric that is a little stiff AKA MDG, or a softer, shiny, thicker variation, which personally I also use to make blouses.

Lace (Stretch Lace, Swiss Dot, 3D Lace, Beaded) - It is a delicate fabric made of yarn or thread in an open web-like pattern, made by machine or by hand. (Source) Swiss Dot is technically not lace. It is a sheer cotton fabric that is embellished with small dots (Source) Popularly used for formal wear and Native wear in Nigeria.

Tulle (netting) - It is a lightweight, very fine, stiff netting. It can be made of various fibres, including silk, nylon, polyester and rayon. Polyester is the most common fibre used for tulle. Rayon tulle is very rare. Tulle is most commonly used for veils, gowns (particularly wedding gowns), and ballet tutus. (Source)

Chiffon/ Georgette/Crepe - It is a lightweight, balanced plain-woven sheer fabric, or gauze, woven of alternate S- and Z-twist crepe (high-twist) yarns. The twist in the crepe yarns puckers the fabric slightly in both directions after weaving, giving it some stretch and a slightly rough feel. Crepe Chiffon is most commonly used in evening wear, especially as an overlay, for giving an elegant and floating appearance to the gown. It is also a popular fabric used in blouses, ribbons, scarves and lingerie. Like other crêpe fabrics, chiffon can be difficult to work with because of its light and slippery texture. Due to this delicate nature, chiffon must be hand washed very gently. (Source). See Georgette and Crepe for comparison.

Satin - It is a weave that typically has a glossy surface and a dull back. If a fabric is formed with a satin weave using filament fibres such as silk, polyester or nylon, the corresponding fabric is termed a satin, although some definitions insist that the fabric be made from silk. If the yarns used are short-staple yarns such as cotton, the fabric formed is considered a sateen. Commonly used for underwear, nightwear, men's ties, bridal wear, etc. (Source)

Velvet - It is a type of woven tufted fabric in which the cut threads are evenly distributed, with a short dense pile, giving it a distinctive soft feel. By extension, the word velvety means "smooth like velvet." Velvet can be made from either synthetic or natural fibers. (Source) It can be used for everyday dresses, but some Native wear Wrappers are also made from velvet

Denim (Jeans) - It is a sturdy cotton warp-faced textile in which the weft passes under two or more warp threads. The most common denim is indigo denim, in which the warp thread is dyed, while the weft thread is left white. As a result of the warp-faced twill weaving, one side of the textile is dominated by the blue warp threads and the other side is dominated by the white weft threads. This causes blue jeans to be white on the inside (Source)

Lycra or Bell Stretch (Spandex/Elastane Knits) - It is a synthetic fiber known for its exceptional elasticity. It is stronger and more durable than natural rubber. Because of its elasticity and strength (stretching up to five times its length), spandex has been incorporated into a wide range of garments, especially in skin-tight garments. A benefit of spandex is its significant strength and elasticity and its ability to return to the original shape after stretching and faster drying than ordinary fabrics. Please note that Lycra is a brand name for elastane fabric (Source)

T-shirt Fabric (Jersey, Scuba, Ribbed Knits) - It is a knit fabric used predominantly for clothing manufacture. It was originally made of wool, but is now made of wool, cotton, and synthetic fibers.  The fabric can be a very stretchy single knitting, usually light-weight, a jersey with one flat side and one piled side. When made with a lightweight yarn, this is the fabric most often used to make T-shirts. Or it can be a double knitted jersey (interlock jersey), with less stretch, that creates a heavier fabric of two single jerseys knitted together to leave the two flat sides on the outsides of the fabric, with the piles in the middle. Jersey is considered to be an excellent fabric for draped garments, such as dresses, and women's tops. (Source)

Calico/ Tie n Dye (Unbleached Cotton) - It is a plain-woven textile made from unbleached and often not fully processed cotton. It may contain unseparated husk parts, for example. (Source) (Also known as Muslin) Commonly used for tie and dye fashion and for sewing students to practice on due to its low cost. Presently most students buy cheap ankara or lining fabric as these can even be cheaper than Calico.

Wrappers (George, Krukrubite, Kente, India) - Uncut yardage of Ankara, Cotton, Paid, Kente, Lace, Velvet, and so on are usually used as wrappers that are tied around the waist in the shape of a skirt. Styles and Names vary according to tribes and traditions

Head tie / Gele / Damask - Smaller Cuts of fabric ranging from half a yard to 3 yards, usually made from brocade, damask, lace or ankara that are styled into headties for native wear.

Trousers Material (Wool, Linen, Tweed, Chinos, Corduroy, Suiting) - Trousers can be made from most any type of fabric, but when you ask for trouser fabric in the market, what you are going to get is Cotton, Linen, Woolen, Tweed, Chinos or Corduroy Fabric. Usually, fabric that is good for making suits, that are anti-wrinkle and have a little stretch to them

Presently, I am trying to build a Fabric Swatch Book, and I suggest you do the same. Keep a small cut of the different fabrics you come across making note of the local name, price, and sewing peculiarities.

For more detailed information on fabric and their properties, let me refer to the following websites

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