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Fibres are the basis for all textiles. You need to know the difference between natural and synthetic fibres, how each fibre is used, and which fibres can be combined together.

Textile materials are made in three stages:

  1. spinning: fibres are spun into yarns
  2. weaving or knitting: yarns become fabrics
  3. finishing: fabrics are finished to make them more useful

There are two types of textile fibres:

  • natural
  • synthetic
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Natural fibres

Natural fibres come from plants, animals and minerals. They usually have short fibres, called staple fibres. The exception to this rule is silk, a natural fibre whose continuous filaments are up to one kilometre in length!

Sources of natural fibres

  • Cotton from the cotton plant.
  • Linen from the flax plant.
  • Wool from sheep.
  • Silk from silkworms.
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Synthetic fibres

Synthetic fibres are man-made, usually from chemical sources. They are continuous filament fibres, which means the fibres are long and do not always have to be spun into yarn.

Sources of synthetic fibres

  • Viscose comes from pine trees or petrochemicals.
  • Acrylic, nylon and polyester come from oil and coal
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Used for making jeans, T-shirts and towels and has the following qualities:

  • cool to wear
  • very absorbent, dries slowly
  • soft handle
  • good drape
  • durable
  • creases easily
  • can be washed and ironed


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Used for summer clothing, tea towels and tablecloths and has the following qualities:

  • fresh and cool to wear
  • very absorbent, dries quickly
  • stiffer handle
  • good drape
  • durable
  • creases badly
  • can be washed and ironed


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Used for jumpers, suits and blankets and has the following qualities:

  • warm to wear
  • absorbent, dries slowly
  • breathable, repels rain
  • soft or coarse handle
  • can shrink, should be dry cleaned
  • good drape
  • not durable
  • creases drop out


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Used for evening wear and ties and has the following qualities:

  • warm to wear
  • absorbent
  • soft handle
  • good lustre and drape
  • durable
  • creases drop out
  • dry clean


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A regenerated fibre from natural polymer materials like cellulose. It is used for shirts, dresses and linings and has the following qualities:

  • low warmth
  • absorbent, dries slowly
  • soft handle
  • good drape
  • not durable
  • creases easily
  • can be washed and ironed


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Used for jumpers, fleece jackets and blankets and has the following qualities:

  • warm to wear
  • non-absorbent, dries quickly
  • stiffer handle, like wool
  • good drape
  • durable
  • crease resistant
  • easy care


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Nylon (tactel)

Used for active sportswear, fleece jackets, socks and seat belts and has the following qualities:

  • warm to wear
  • absorbent, dries slowly
  • breathable, repels rain
  • soft or coarse handle
  • can shrink, should be dry cleaned
  • good drape
  • durable
  • creases drop out


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Used for raincoats, fleece jackets, children's nightwear, medical textiles and working clothes and has the following qualities:

  • low warmth
  • non-absorbent, dries quickly
  • soft handle
  • good drape
  • very durable
  • crease resistant
  • easy care
  • can be recycled


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Modern fibres- microfibres

Polyester or nylon microfibres are 60 to 100 times finer than a human hair. They can be blended with synthetic or natural fibres and are used for clothing for outdoor pursuits and active sportswear.

Thermoplastic polyester or nylon microfibres can be heat-treated to give them coils, crimps and loops, which makes these textured yarns stretchy and warm. They are used for underwear, sportswear, knitwear and carpets.

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Modern fibres- fibre blends

Blending different fibres together produces yarns that have the combined properties of each component fibre. Using fibre blends improves the appearance, performance, comfort and aftercare of fabric. Blending can also reduce the cost of an expensive fibre.

  • Polyester/cotton blend: shirts are more easy-care and crease-resistant than shirts made from 100 percent cotton.
  • Cotton/lycra blend: jeans are more comfortable, stretchy and fit better than cotton jeans.
  • Acrylic/wool blend: trousers are less expensive than 100 percent wool trousers.
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Modern Microfibres

  • Elastane (Lycra) is always used in a blend with other fibres. It is used to make sportswear, body-hugging clothes and bandages. It has good handle and drape, is durable, crease resistant, stretchy (more comfortable) and is easy care. It has low warmth and is absorbent.


  • Tencel is a 'natural' microfibre made from cellulose derived from wood-pulp. It is used for shirts and jeans. It has soft handle, good drape, is breathable, durable, crease-resistant, easy-care and biodegradable. It is absorbent and has low warmth.
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Most fabrics are made by weaving or knitting yarns, although non-woven fabrics are made by bonding or felting fibres together. A fabric's appearance, properties and end use can be affected by the way it was constructed.

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Woven fabrics

Woven fabrics are made up of a weft - the yarn going across the width of the fabric - and a warp - the yarn going down the length of the loom. The side of the fabric where the wefts are double-backed to form a non-fraying edge is called the selvedge. There are three types of woven fabrics.


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Plain- weave fabric

In plain-weave fabric the warp and weft are aligned so that they form a simple criss-cross pattern. Plain-weave is strong and hardwearing, so it's used for fashion and furnishing fabrics.


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Twill- weave fabric

In twill-weave fabric the crossings of weft and warp are offset to give a diagonal pattern on the fabric surface. It's strong, drapes well and is used for jeans, jackets and curtains.


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Satin- weave fabric

In satin-weave fabric there is a complex arrangement of warp and weft threads, which allows longer float threads either across the warp or the weft. The long floats mean the light falling on the yarn doesn't scatter and break up, like on a plain-weave.

The reflected light creates a smooth, lustrous (shiny) surface commonly called satin. The reverse side is invariably dull and non-shiny. Weave variations include jacquard and damask.


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Weft- knitted fabric

Weft-knitted fabric is made by looping together long lengths of yarn. It can be made by hand or machine. The yarn runs in rows across the fabric. If a stitch is dropped it will ladder down the length of the fabric. The fabric is stretchy and comfortable and is used for socks, T-shirts and jumpers.


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Warp- knitted fabric

In warp-knitted fabric the loops interlock vertically along the length of the fabric. Warp knits are slightly stretchy and do not ladder. Warp-knitted fabric is made by machine. It is used for swimwear, underwear and geotextiles.


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Non-woven fabrics- bonding

Bonded-fibre fabrics are made from webs of synthetic fibres bonded together with heat or adhesives. They are cheap to produce but not as strong as woven or knitted fabrics. Bonded-fibre fabrics are mainly used for interlining. They are easy to sew, crease resistant, do not fray and are stable when washing and dry cleaning.

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Non woven fabrics- felting

Wool felt is a non-woven fabric made from animal hair or wool fibres matted together using moisture, heat and pressure. Felt has no strength, drape or elasticity but it is warm and does not fray. Wool felt is expensive. It is used for hats and slippers and in handcrafts.

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Modern, smart and combination fabrics

Modern and smart fabrics are designed to maximise characteristics such as lightness, breathability, waterproofing etc, or to react to heat or light. They are usually manufactured using microfibres.

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  • Woven polyester
  • lightweight
  • soft
  • good drape
  • breathable
  • shower-proof
  • raincoats
  • active sportswear
  • fashion clothing
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Polar fleece

  • brushed polyester
  • warp knit
  • lightweight
  • soft
  • breathable
  • warm
  • fleece jumpers and jackets
  • blankets
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  • Laminated membrane
  • breathable
  • lightweight
  • waterproof
  • All-weather jackets and shoes
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  • Different micro-capsules embedded in the fibre or fabric
  • gives off an aromatic scent
  • can reduce body odour
  • can provide vitamins or reduce skin irritation
  • underwear
  • anti-bacterial socks
  • medical textiles
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Heat sensitive

  • Thermochromic
  • Micro-encapsulated dye can change colour in response to heat (lasts for 5-10 washes)
  • children's clothes
  • sports clothing
  • firefighters' clothing
  • wound dressings
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Light sensitive

  • Photochromic dyes
  • Smart pigments change colour in response to sunlight
  • T-shirts
  • military clothing
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Combination fabrics

Fabrics can be layered and combined to improve their handle, appearance or performance. For example:

  • An interfacing fabric such as Vilene can be stitched or laminated to other fabrics. This reinforces, stiffens and gives strength to collars and cuffs to prevent the fabric from stretching or sagging.
  • A quilted fabric has two or more layers sewn together to give an attractive appearance and added warmth.
  • Gore-Tex can be laminated to another fabric using adhesive or heat. Gore-Tex is used for all-weather clothing and shoes because it is breathable and waterproof.
  • Kevlar is a high-strength, lightweight and flexible fibre. It is used in bicycle tyres, racing sails and police bullet-proof vests because of its high strength-to-weight ratio.
  • Thinsulate is a highly insulating but thin fabric. The microfibres in Thinsulate are fine and capture more air in less space, making it a better insulator. It traps air between the wearer and the outside. It can be machine washed and dry cleaned, and is breathable as well as moisture resistant. Scuba divers wear a Thinsulate suit under a dry suit when diving in cold water.
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Technology in textiles

Textiles manufacturers use new technological developments to improve fabrics by giving them new properties. These might be developed for a special reason, but then adapted to be used in everyday products. For example:

  • Memory foam moulds to the user's shape and can return to its original state. It was originally developed for NASA astronauts and is now used in memory-foam mattresses and seats.
  • Smart-shape-memory alloy returns to its original shape when heated. Smart memory fibres are woven with nylon to make smart-memory shirts that don't need ironing.
  • Fastskin is used in swimsuits to simulate the texture of sharkskin. It increases a swimmer's speed by reducing drag through water.
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Choosing materials

It is important to choose materials that are fit for purpose. Choosing a fabric with the appropriate quality and cost will ensure that a product will suit the target market. When making fabric choices, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Fibre content: should you use natural or synthetic fibres?
  • Fabric construction: should you use woven, knitted or non-woven?
  • Manufacturing processes: should you use dyeing, printing, mechanical finishing or chemical finishing?
  • End use of the fabric: what are you making, eg jeans, sportswear or a seatbelt?
  • Maintenance: what are the aftercare requirements of the product?

The fibre content, fabric construction and finishing processes determine the fabric's aesthetic, functional and comfort properties.

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Properties of fabric

It is important to match fabric properties to the requirements of the product. For example:

  • Cycling jackets need to be made from fabric that is warm, breathable, elastic, windproof and water resistant.
  • Children's jumpers need to be made from fabric that is soft, colourful, stretchy, warm and easy care.
  • Seat belts need to be made from strong, durable, flame-resistant materials.
  • Fire-protective clothing needs to be strong, durable, flame resistant and water resistant. It may also need to be breathable and elastic.
  • Geotextiles need to be strong and durable so they stop embankments from slipping

Aesthetic properties- handle, drape, colour, appearance

Functional properties- strength, durability, crease resistance, flame resistance, stain resistance, water resistance, aftercare, cost

Comfort properties- absorbency, breathability, elasticity, softness, stretch, warmth

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