Updated: Feb 17, 2020
Weaving loom. Image from www.wisegeek.com
I often get asked about fabrics in my pattern making classes and i realise how confusing fabrics can be, with the different fiber types, production methods and dyeing, printing & finishing processes. And although it’s hard to tell sometimes even when armed with the whole wealth of fabric knowledge, i believe a general understanding of fabrics can only do more good (even if it’s slight) when trying to find and buy that suitable fabric you need for your project (and not to say the least of being charged a reasonable price for it).
So here’s a broad overview of fabrics, hope this helps in your next hunt at Chinatown/Arab Street/Spotlight/Mustafa (yes, they sell fabrics!)/Geylang!
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Fabrics are typically defined by two main things, the fibres it is made out of, and how the textile is produced.
The two broad categories are natural, such as cotton, linen, silk, wool and man-made (or synthetic), such as polyestor, rayon, nylon, spandex. Fibers like bamboo and lyocell (better known as Tencel, see here) are considered man-made even though they are plant-based because the raw materials have to go through chemical processes in order to form the fibres.
The fibres are then spun into yarns, which can be long (or what we call filament yarn) or short, thus giving the resultant fabric a different hand feel. So the yarn can be 100% natural or man-made, or a blend of both. With these yarns, it’s now ready to weave them into fabric.
Yarn spinning the traditional way… remember Sleeping Beauty? Image from www.goodreads.com
For apparel fabrics, the yarns are typically produced in the following manner:
Weaving: Done on a loom, weaving is the interlacing of a set of vertical yarns, or warp, with a set of horizontal yarns, known as weft. Depending on how the warp and weft interact, different weaves can be achieved, such as satin, twill, basketweave, jacquard.
Woven fabrics are usually not very stretchable (unless spandex has ben incorporated), especially when compared to knit fabrics (see below).
Knitting: Using a single yarn to form loops row upon row. These loops can be easily stretched in different directions thus giving knit fabrics more elasticity than woven fabrics. So knit fabrics are good for apparel that needs great amount of stretch, like sports wear.
Like weaving, depending on the knitting pattern, different knit fabrics can be achieved, such as jersey, rib, double knit, tricot.
DYEING, PRINTING & FINISHING PROCESSES
There are many ways to give the fabric its colour, which can be done at the fibre/yarn level (what we call yarn-dyed), or fabric level (which we call fabric-dyed) or garment level (after the fabric has been cut, made and sewn, the finished garment is then passed through the dyeing process, as known as piece dyed).
Printing is also a method to give the fabric its colours and prints. As with dyeing, depending on the fibre content, the colour dyes used varies to give best and lasting results after multiple washes, i.e. be colourfast. For more details in the methods of printing, see here.
Once the fabric is produced, there are many finishing processes or enhancements that can be done to it before it is made into garments. Some of the finishes that we might see in apparel fabrics are:
Mercerisation: making woven cotton fabric stronger and more lustrous.
Peach Finish: making the surface velvet-like, like the peach skin (hence the name).
Wrinkle-Free: achieved by the addition of a chemical resin finish.
Anti-Microbial Finish: to inhibit the growth of microbes, although such finishes may wear out after multiple washes.
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So… it is probably manageable to figure out the weave/knit bit when one encounters the fabric (probably require some sort of magnifying device for some types of weave/knit), and maybe even the finishes done (eg. peach finish can be identified through hand feel), but the type and composition of fibres would probably be the hardest, if possible at all.. unless of course i’m able to torch the fabric, which i doubt any store owner in their right mind would let me do without first kicking me out of their premises… So you have been warned! 🙂 Regardless, for those of you would are interested about the burn test, check out the third link in the Read More section.