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Fabulous Fabrics: An Overview

I intended to write about "fabrics" however, just looking at my fabric stash, I could be writing a book about the many varieties and qualities of every fabric. This then will be a bit of an overview to help you select fabrics which you would feel confident sewing, and fabrics which are suitable for the job you intend to use them for. The yarn used to create the fabric, the handle and drape of the fabric, the finish, print and weight will all influence how the finished garment will look. A circular skirt in a fluid chiffon will hang and move very differently to the same skirt in a spongy scuba jersey. Washing instructions are also something you may consider. An frequently worn item of clothing takes a bit more effort if it needs dry cleaning.

It's not only Natural:


Fabrics are made with fibres and these fibres are either man-made (synthetic) or natural. These fibres are what affects the fabrics' handle, care and breathability, although major advancements have been made in synthetic fibres being able to emulate natural ones. Natural fibres are anything derived from plants, animals and minerals. The common ones which may spring to mind are cotton, wool, silk or linen. Some natural metals are also pounded into foils or metallic finishes.


Wool:

The wool fibre is taken from sheep and can very from 3cm to 35cm in length, but each strand is textured which lends itself to being woven together with a strong grip. It can be made into felt which can be moulded, or into yarns which can then be woven to form fabric. It is also absorbent so holds colour well. There are also other animals which give us wool with varying characteristics like the alpaca, or cashmere goat.


Silk:

Silk is derived from the silk worm and in more recent times has been subject to some controversy due to the worm dying in the process of collecting the silk. The silk worm hatches from an egg and grows until it is ready to transform into a moth. During this transformation the worm spins a cocoon which renders us silk. However in order to obtain the silk, the cocoons are boiled and then the silk is unwound from the cocoon. The silk filament can reach 500 to 1000 meters in length. These thin filaments are then woven together and form a strong, warm and absorbent cloth.


Cotton:

Cotton is a common and versatile fabric which can be spun into many textures and teamed with other fibres too, like wool or spandex to give different characteristics. Cotton is taken from the cotton plant and the fibres can be up to 6cm long. Once woven, it is strong which lends itself to easy washing as well as many different fabric treatments and finishes.


Linen:

Linen fabric is derived from the stalk of the flax plant which has long cellulose fibres. Linen has similar properties to cotton as it is durable and easy to care for, though it tends to be slightly stiffer. There are also other plant fibres which are similar to linen like hemp, jute and the up-and-coming bamboo which has been found to be quite versatile.


(Hu)Man-Made Fabrics:


Man-made fabrics are made using a chemical process where a solution containing components of fibre (natural cellulose or chemical) and then forced through tiny holes into a liquid which hardens the solution into a thin yarn. This yarn can then be textured, treated and then woven or knitted together. This process lends itself to so many varieties of finishes because the strands can be made thick or thin and treated to be soft or more rigid. Some familiar synthetic fabrics are polyester, rayon, spandex or nylon and they can take on many different properties. Plastic metallic threads are commonly woven into fabrics often used in dance or fashion fabrics. A polyurethane (commonly know as PU) can be used to coat fabric which leaves a faux leather-like finish. The combination of man-made fibres with natural fibres is vast and advancing daily, especially in reaction to climate change.














Let's Finish with Some Finishes:


As I mentioned, there is so much more depth one could go into when speaking fabric, but I will close with fabric finishes. This affects the handle and look and sew-ability of fabrics. Fabric in their "raw" state is not commonly sold for fashion and home use. They go on to be dyed, treated, brushed, beaten polished or coated. Fabrics can be given a "nap" or added finish like on corduroy or velvet where looped fibres in the woven yarn are cut to a certain length to create a "pile". This can then be taken further and brushed, leaving a fleecy, cosy finish on the inside or outer side of the fabric. Fabrics can also be pleated into small concertina pleats to form a fabric called "plissé". Fabrics can also be pounded to flatten the fibres leaving a sheen on the surface, or they are coated for a metallic or wet look.


Asides from finishes affecting texture, fabrics are also treated to be flame-resistant, stain resistant, anti-static, anti-bacterial or softened. Many new finishes are often applied to sportswear to make it breathable and moisture wicking as well as warm and water resistant. Certainly not least of these finishes is printing, which is also a vast area of information and history. Whichever fabric you choose for your sewing project or design, it is important to know the wash care and drape. When designing, it is important to know the qualities of available fabrics. When sewing, especially for beginners, fabrics are suggested which are suitable for that particular style. As you advance you will get a "feel' for the fabrics you enjoy working with and those that drape or hold shape well. Fabrics in themselves are a pandora's box of interest and creativity, so enjoy the journey of exploring them!


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