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All manufactured fibers are made in the same way. As I mentioned in my last post about cellulosic manufactured fibers, a chemical liquid is forced through small holes, called spinnerets, to form filaments in much the same way that a silkworm spins its cocoon.

While the cellulosic fibers I discussed are derived from plants, most common synthetic fibers are petroleum-based. With these fibers, the shape of the spinnerets and how the filaments are processed affect the finished fabric enormously. Here are some of the most common petroleum-based fibers:

Acrylic is lightweight, soft, and warm, with a wool-like feel. It takes dyes beautifully and has excellent colorfastness. It resists shrinking and wrinkles. Those pashmina wraps that New York sidewalk vendors sell in every color of the spectrum are actually made of acrylic because it can be finished to have a similar feel to cashmere. (Yes, I know the labels say they’re made of pashmina or cashmere, but you don’t really believe that you can buy a large pashmina wrap for under $10, do you?) Unlike cashmere, however, acrylic tends to fuzz or pill easily, and it isn’t nearly as warm. It also builds up static and can irritate the skin of people who suffer from eczema.

Polyester has a bad reputation, but as a fiber it possesses some valuable qualities. It is strong and resistant to stretching and shrinking. It dries quickly, and it’s crisp and resilient when both dry and wet. It’s also wrinkle and abrasion resistant, and it retains heat-set pleats and creases well. It’s easy to wash, but it’s difficult to remove stains from polyester because it repels water so well. It’s also prone to static and pilling. Although it’s the most commonly used manufactured fiber in apparel, it’s also one of the least environmentally friendly fabrics to produce.

Nylon is the second most widely used manufactured fiber in the US. The polymers used to make it provide it with strength as well as good elasticity and resilience. Nylon also has a nice drape. It can be washed or dry cleaned, but because it repels water (the technical term is hydrophobic), it tends to build up static and pills easily. You’ll find nylon used most often in intimate wear, swimwear, exercise wear, hosiery, and sometimes in jackets.

Spandex gives excellent stretch and durability without pilling or building up static. Spandex, is quite expensive to produce, however, and tends to yellow over time. This is not usually a problem, though, because it’s often blended in small quantities (sometimes as little as 1%) with other yarns to make a composite fabric with some stretch.

The most interesting innovations in the manufactured fiber industry have been in the production of microfibers. These fibers are much finer than the manufactured fibers I’ve just discussed, and there are two methods used to produce them. In the first, very fine filaments are produced which are then stretched to make an even finer yarn. In the second method, two polymers are combined into a filament which is then split it into a number of even finer filaments.

The fineness of these fibers gives them their unique qualities. The hand is softer than other manufactured fibers, they drape better, and they wick moisture. Microfibers can also be combined with other fibers to improve on the original qualities of another fiber. They are, for example, blended with wool to make the wool appear to be a better quality than it actually is.

Now that we’ve discussed common fibers used in apparel fabrics, we’ll turn next to discussing some of the finished fabrics themselves and how they are best suited. While many of us sew with some basic commodity fabrics, I hope to introduce you to a few fabrics you may not have considered for your next sewing projects.

—Liesl Gibson

Liesl Gibson designs the popular Oliver + S line of sewing patterns for children’s clothing. She recently announced the upcoming release of her new fabric line, City Weekend. Read more of her writing on the Oliver + S blog.

6 Comments

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    May 8, 2010, 09.08 PMby nehmah

    When it comes to synthetic fibers my only favorite was called Qiana (spelling is correct). I haven’t seen it in fabric shops for a long time. Qiana was a dream to handle, draped like water falling, and didn’t irritate my skin. Most of the synthetics cause severe itching anywhere it touched me. ( You haven’t lived until you have hives under your arms!) Turned out the problem was the formaldehyde resins used to make the material. I look forward to your next article. Cordially, Nehmah

  • Trish_face_large

    May 5, 2010, 04.00 PMby trishberger

    Very informative article. Thank you for writing it. I am so tossed on the subject of using these fabrics, as they are petroleum based. I have fallen in love with all of the organic fabrics— bamboo, cotton, hemp… but I do make more high-tech cloth diapers that last forever— a big bonus in saving the environment in the long-term. I love the windpro fleeces, powerdry, and microfleeces, but I often wonder of the actual long-term effects these fabrics will have on our environment— not to mention extending our reliability on petroleum. There are so many beautifully fun fabrics out there to choose from.

    I wonder if you have used any of the organics, and what you think of them.

    Thank you for posting!

  • Missing

    Apr 29, 2010, 05.29 AMby caufofa

    Great posts, Liesl! Wow, you know so much!

  • Seam_ripper2_large

    Apr 28, 2010, 11.56 AMby kayla-day

    Thanks very much for these introductions to fabrics you’ve been compiling.

    Funny you should mention microfibre there as I’ve just used it to make the Tikva trench coat. I made it with a red ‘Breathable Microfibre – Mediumweight hydrophillic PU coated polyester with Teflon on the face’ and it was easy to work though had quite heavy static when I first started cutting out the pieces. The only problem I have now is that when I wear the coat, very fine filaments are coming off on my clothes as I walk and because it’s red fabric, it forms as a web of red fluff on whatever I’m wearing underneath. Was quite a surprise when it first happened because the fluff doesn’t come off on my hands when I stroke or touch the coat itself.

    Has anyone experienced this before with microfibre fabrics? And if so, how did you get rid of the fluff? Does it ever stop? Perhaps it’s the static in the fabric sucking in fine filaments it has collected when the fabric was on the cutting table and being sewn?

    I’ve not been able to wear my new coat now because of this! :-( I’m nervous to put it in the washing machine in case it ruins the iron-on interfacing (as the back of the fabric is kind of plastic-y (showerproof) may the interfacing will crumple?), but it may have to come to that. I’ve run it under the shower which removed quite a bit, but hasn’t solved it completely.

    All part of the fun of making your own clothes and experimenting with unknown fabrics eh!

    1 Reply
    • Missing

      May 18, 2010, 06.13 AMby tralou

      I don’t suppose you could try tossing it in the dryer – maybe even on air – for a bit & see if it doesn’t help with some of that lint?

  • Profilepic4_large

    Apr 28, 2010, 06.01 AMby carolyn-s

    This is very informative, thankyou for this article.

    • This is a question
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