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As I was writing this post, and as I was thinking about last month’s post, I realized just how fabric-geeky this series is turning out to be.

Stick with me, though. This basic terminology will offer a pay-off later. I promise.

Now, to the topic at hand. Natural fibers, as the name implies, are derived from plants and animals. Plant fibers come from the stems, leaves, or seeds of plants. Animal fibers come from animals’ fur—or their cocoons, in the case of silk.

The most common natural fibers are cotton, linen, wool, and silk. More exotic natural fibers include alpaca, camel hair, cashmere, llama, mohair, hemp, jute, and ramie.

Cotton is a seed fiber, starting its life in the boll of the cotton plant attached to the seeds. It is the most commonly used fiber in the world. Cotton is strong. It absorbs moisture and dries quickly. It is washable and dry-cleanable, and it has a soft hand. (Hand is how a fabric feels when you touch it.) Even though it’s not the most ecological crop to grow, cotton is relatively inexpensive to produce.

Linen is the oldest and the strongest of the natural fibers. It comes from the stalk of the flax plant. It is relatively soft, absorbs moisture and dries quickly, and is washable and dry-cleanable. But linen has some drawbacks. It doesn’t have great resistance to pilling (those little balls that form on clothing as the fibers break and get tangled together), it doesn’t drape as well as cotton, and it doesn’t have much elasticity.

Wool, as you know, comes from the fur of sheep. Different breeds of sheep produce different qualities of wool, all of which are graded according to the fineness of the fibers. Depending on the grade, wool can have a nice hand and good drape. It is warm because it absorbs moisture slowly and dries slowly, not cooling the wearer. Wool has excellent insulating qualities because the fibers are crimped, which allows air to get trapped between them.

Silk is produced by silkworms. When spinning their cocoons, silkworms send a fine stream of liquid through small openings near their heads. The liquid hardens into filament on contact with air. These filaments are harvested and spun into silk which has nice drape and a luxurious hand. It is a relatively expensive and exceptionally fine fiber that can be washed or dry cleaned. Soaps weaken silk. The fabric also degrades over time when in contact with oxygen.

Next month I’ll discuss some common types of manufactured fibers, and you just might be surprised at what you learn.

—Liesl Gibson

Liesl Gibson designs the popular Oliver + S line of sewing patterns for children’s clothing. Read more of her writing on the Oliver + S blog

18 Comments

  • Missing

    Sep 17, 2014, 03.12 PMby denimfabric

    the tencel denim fabric like it in http://www.denim-fabric.org is also made of natural fiber,it is popular in europe and usa

  • Missing

    Mar 30, 2013, 02.58 PMby Noah TerHaar

    That’s odd, cyclists say just the opposite when it comes to socks. Wool is best for moisture wicking and cotton just absorbs and keeps your feet wet.

  • Missing

    Nov 27, 2012, 08.58 PMby Dannation Isthis

    I’ve actually discovered a rare and reputable source for Pineapple (Pina) and Banana (Abaca) Fabrics as well as other unique textiles!!

    See this site http://www.dbathis.com/
  • 737492d5184dcd1e0ed5127b89b0144c5403ea68_large

    Mar 2, 2010, 06.32 PMby lala86

    I’ve got in my house some silk cocoons, they are amazing, they come in white or yellow and if you shake them you can hear the sound the dryed worm makes (like a rattle)

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    Feb 28, 2010, 01.32 PMby sewmad

    Goldiiloxx, Where did you buy the bamboo? ’www.naturesfabrics.com has some great stuff.

    sewmad

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    Feb 26, 2010, 02.22 AMby elisana

    I’m really enjoying your posts, I’m learning a lot – thank you so much!!!

  • Rock_paper_scissors_large

    Feb 25, 2010, 11.03 PMby wenchy

    Silk is lovely but the static you get from ironing it rather hurts! lol

  • 11cc9890aab956bd9e3420222e1f8c32d6fd5188_large

    Feb 25, 2010, 12.28 PMby philo

    Wonderful – this information needs to be out there! I look forward to your next article, and hope you will cover manufactured naturals (rayon, viscose) as well! Thanks so much!

  • D5070fcca8ba0dfb4e8525a3877730ac45fd4450_large

    Feb 24, 2010, 03.41 AMby goldiiloxxx

    I was gonna ask about Bamboo too! I found a place online to buy it!

    2 Replies
  • Blackwhitegirl_large

    Feb 23, 2010, 11.20 PMby workingthewool

    Thanks for the article about fibers. Will you be writing about bamboo? It’s a plant fiber too, and I’ve been looking everywhere to try and buy more because it feels so luxurious. One pair of pants is not enough!

    1 Reply
    • Aptwitter_large

      Feb 24, 2010, 02.43 AMby oliverands

      Yes, we’ll be talking about bamboo next month. You might be surprised at what you learn!

  • Dahlnyc_1352392376_600_large

    Feb 23, 2010, 05.39 PMby alisondahl

    I think silk is the most wondrous fiber in the world. I once received an email from who was upset because I use silk, as many silk worms are killed as a result. In order to obtain the continuous piece of thread the worm creates, it must be killed before it exits it’s cocoon, thus ruining the thread. I looked into Peace Silk and Vegetarian Silk, which utilizes the threads of vacant cocoons and connects them- resulting in a more organic looking fabric and a more humane way of creating silk. There have yet to be any standards set on silk being “organic” but for the time being I am more at peace using Peace Silk.

  • Vatten_large

    Feb 23, 2010, 04.27 PMby ichigogirl

    Oooooh, silk….. wool….. mmmm…. (fabric-geekiness rules!)

  • Prof_large

    Feb 23, 2010, 03.27 PMby fraiche

    I love fabric geekiness! If anyone is interested in geeking out further, I have an album of my scanning electron micrographs of silk, flax, and cotton fibers: http://www.flickr.com/photos/sofondly/sets/72157604248665412/

    At the time, I was trying to understand how they each acquire certain properties.

    2 Replies
    • Aptwitter_large

      Feb 23, 2010, 03.35 PMby oliverands

      Too cool! Love the images. Thanks for sharing!

    • Palmhand_large

      Feb 24, 2010, 05.21 PMby benew

      aweeesssssssooooommmeeee.

    • This is a question
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