I missed you last Fabric Friday! I was in Colorado at The Makerie Sewing retreat last week (I’ll tell you all about it shortly), and I didn’t have solid enough Internet access to finish off the post I wanted to write. But I’m back in the studio this week, and Fabric Friday has returned!
This week I want to talk about natural fibers and the fabrics made from them.
When it comes to sewing, I almost always prefer fabrics made from natural fibers. They’re comfortable to wear, they look nice, and they’re a pleasure to sew. But there’s such a variety of natural fibers, and what you think of as “natural” isn’t always as natural as you might think. So let’s talk about some of those fibers and their properties. Next week I’ll start talking about about manufactured (or man-made) fibers, starting with plant-based fibers, and then we’ll continue with petroleum-based fibers the following week. By that point we’ll have covered a lot of ground on the fiber discussion front, and hopefully this knowledge will help you when you’re shopping and making fabric decisions!
Natural fibers, as the name implies, are derived from plants and animals. This category includes some plant fibers that come from the stems, leaves, or seeds of plants, as well as animal fibers that come from animals’ fur—or from 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 a strong fiber. It absorbs moisture and dries quickly, which makes it easy to care for and comfortable for everyday wear. Cotton 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 (it requires a lot of water and resources to grow, and a lot of cotton farmers use heavy pesticides), cotton is relatively inexpensive to produce. And there’s a reason why cotton manufacturers market cotton as “the fabric of our lives”; we wear a lot of cotton!
Linen is the oldest and the strongest of the natural fibers. It comes from the stalk of the flax plant. (There are a couple interesting videos posted here if you want to see how flax is turned into linen.) 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. And it tends to wrinkle, as you know. But good quality linen softens and gets more beautiful as it ages, so many people love linen for these qualities.
Wool, of course, 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 its quality, wool can have a nice hand and good drape. It is warm because it absorbs moisture slowly and dries slowly, not cooling the wearer. (Which is great if you’re hiking in the mountains and getting all sweaty; when you stop to rest you won’t get a sudden chill or freeze to death, even if your wool sweater is wet!) 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. (Remember this filament concept because we’ll talk more about this when we get to manufactured fibers like polyester.) These filaments are harvested and spun into silk which has nice drape and a luxurious hand. Here’s an interesting video about how silk is made.
Silk is a relatively expensive and exceptionally fine fiber that can be washed or dry cleaned. Soaps weaken silk, and silk fibers also degrade over time when they come into contact with oxygen.
Now obviously there is a huge variety of different fabrics made from cotton, linen, and wool. Fabrics made from cotton include quilting cottons, shirtings, denim, chambray, corduroy, canvas, voile, and lawn, just to get started. So just talking about the qualities of the fiber itself isn’t enough by itself. We’ll tackle each fiber individually later on so we can really look at that wide variety of fabrics made with each fiber. But I think it’s helpful to understand the fibers themselves, first.
And what about bamboo? It’s a natural fiber, right? Stay tuned. I’ll talk about it next week, and you might be surprised at what you learn.