fabric friday: plant-based (or cellulosic) fibers

This week for Fabric Friday I want to tell you about manufactured fibers and how they are made.

Originally, manufactured fibers were created to mimic more expensive natural fibers like wool and silk. Today, many manufactured fibers are engineered specifically to have certain properties that natural fibers don’t. Manufactured fibers come in two primary types: cellulosic, which are plant-based, and petroleum-based.

So, yes, some manufactured fibers can, in fact, originate from plants. In the manufacturing process the plants are broken down into chemical solutions which are then forced through tiny holes to make filaments, much like a silkworm extrudes a liquid that hardens into filament. (Remember when I talked about that last week?) That’s why these fabrics aren’t considered natural fibers. Natural fibers are made without the use of chemicals.


rayon amy butler

Amy Butler’s rayon fabrics


Ready? Put on your fabric geek glasses; we’re going to start rolling pretty fast! Here a few common cellulosic-based fabrics and their qualities.

Viscose is the generic name for Rayon, which is its brand name. Chemically, viscose resembles cotton, but it can also take on many different qualities depending on how it is manufactured. It is strong, absorbent, soft, comfortable to wear (especially in hot climates, since it doesn’t retain heat), inexpensive, and it drapes nicely. It’s also very versatile and can mimic a number of other fibers when it’s woven, giving a similar look and feel of cotton, linen, silk and even wool. On the downside, viscose shrinks when washed, deteriorates with exposure to light, is susceptible to mildew, and the fibers weaken when wet. If you sew something with viscose, use a warmish (not hot!) iron when pressing it, since it can also melt.

Acetate has excellent drape, feels and looks similar to silk, is comfortable to wear in all seasons, doesn’t shrink much, and resists moths and mildew. Acetate should be dry cleaned or carefully laundered because the fibers aren’t very strong, especially when wet. Acetate dyes beautifully, but the colors tend to fade with wear and cleaning. Use a warmish iron (do you like these technical terms I’m using? Warmish. Check your iron for the right setting.) when pressing acetate, since it can also melt. When blended with other fibers, acetate can give a fabric wrinkle resistance and nice drape.


acetate composition

(If you look at this and understand that it’s the chemical composition of acetate, you probably don’t need to read this post.)


Lyocell, more commonly known by its brand name Tencel, is soft and absorbent, strong, takes dyes nicely, drapes well, and is resistant to wrinkles and shrinkage. The process for manufacturing Lyocell requires very little water and produces little air pollution, which makes it more environmentally friendly than other cellulosics. The chemicals that are used to produce Tencel can also be recycled, so it really is an environmental fiber, for the most part. (Who would have thought?) It can also be given a variety of textures during the manufacturing process to make it resemble suede, leather, and even silk. I don’t see much Tencel in fabric stores, which is too bad. When I’ve sewn it I’ve really liked it, and knowing this information about it makes me more eager to use it.


tencel logo


And you may have guessed by now that bamboo is also a manufactured fiber. There has been quite a bit of controversy over this fiber because it was initially touted as an environmentally friendly natural fiber with bacteria-resistance, moisture wicking capabilities, biodegradeability, and sustainable qualities. Unfortunately, however, many of these beneficial qualities are actually lost during the chemical manufacturing process. If you would like to learn more about bamboo fibers and the controversy surrounding them, you can review this FTC Consumer Alert. The good side of bamboo is that it doesn’t require a lot of irrigation and pesticides, and it grows quickly and densely. The bad side is, most fabric made from bamboo requires a lot of chemical processing,and so far those chemicals have not been recycled. So it’s not as environmental as we might like to think it is. I hope that changes soon!


bamboo fabric

Not this kind of bamboo fabric! The kind made from bamboo, not printed with it.


Next week I’ll introduce you to the other half of the manufactured fabrics family: petroleum-based manufactured fibers and their qualities.


Labels: ,


  1. Ann

    I really like these explanations. I’m reading a vintage sewing textbook right now and they also go into a lot of detail about the make up of fibres. Except that the language is “with today’s miracle fabrics” and “advances in technology mean that for the home seamstress” — I suddenly get why I spent my 70s childhood clad in the miracle of polyester.

  2. Brenda

    I’m really enjoying these fabric friday posts,too. I’ve always disparaged rayon as being too “shifty” to be enjoyable to sew, and then there’s the shrink factor. But you made me look at it in a new light and I just might give it another go.

  3. Thank you for some great descriptions of the different types of fabric. I knew bamboo wasn’t as eco-friendly as it was billed because it had a turn in the knitting spotlight, but tencel always got me confused with Teflon frying pans and rayon was a bit of a mystery.

  4. Juliet

    Loving Fabric Fridays, very informative.

  5. Karen

    I am loving your various weekly segments. So interesting.

  6. I was lucky enough to be given a roll of Tencel/denim and I made Sailboat trousers for my tribe a few years back http://www.flickr.com/photos/motherof5/4663325882/in/set-72157625138776927 they have all been handed down and the fabric continues to wash and wear very well.
    It gives a silky feel an drape.

    I am really enjoying these posts.

  7. Really interesting info! Thanks!

  8. Carol

    Very informative site!

  9. more than anything your Fabric Friday posts make me pay more attention to the remnant bin/piles. Frequently there is no labelling, and a good number of salespeople in the NYC fabric district will nod at you and agree with whatever you are asking to make a sale!
    The more one knows….

  10. Thanks so much for the informative post. I love learning more about fabrics, especially the manufactures ones because there is so much I don’t know. Thanks again

  11. A.M.

    Thank you. Your explanations make things so simple and understandable. So informative.

Post a comment