We all use it. We all love it, even when we don’t really understand it. Fabric is a vital part of our lives. From clothing to couches, mattresses to pillows, fabrics are everywhere around us, but we seldom give them a second thought. Beckenstien Fabrics is on a mission to change that with our definitive guide to designer decorative fabrics. But before we can dive into the fabric that makes up upholstery, decorative pillows, and drapery, we need to understand what fabric is.
Cloth, material, textiles… no matter what you call it, it’s all the same thing. Fabric production began with early man as they wove flax fibers into simple cloths and dyed them with plants. Over time, sheep’s wool, tanned leather skins, pelts, and spun cotton were used to create clothing, shoes, bedding, shelters, and furniture. With the introduction of synthetic fibers in the 1930’s, fabric began to take on different textures, shapes, elasticity, and colors. Today, there is a fabric for every purpose from staying warm in winter to blocking UV rays out of windows.
Types of Fabric
As a whole, fabric can be divided into three broad categories – natural, synthetic or blends.
Natural fabrics are made from plant or animal sources. The most common natural fabrics are cotton, wool, silk, and linen. A favorite choice of the environmentally conscious, natural fabrics do not require petroleum products for their manufacturing processes.
- Cotton is made from the cotton plant. Once one of the primary crops grown in the South, much of today’s cotton is still grown in warm states in the US along with China and India. Cotton is known for its durability, comfort and ability to control moisture and is popular in clothing. Cotton can be washed with water and mild soap.
- Silk is made by a process called sericulture. Silk worm cocoons are dissolved in boiling water so the fibers can be extracted into long threads and woven into fabric. Since silk takes dye very well, silk fabrics have a tendency to be brightly colored. However, they are not known for their durability. It is best to have your silk goods cleaned by professionals.
- Linen is fabric made from fibers of the flax plant. Among some of the earliest fabrics known to man, linen continues to be a favorite material for clothing, drapery, upholstery, and other applications. Linen is very strong, dries quickly and is known for its slightly irregular color and texture. It can be cleaned using warm water and mild soap and hung to dry.
- Wool is the textile obtained from sheep, goats, rabbits, and even cattle. Wool grows from follicles the same way hair does, but it is more elastic with a higher protein content. Animals are sheered then the wool is separated into categories then washed to rid it of the animal sweat, vegetable residue, and lanolin from the animal’s skin. From there it can be spun into cloth. Wool fabric is extremely durable, water repellant and warm. However, depending on the type of wool, it can also be scratchy and uncomfortable unless it is combined with another fabric. Wool furniture can be spot cleaned with warm water or solvent, depending on the type of wool.
With the introduction of nylon in the 1930’s, synthetic fabrics began to take over clothing, upholstery, draperies, bedding, and other residential and commercial fabric applications. Inexpensive to manufacture, synthetic fabrics are an affordable alternative to natural fabrics that typically are more labor intensive to produce. There are hundreds of types of synthetic fabrics, many known by a brand name like Gore-tex or Kevlar, but the three most common types of synthetic fabrics are nylon, polyester, spandex, and rayon.
- Nylon is a thermoplastic polymer material that can be processed into elastic strands or sheets. In other words, it’s stretchy and plastic-like. Famously used for women’s stockings, nylon is wrinkle resistant and retains its shape well. It can be easily washed by hand in warm water with a mild detergent.
- Polyester is a type of polymer material that can be made into a variety of materials – not just fabrics. Strong and naturally stain resistant, polyester is often used in clothing, upholstery, cushions, tire treads, and seatbelts. It also stands up to washing in warm water with a mild detergent.
- Spandex is a synthetic fabric known for its elasticity. Also known as Lycra, Spandex is what makes athletic clothing, swimsuits, gloves, compression suits, and wetsuits stretchy. While it washes well, exposure to high heat drying often causes spandex to lose its elasticity.
- Rayon is made from purified wood pulp and is designed to mimic the look and feel of cotton, silk, wool or linen. Even though the majority of its composition is natural, it is considered a semi-synthetic material because it must be manufactured, not just spun or processed. Since it is made of cellulose, it may lose its shape or shrink if it is exposed to warm temperatures, especially when washing. Most rayon garments need to be hand washed in cold water and mild detergent or professionally cleaned.
Every type of fabric has its strengths and limitations. That is why many manufacturers have combined two fabric types to create a blend that offers the best of both worlds. Some of the more common combinations are:
- Cotton + Polyester – Look and feel of cotton with wrinkle resistance of polyester.
- Linen + Silk – Linen creases easily while silk retains its fluid shape. This combination tends to drape well.
- Wool + Polyester – Offers the warmth and water resistance of wool with a silkier feeling on the skin.
How to Determine Fabric Type
Most fabrics purchased by the yard or by the bolt come with a label that tells you precisely what type of fabric you are buying along with care instructions. If you are unsure, ask your fabric expert like those at Beckenstein Fabrics to help you determine the type of fabric you are looking for along with how to care for it. As you become more familiar with fabric, you will begin to tell what it is made from by the look and feel.
By now you’re an expert in types of fabric. Of course, the experts at Beckenstein Fabrics are standing by to answer all of your general and upholstery fabric questions.