Know Your Fabrics

In the battle against stains, it pays to not only know your enemies but also the territory you’ll be fighting in – ie. you need to know your fabrics. Roughly speaking, fabrics can be divided into 2 main categories: natural and synthetic, with a range of different fabric types within each group. It is important to have a general idea of the basic properties of the fabric types in each group, so that when you are tackling stains, you do not inadvertently damage, shrink or discolour the fabric.

Natural Fabrics:

These are made from plant and animal material, naturally occurring on earth.

  • Cotton – the most common and popular natural fabric, cotton is comfortable and easy to care for. It is made from the fibres in the cotton plant’s seed pod, which are hollow in the centre, thus giving cotton its “absorbent” properties and allowing cotton garments to “breathe”. Pure 100% cotton fabrics can withstand very hot washes (even boiling!) and can also be ironed at high temperatures. It is one of the few fabrics that can cope with chlorine bleach, although chemically finished cottons may yellow after bleach treatment and any dyed cottons will still fade. Note also – nowadays, cotton is often blended with other fibres to combine the best properties of both; for example, polyester is often added to cotton to help prevent wrinkling. However, these added fibres can reduce cotton’s ability to withstand vigorous laundry practices. Thus, always check a “cotton” garment to make sure whether it is 100% cotton or contains another fibre you need to be aware of.
  • Linen – looks very similar to cotton, although it has 2-3 times the strength of cotton. Similar to cotton, it is cool and comfortable to wear, and can withstand high temperatures in washing and ironing and takes dyes easily. It also has a natural sheen and lustre, due to the wax content of the flax fibres it is made from, and becomes softer and finer the more it is washed. The one drawback of linen is that it wrinkles extremely easily and has poor elasticity, thus making it more of a luxury fabric than an everyday staple.
  • Wool – a winter favourite, wool predominately comes from sheep, although you can get speciality wools, such as mohair, angora and cashmere. The warmth of wool comes from the little “pockets” within the curly wool fibres which traps air and thus provides insulation. It also has unique properties, such as returning to its original shape even after it has been stretched or creased and being able to absorb up to 30% of its own weight in moisture and not even feel damp. In addition, wool is also flame resistant and dirt-resistant. These properties mean that wool is the preferred fabric for use in fine tailoring. Unfortunately, wool also shrinks very easily (and permanently!) when washed in high temperatures.
  • Silk – one of the most luxurious of fabrics, silk is made from the cocoon of the silkworm and is thus a natural protein fibre, like human hair. It is one of the oldest textile fibres in the history of mankind and has been so highly valued, it has sold for its weight in gold. Silk is prized because it is the strongest natural fibre, is extremely versatile and comfortable to wear, and has a very high absorbency, making it cool in summer and warm in winter. It is also beautiful to look at, shimmering with a natural lustre. Contrary to popular belief, silk does not have to be dry-cleaned – it can be carefully handwashed, as technically it does not shrink (although a light, loose weave may “tighten up” after washing, leading to the illusion of shrinkage). However, it is a very delicate fabric and the wrong cleaning agent or rough treatment during laundering can damage it so if you are unsure, then it is best to leave it to the professionals. Remember, silk must never be wrung dry nor put in a dryer, and avoid high temperatures on the iron as this can cause silk to yellow. Silk fibres are also weakened by sunlight and perspiration.

Synthetic Fabrics:

Synthetic fabrics are man-made, through processes created by scientists where chemical liquids are extruded and formed into filaments, which then make up fibres that are woven into a fabric.

  • Polyester – despite its bad reputation, polyester is actually a very versatile and important synthetic fabric, in particular in creating blends with other fibres (eg. cotton) which extend the wear of garments. It is very strong, crease-resistant, colourfast and retains its shape after stretching, although it will melt easily at medium to high temperatures. It can be safely machine-washed and treated with chlorine bleach, although do not use hot water and only tumble dry and iron on a low setting. Polyester can yellow with age and it also attracts oil stains, as it is non-absorbent
  • Nylon – another fabric with bad press, nylon was originally hailed a miracle invention in the 1940’s, particularly when it enabled the creation of hosiery. It is one of the most versatile man-made fibres, being incredibly strong and yet weighing less than other commonly used fibres. It is very elastic and resilient and its smooth surface means that dirt doesn’t cling nor is it easily weakened by chemicals and perspiration. Furthermore, nylon fibres are non-absorbent and dry quickly. However, the one thing it is afraid of is high temperatures and nylon will melt easily – always use the lowest setting and iron on the reverse side. Nylon items can be machine-washed, although too much washing and drying can cause piling to occur and nylon whites can grey, if not washed separately.
  • Acrylic – often mistaken for wool nowadays, this is a fine, soft, “fluffly” fabric which has similar properties to wool but is non-allergenic and is washable. It also dries quickly, wicking moisture away from the body. However, it is very vulnerable to heat and of course, does not offer the same warmth as wool.
  • Acetate – another fabric that resembles a natural one, this time silk, acetate however is not strong like silk, although it is resistant to shrinking and wrinkling and provides the same pliability and soft drape. Taffeta, satin, crepe and brocade often contain acetate. Be very careful of nail polish removers and alcohol (eg. in perfumes) as these will melt acetate fibres.
  • Rayon – this is made from the same natural source as cotton: cellulose, but through a synthetic process. It is very absorbent and strong and often resembles natural fabrics. Like cotton, it wrinkles easily and it can also stretch when wet and shrink when washed. At high temperatures, it burns rather than melts. It comes in washable forms which will provide laundry instructions on the care label.
  • Spandex and Latex – these are elastic fibres, used in underwear and hosiery. Although they can be stretched to many times their lengths without distorting their original shape, they can deteriorate with repeated washing and drying, losing their elasticity.

Whatever the fabric, all modern garments usually come with a care label and it always pays to check this first for specific laundry instructions, even if you are familiar with the type of fabric.

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