Fabrics and Fibers

Fibers naturally occur in both plants and animals.  More than half of the fibers produced are natural fibers and include cotton, hair, fur, silk, and wool.  Other fibers are manufactured.  There are two types of manufactured fibers:  regenerated fibers and synthetic fibers.  Regenerated fibers are made from natural materials by processing these materials to form a fiber structure.  Also called cellulosics, regenerated fibers are derived from the cellulose in cotton and wood pulp.  Rayon and acetate are two common regenerated fibers, although the Federal Trade Commission classifies them as synthetic.


Man-Made Fibers are synthetics, such as nylon, polyester, polypropylene (Olefin) and acrylic.  Synthetic fibers are made entirely from chemicals.  Synthetic fibers are usually stronger than either natural or regenerated fibers.  Synthetic fibers are so strong that occasionally a problem known as “pilling” occurs.  This is simply the fiber twisting into knots instead of wearing off, as in natural fibers (Olefin).  A good way to remove pilling from upholstery is to shave the fabric with a shaver or shear.

Natural Fibers

Natural Fibers come from cellulosic or vegetable fibers in plants and the protein fibers in animals (such as sheep or lamb).  The more absorbent fibers are the natural fibers which require more drying time than your synthetic fibers. Some examples are cotton, flax, jute, silk, and wool.  Wool is used more than any other natural fiber.  Each type of fiber has certain traits, which can make it more or less desirable than others.

Those fibers which are produced by insects or animals are referred to as protein fibers.  There are also mineral fibers such as asbestos and more importantly fiberglass, which are used when stability and flame resistance are important.


Cotton fibers from on the seed of a plant and then the raw cotton fiber is separated from most of the sticks, twigs, and seeds.  The initial separation process, or ginning, may take place before the cotton is baled and sent to the mill, where more of the impurities would be removed and then several bales would be blended together to provide uniformity in the finished yarn.

Cotton is popular as an upholstery fiber due to its versatility.  It can be processed to take on many different looks from the somewhat processed cotton, which is Haitian cotton and some “canvas”, to very refined, polished cotton which has a glazed finish look to it.  When polished cotton is exposed to oily soils and abrasive wear it may lose its glazed finish in the armrest and heavy-use areas over time.


Linen is a multi-cellular vegetable fiber that is extracted from the stem of the flax plant.  The plant bears a five-petal flower of varying colours.  As flax must be raised in swampy, mild, moist lowlands, the number of countries capable of giving rise to a crop is limited.  The most valued variety of flax is raised in Belgium although fine flax is also raised in France, Holland, West Germany and Russia.  The flax plant also produces linseed oil, which is extracted from its seeds and is used in cosmetics and varnishes.


Wool is a fiber made from the fleece or hair of various animals such as sheep, angora goats, camels, llamas and alpacas.  Angora rabbit is also used for fabric but is not classified technically as wool for labeling.  Wool is composed of protein in the form of a substance called keratin.  Wool has been valued for centuries because of its unique characteristics that set it apart from other fibers.  It resists soiling, is flame resistant and resists the build-up of static electricity.  Wool was one of the first fibers to be made into a textile and is known to have existed in Babylonia as early as 4000 B.C.  After the animal is sheared, wool is graded and sorted into quality groups.  It is washed to remove impurities, lanolin or grease.  Wool is blended for consistency and dyed in a number of ways.

Real Silk

Real silk is produced as the cocoon covering of the silkworm, the pupal form of the Asian or mulberry silk moth, bombyx mori. The cocoon is spun by the silk moth caterpillar of a single silk fiber that can be up to several thousand feet in length. To harvest the silk, completed cocoons are boiled or heated to kill the silkworms, then laboriously unwound into single fibers which are plied together and spun into thread or silk yarn.

Silk is extremely high in tensile strength, exceeding that of nylon. It has been estimated that if a single silk fiber with the diameter of a pencil could be produced, the fiber could lift a 747 aircraft (who figures these things out, anyway?). Silk is used to make oriental rugs because dyed silk is a fiber with rich, saturated colors, and a distinctive, almost translucent luster.


Like cotton, rayon is made of almost pure celulose, but rather than being grown, rayon is produced by first dissolving cellulose (obtained from cotton or woodpulp) to produce a thick yellow liquid called viscose. The viscose is extruded through tiny holes into a chemical bath that produces long filaments which can be spun into thread and yarn. Viscouse rayon was the first man-made fiber. In 1920, DuPont bought from the French the technology for making viscose rayon. DuPont first called the material “artificial silk”, and formed a company (The DuPont Fibersilk Company) to manufacture it.

Rayon is known for its natural high shine, but is the weakest fiber when wet.  Pre-testing rayon is necessary as many fabrics are not dye stable.  Rayon, linen and cotton require a longer drying time because of their high absorbency rate.


 Acetate was first produced from the fluff that adheres to the cottonseed.  Today acetate is manufactured using cellulose from woods such as spruce and pine.   Most often acetate is used as a blended fiber.  Acetate will dissolve in acetone nail polish removers.  Acetate is not very absorbent and dries quickly.


 The raw materials for creating nylon are obtained from four basic elements obtained from petroleum or natural gas (carbon and hydrogen), the air (nitrogen and oxygen), and water (hydrogen and oxygen).  Nylon is one of the strongest materials available and is often blended with other fibers.  It is very wet-cleanable and with high temperatures.  Nylon is most often acid dyed and it releases soils readily during cleaning.


 Polyester fibers are produced from fiber forming material made from elements derived from coal, air, water and petroleum.  They are melt-spun to form filaments.  Polyester fibers are strong and crease resistant.  They retain their shape and resist mildew.  Polyester fabrics are easily cleaned and dry quickly because they absorb little moisture during cleaning.  Polyester is susceptible to staining from body oils.

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