Fiber and weave: or “why I yell at people in the fabric store…”

What’s the difference between fiber and weave?

I might sound a bit soap box-y, but bear with me. Once you understand these concepts you too will want to yell at the ignorant the next time they say “silk” when they actually mean “satin”.

Fabric has two components: fiber which is the base natural or man-made component, and how the fiber is assembled which is called weave. To put it in other terms: you can take steel and make a knife out of it, or a car, or a ring, or a washing machine; but they are all steel, this is like fiber. Likewise you can make a knife out of steel, silver, plastic or ceramic, but they are all knives; this is like weave.

What is fiber?
Fiber is what the fine threads that make up cloth are made from. Fibers can
be natural, man-made, or blended.

NATURAL FIBERS This is the stuff mankind has being picking or trimming and spinning into thread and yarn since he first decided he was tired of wearing smelly animal hides. They fall into two sub categories of plant and animal.
Wool (no matter if it comes from a sheep, a goat, a buffalo, a cow or a camel, it’s all called wool)
Hair (again, doesn’t differentiate what critter or your family member it came from, hair is hair)

MAN MADE FIBERS These are created in laboratory type settings from various elements and compounds found on planet earth like petroleum, carbon, and even some metals. They are, as a very broad category, essentially plastics. Because these are man-made, they are all proper names, mostly copyrighted, and highly guarded secret formulas. There are a lot more than I listed, mostly just the same thing under multiple names.

I’ve heard rumors of other grass based fibers
Off Topic: bamboo fiber comes from the plant, but not at all processed in the way other natural fibers are. It’s goes through chemical baths and is spun like man-made fibers. So you see why I hesitate to call it natural, all the natural fibers listed have been in use by humans since pre-history. Bamboo fibers require modern machinery and chemicals.

BLENDED FIBERS These are done to get the best of both worlds. The blend is created at the spinning phase, winding a fine thread of A with a fine thread of B. Polyester-cotton doesn’t wrinkle quite as easily as 100% cotton. Wool with silk blended in is softer without losing the strength of the wool. Wool with nylon blended in is longer wearing for tough use garments like winter socks. There are as many combinations of natural and man-made fibers as your favorite mathematician would like to calculate for you.

What is weave?

Weave is how the fibers are assembled to create the fabric. While it’s always referred to as ‘weave’ there are actually three categories of this: wovens, knits, and felted.

WOVENS are exactly what you think of when someone says ‘fabric’. These are created on a loom by passing fine threads over and under other fine threads until a fabric is made. Wovens are not inherently stretchy, which makes most of them nice and strong. The size of the threads and the pattern of passing over and under result in that dizzying array of fabric type names. Denim, twill, trigger, duck, broadcloth, lawn, organza, satin, brocade, yadda yadda yadda. To be more confusing velvet and it’s kin are are cut wovens, meaning the fiber is woven with big loops extending off one side then these loops are cut to create that luxurious fuzzy surface.

KNITS are everywhere, you are probably wearing some right now! Knits are a single thread or yarn looped through itself either back and forth in rows creating flat fabric or around in circles creating tubes. Own any tee shirts with no side seams? It’s knitted! Actually all of your tee shirts are knitted, just not all in the round. Knitting is naturally stretchy. This is why socks and hose were knitted long before the discovery that rubber could be made into elastic. If you own a stretchy garment, it’s most likely knitted. Swimsuit and leotard fabrics like Lycra and Spandex are knitted as well. Knitting has a famous flaw in that if the thread/yarn is cut, the loose end being pulled can completely unmake the garment.

FELTS are possibly the oldest fabric making known to man. I’m not a textile historian but some of the oldest examples of human clothing involve felted wools. These were probably discovered after some cold guy stuffed his leather stocking shoe with wool in the winter and walked around a lot, the pressure and heat resulting in a tightly compacted (and probably really stinky) piece of felt that could be cut and used like the animal hides he wore. Natural fiber felts are still used in crafting and quite a bit in shoe making. Man-made fiber felts are used in all kinds of crafting and industrial uses (like sound dampening liners in your car doors). Fleece is a modern process of felting man-made fibers by heating the core of the layer to a melting point. Felting is a lot of fun, it’s simple enough for children to do, and you can create colors, patterns and even pictures while doing it.
Okay, back to that silk /satin thing…

Silk can be made into plain weave, twill, satin, knit, etc. because it’s a fiber.
Satin can be made from cotton, polyester, silk, blended fibers etc. because it’s a weave.
Not every fiber can be made into every weave, but most are tremendously versatile. So silk satin does exist, and it’s amazing stuff, and also very expensive. Wool velvet is as warm and fuzzy at it sounds. I’ve knitted with wool-nylon-acrylic blended yarn and it was lovely.

Why do I want a specific fiber for a specific project?

This comes down to wearability. Natural fibers breathe better, man-made ones generally don’t. Natural fibers are easier to dye for the novice colorist, and natural dyes like purple cabbage and coffee are very effective on the plant based natural fibers. If you are making a winter coat, wools ability to retain your body heat even when soaking wet, is always a good choice. Some man-made fibers have some huge benefits as well, Kevlar becoming famous for its impact resistance. Production of polyester costs a fraction of what linen costs to produce.

So, how do you decide what you want to work with?
Well that’s my favorite part! I wander the aisles of the fabric store touching everything. When I land on something that interests me or seems suitable for the project at hand, I pull the bolt off the rack and read the label. But that’s a different post.


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