Clothing is as essential as eating for human beings. Just like with nutrition and grooming, having at least a tiny bit of knowledge about what is clothing made of will have an amazing impact on your looks and your financial health.
Depending on which materials were used to fabricate a particular piece, the characteristics of this will vary.
Some materials are more resistant and/or durable than others, some are softer, stretchy, or more comfortable than others, and some can be ironed or machine washed. Knowing the pros and cons of each material will be crucial for you, especially when buying apaprel online.
With the knowledge provided here you will have a much richer experience in our reviews, so without further ado, let’s dig into the most common clothing materials!
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Broadly speaking, clothing materials are either organic or synthetic. Both are widely popular, but synthetics encompass some of the most popular fabrics you will encounter out there. It’s best if we break some of them down.
Also, it is important to note the traits that all these materials have in common. Synthetic materials tend to be light, resistant, either absorbent or waterproof, flexible, easy to maintain, and most of all inexpensive. Sounds pretty good right? Well, human beings have become very good at fabricating their clothes, so this should not come as a surprise.
On the other hand, all these perks come at a cost, as you have to sacrifice other qualities in the process. Compared to natural materials, synthetics are harsh (meaning not as soft), less breathable, (occasionally) smelly, sticky at contact with sweat, and way less environmental-friendly.
Still, each and one of them has different characteristics that we now present to you. We focus only on the most popular ones; those that you will most likely encounter while shopping.
The most popular fabric for clothing is polyester, some even say it is one of the greatest inventions of the XX century. This is no surprise since it excels at 3 factors that the general public can’t ignore. It is durable, resistant, and above all, it is cheap.
Polyester is a series of plastics, the most popular being polyethylene terephthalate (PET). The synthesis and production can get quite complicated so we will skip it for now, still, you can learn more about the process here.
The fabric itself feels a little bit slippery and has a natural bright colour.
In terms of clothing, polyester made pieces tend to retain their shape even after stretching or crushing. Colour does not fade with time, and they are resistant to both tearing and water stains.
Also, maintenance of polyester pieces is easy; the fabric resists machine washing and drying as well as ironing, usually with warm water and low heat respectively.
An important note for the ladies: Polyester pieces (especially those 100% Polyester) can build quite a lot of static. Pay attention to what you touch and the people around you.
Polyester accounts for approximately 58% of worldwide synthetic production.
If you are a passionate lover of polyester, you can thank DuPont for discovering Polyester in of their labs during the 1930s 🙂
Also during that time (and by the same company too), nylon was discovered. Just like polyester, nylon is resistant, and is even stronger than the former. It is also durable and water-resistant, and it possess better flexibility, dries quicker, and is softer and more lustrous.
Nylon is also characterized by being abrasion-resistant, lightweight, and by its heat retention properties.
It is of higher quality than polyester (see picture below), but as you can imagine, it costs more. Still, it is considered an inexpensive material.
Nylon-made clothing is smooth and soft, it retains its shape and colour over time, and it is easy to maintain/wash. Nylon pieces are machine washable (on cool settings), tumble dry on low and ironed also on low. Steaming is not recommended.
But not everything is perfect; just like any other material, nylon has its weak points. After extended periods of continuous machine washing, nylon tends to pill (fuzzballs are formed), moreover, nylon is damaged if its exposed to sunlight for long periods of time.
Nylon accounts for approximately 11% of synthetic production.
If you wish to know more about nylon’s fabrication process, take a look at this brief scientific explanation of it.
Rayon, also known as Viscose, is considered by some people as a semi-synthetic material as it is obtained directly out of wool and produced after treating it with chemicals.
A detailed explanation of its production can be read here.
Production of rayon is less expensive than that of natural materials, and it retains some of the properties these had while gaining others of synthetics. You can see rayon fibres in the following picture.
Rayon-made clothing pieces are cool, soft, and breathable compared to other synthetics. They are also highly absorbent, easy to dye, and drape well.
On the other hand, rayon ages poorly; over time rayon tends to lose its softness, shape, and colour. The good news is that the lifetime of rayon-made clothing can be extended with proper maintenance. Dry cleaning (also dry air) is advisable but cold water hand-washing works too. Iron only when is absolutely necessary.
Having talked about synthetic materials, we now shift focus to the original fibers humans used to manufacture their clothes. The materials presented here are obtained directly from natural sources on Earth, that is, plants or animals, and are the most widely used for clothing manufacturing.
Clothing fabricated using these materials are more expensive than synthetics and tend to have a more luxurious look to them. Also, people agree that these are softer, more comfortable, but also more delicate and require more attention to their maintenance.
It is easy to note that lots of clothes out there are made with one of the following fibers.
Silk has animal origins. It comes from the cocoon of silkworms and it is one of the first fibers to have been used by humans.
It continues to be widely popular today mainly because of the extremely pleasant feel it has and how comfortable it is (you can probably tell by the picture below). Moreover, silk is one of the strongest natural fibers out there and a very versatile one. It is used to manufacture both cold and warm environment pieces.
Of course, all of this quality comes at a price. Silk is one of the most expensive materials out there.
The main downside to it is its delicacy. It is prone to tearing and damaging from lots of sources, among these we have sunlight damage and wear off due to water retention.
Because of this, try to stick to dry cleaning or hand wash only with special products and if the piece allows it. Avoid the tumble dry at all costs!
As a side note, nylon is commonly referred to as “synthetic silk” as they possess similar characteristics.
Just like polyester is the synthetic material by excellence, cotton is the natural material by excellence. It is a natural fiber obtained from the cotton plant.
So many clothes today are cotton-made (including denim) that just listing the different types of cotton fabrics would be an arduous task.
Cotton clothing is characterized by its softness, breathability, durability, moisture absorption, and how versatile they are.
Also, cotton pieces are super easy to wash. They are machine and detergent friendly, with caring instructions such as water temperature varying according to each fabric and colour. Cotton pieces can be tumble dried and ironed too.
It may shrink after washing, and also fade over time.
On the other hand, it is a very expensive material as the growing of the cotton plant requires needs a lot of water and land to grow.
Lately, cotton has lost some traction mainly for environmental reasons. People are looking for more sustainable alternatives.
One of the materials people are catching eye of is linen. It is even more expensive than cotton, but it is expected to decrease in price as people shift towards it.
Linen comes from Flax, a flowering plant easier to grow and sustain than cotton. Among natural fibers, linen excels at absorption properties, breeziness, durability, strength, easy to dye, and has the unique trait by which washing it makes it smoother and softer – not something that many materials can presume.
Linen texture is unique and you can picture it with the image below.
In terms of washing, linen clothes don’t follow a general rule, so follow the instructions of the piece at hand.
Still, a good chunk of them are machine and dryer friendly and recommended to wash at warm temperatures, especially if you don’t want them to shrink (expect a little bit of shrinking after the first wash though). You also won’t have to worry about pilling with linen.
Wool is a natural fiber extracted from animal fur like sheep. From this, you can see why wool is one of the warmest, easiest to dye, and reusable materials out there.
The sensation wool causes on your skin is a hit or miss. People either love it or hate it. Also, keep in mind that it is one of the materials that shrinks the most when washing, so to minimize this, avoid dryers at all costs.
Many people don’t know this, but wool is both machine and iron friendly. Still, it requires special treatment. You can find a detailed description of how to clean your wool apparel here.
Can materials help identify vintage clothing?
There are numerous ways you can know if a clothing piece is truly vintage or retro. We will cover all of these in a separate article, however, one of these concerns clothing materials and its worth mentioning.
Most of the materials presented here have been around for almost a century, so there is no such thing as a vintage preferred material. Fabrics, on the other hand, are much more specific. If you come across a piece with common materials but with an exotic and high-quality fabric, it is most likely a very recent piece.
There are hundreds of different fabrics. Don’t worry, in today’s age, a quick google search of the fabric will help you know when it was developed.
Also very important is the fact that vintage clothes tend to be made purely out of one material (100% cotton for example). In contrast, retro apparel usually comes with fabric blends (for example 70% polyester – 30% cotton).
We will go in depth in this topic in the future. Stay tuned for our guide on how to identify vintage clothing coming very soon!
A final note on clothing materials and fabrics
We end our exposition by reminding you that there are way more materials out there. We only chose to cover the most popular ones on this guide, but we aim to cover more of them in the future.
Also, remember that these are clothing materials and not fabrics. Specific fabrics derive from these, with each of them having its own unique characteristics. What do you think… do you want us to cover fabrics at some point in the future? Let us know in the comments below.
We hope you have a great day and we will see you around 🙂
Thanks for reading!