Clothing is as essential as eating for human beings, so if you have at least a tiny bit of knowledge about nutrition to keep you aesthetic and healthy, knowing what is clothing made of will have an equal impact on your looks and your financial health.
It is essential that you have at least a broad idea of clothing materials since depending on which one was used to fabricate a particular piece, the characteristics of this will vary.
Some materials are more resistant 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 essential for you, especially if you wish to buy clothing online and the only reference you have is the fabrication materials.
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!
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, so it’s best to break some of them down.
Before doing that, 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 clothing materials, 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.
This is what you can generally expect from synthetic materials. 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 saying is one of the greatest inventions of the XX century. This is nos surprise since it excels at 3 factors that companies 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.
Maintenance of polyester pieces is also 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 made purely with it) 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 love polyester, you can thank DuPont for discovering Polyester in of their labs in the 1930s 🙂
Also during that time and by the same company, nylon was discovered. Just like polyester, nylon is resistant, strong (even stronger than polyester), durable, and water-resistant, however, nylon possesses better flexibility, dries quicker, and is softer and 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, 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.
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 exposed to long periods of sunlight.
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, also, it retains some of the properties presented in them while gaining others of synthetics. You can see rayon fibres in the following picture.
Rayon-made clothing pieces cool, soft, breathable compared to other synthetics, and comfortable. They are highly absorbent, easy to dye, and drapes well.
On the other hand, rayon ages poorly; over time rayon tends to lose its softness, shape, and colour. The lifetime of rayon-made clothing can be extended with proper maintenance. Dry cleaning (also dry air) is advisable, however, 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 clothing. 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 clothing 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 it by the picture below). Join with this, 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, making it 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 which we have sunlight damage and wear off due to water retention.
Because of this, 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 one when it comes to natural materials. 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.
On the other hand, it is very expensive as the growing of the cotton plant requires needs a lot of water and land to grow, it may shrink after washing, and also fade over time.
Lately, cotton has lost some traction mainly for environmental reasons. People are looking for more sustainable alternatives.
One of the materials people are turning to is linen, which is more expensive than cotton, but is expected to decrease in price as people shift from cotton to 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 that washing 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 particular piece.
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, mainly sheep. From this, you can see why wool is one of the warmest, easy to dye, and reusable materials out there.
The sensation wool causes on your skin is a hit or miss, with people either loving it or hating it. Also, keep in mind that it is one of the materials that shrink the most when washing, to minimize this, avoid dryers at all costs.
Many people don’t know this but wool is both machine and iron friendly, however, 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 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 is worth mentioning right now.
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, so thank god for the internet 🙂 A quick google search of the fabric will help you know when it was developed.
Also very important is that vintage clothes tend to be made purely made out of one material (100% cotton for example) contrasting with retro apparel in which is very common to find fabric blends (for example 70% polyester – 30% cotton).
We will be talking about more of these traits, so 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. Still, we aim to cover more of them in the future.
Also, remember that these are clothing material and not fabrics. Specific fabrics derive from these, 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.
That is all for now and we hope you have a great day.
Thanks for reading!