Know Your Fabrics! A Guide to Wool, Cotton, Polyester, Viscose and Silk
February 3, 2011 in How-To
I (used to) know virtually nothing about the differences in fabrics. Perhaps that silk was silky, wool came from animals and that polyester was synthetic but the details were few and far between. Not knowing the properties of different types of fabrics can be a nightmare. It makes it hard to take those details into account when shopping online, and unless you’re the kind of person who reads and listens to labels (c’mon, they’re being over cautious… right?) laundry time can result in disaster.
I took it on myself to familiarize myself with a few of the more popular types of fabrics, so that I can make more educated choices and care better for my clothes. There are many different kinds of fabrics, especially when you start mixing and matching (‘blending’), but I’m going to look at wool, cotton, polyester, viscose and silk.
Wool actually comes from a variety of animal coats, and its the way in which the wool fibres have little curls in them (think, sheep for example) that create a ‘spongy’ feel and gives way to its characteristic cozy warmth.
Not all wools are scratchy either, the coat above is a wool blend but the materials is quite soft with a fuzzy surface. Characteristic of wool, along with the fact that it has very little shine or sheen.
Wool is a resilient fabric, it’ll return to its original condition after being stretched or creased, and is pretty resistant to dirt, and wear and tear.
It will also absorb up to 30% of its weight in moisture without feeling damp, which makes it excellent for winter wear.
Wool is generally bulky and heavy, but other varieties such as worsted wool are smoother and finer. Worsted wool is a bit more ‘shiny,’ and unlike wool-wool holds creases.
Caring for Wool
- Don’t wash wool to often! Washing wool too frequently can wear out the fabric, and shorten its life.
- Instead, in between washing wool garments brush off the dirt and don’t let it settle. I’ve also heard that you can ‘refresh’ wool by putting it in a steamy bathroom.
- When you do need to wash wool, put it on a delicate settings and don’t rub it.
- Wool should never be put in the dryer, as that is likely to result in shrinking.
Cotton is soft and comfortable. It’s best property is its ability to ‘breathe’ by absorbing and releasing perspiration quickly. It’s a high quality fabric, can withstand high heat and lasts for years.
Unfortunately cotton wrinkles, and 100% cotton garments must be ironed regularly to keep their appearance.
Cotton will shrink the first time it is washed, although some cotton clothes come pre-shrunk it is important to check this out.
Lower quality cottons are prone to pilling.
Caring for Cotton
- Cotton is relatively low maintenance and can be washed in a washing machine using warm water and soap.
- Cotton can also be dried in a dryer on a low heat, or hung to dry on a clothesline, but be careful when putting dark-coloured cottons in the dryer as this will cause the colour to fade over time.
- Iron to remove winkles, but take care not to iron over stains as this will end up ‘setting’ the stains (making them permanent).
Polyester has a bit of a bad reputation, but current polyester fabrics have a reasonably nice feel. Its best property is that it’s strong and resistant to creasing, thus polyester garments keep their shape quite well. You’ll often find polyester blended with cotton to help the cotton keep its shape and prevent it from wrinkling (this is known as a ‘permanent press’ property).
Polyester is resilient and resists biological damage, it wears quite well and is easy to wash.
100% polyester fabrics (like the top above) are actually quite soft and smooth. Almost satiny. They have a bit of give give in them.
Caring for Polyester
- Polyester is machine washable, and can be dried on low heat setting in your dryer or by hung out to air dry.
- If you are putting polyester items in the dryer, don’t leave it running too long. This can cause shrinkage.
- Polyester usually doesn’t require ironing, but you can use an iron on a warm setting if need be. Don’t use a hot setting as polyester can scorch.
I’ve done a bit of research, and I still can’t say what the difference between viscose and rayon. Some say that rayon and viscose is the same thing, just different terminology, others say that viscose is a type of rayon. For our purposes, we’ll look at them together. Viscose has a silky appearance and feel, it breathes like cotton and has a good ‘drape.’ It’s relatively light, resulting in lightweight clothing.
Its main drawback is that it wrinkles very easily, which is why I’m always finding my viscose t-shirts crumbled and crinkly.
Caring for Viscose Rayon
- Viscose requires delicate hand in cool – luke warm water with washing for proper care, with no wringing or twisting (apparently this can cause the fabric to rip).
- If its a relatively unimportant item (t-shirts, for example) you may be able to get away with putting it in a wash back for a machine wash on a delicate setting… but tread with caution!
- Hang wet items and let them dry that way, this will also help to remove any creasing.
- To remove wrinkles, iron using a medium setting with steam.
Silk is made from the fibres of the cocoon of the Chinese silkworm. It is spun into a smooth, shiny and sleek fabric. Silk absorbs moisture, which makes it cool in the summer and warm in the winter – and its this high level of absorbency that means it can be dyed many different colors.
It feels quite luxurious! Silk retains its shape, drapes well and caresses the figure.
Caring for Silk
- Silk care will depend on the type of silk, so here I do recommend checking the label. Sometimes you will need to take silk to be dry cleaned.
- Unless the label clearly states that the item is machine washable, was by hand. Use gold water, and massage soap through the garment, gently! Rinse our the soap with cold water.
- To dry, never ring out/twist silk as this could damage it. Instead, lay it out on a dry towel, and then use another towel to soak up the excess water. Hang the garment up once you’ve removed the heaviest of the water, and let it dry out on the hanger. Padded hangers are recommended – wire ones will leave an impression and are generally just not good, and wooden hangers can stain the fabric.
- Don’t hang sin the sun, as it will eventually yellow/fade.
- Use a low setting on an iron to remove any persistent wrinkles – but most will cease on their own.