Know Your Fabrics! A Guide to Wool, Cotton, Polyester, Viscose and Silk

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.

Viscose/Rayon

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.

39 Comments

  1. OPI Black Shatter is a cream black. Not shimmery or glittery or anything :)
    Katie recently posted..Griege

  2. What an incredibly helpful guide! Such great information and research. It’s so important to know what you’re wearing and where it comes from. Thanks for sharing!

    http://pancakeSTACKER.blogspot.com
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  3. Okay now I feel a little bit brighter when it comes to fabric care. I have so many things I usually take to get drycleaned that I could hand wash.. Thinking I might save a bit more money now… hehe.
    jamie-lee recently posted..one hundred &amp eighteen

  4. I love this post! Useful information and it’s great knowing the different types of fabrics out there!

  5. Originally Posted By jamie-lee 
    Okay now I feel a little bit brighter when it comes to fabric care. I have so many things I usually take to get drycleaned that I could hand wash.. Thinking I might save a bit more money now… hehe.
    jamie-lee recently posted..one hundred &amp eighteenMy ComLuv Profile

    I’m the other way around.. I think I can get away with anything in the wash. Since ruining one of my favourite dresses I decided it’s time to learn more. ):

  6. this is a wealth of info! I’m saving it so I know how to take care of things…I”m not good at that!
    Krystal/Village recently posted..BrideBlu!

  7. Great post! I’ll definitely save this information!

    fashionatemybrains.blogspot.com

  8. Wow! This is such a fabulous, informative post, Joanne. You should really try and have it published in a magazine – it could really help people out!! :)
    Cafe Fashionista recently posted..Tightwad Tuesday- Herve Leger Double Strap Bandage Dress for Less

  9. I am going to bookmark this page, you have no idea how much this is going to help me in the future!!
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  10. Love this post! It’s so useful to know about fabrics and how to care for them! I am defintiely holding onto this post for future reference.
    Sherin recently posted..IMATS 2011

  11. Hi, lovely blog! I was looking around the web to see if I could get away with not drycleaning a new pair of viscose/polyester pants (I think I can). Re: confusion over the terms viscose and rayon, I found this website http://www.swicofil.com/products/200viscose.html which is pretty useful, and includes this: “By using two different chemicals and manufacturing techniques, two basic types of rayon were developed – viscose rayon and cuprammonium. … viscose is the most common and recognized process for making rayon today…. While the United States government considers fibers from all the processes to be rayon, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) prefers the name ‘viscose’ for rayon (regenerated cellulose) obtained by the viscose process. The name viscose was derived from the word viscous, which describes the liquid state of the spinning solution.”

  12. Great post!! This is an extremely helpful guide!
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  13. Pingback: How to Care for Wool, Cotton, Polyester, Viscose and Silk Fabrics … | Wholesale Fabric Buying Guide

  14. This is great, really useful advice! Thanks for sharing.
    Blah Blah Becky recently posted..Topshop SS11 lookbook &amp video

  15. Originally Posted By Celia 
    Hi, lovely blog! I was looking around the web to see if I could get away with not drycleaning a new pair of viscose/polyester pants (I think I can). Re: confusion over the terms viscose and rayon, I found this website http://www.swicofil.com/products/200viscose.html which is pretty useful, and includes this: “By using two different chemicals and manufacturing techniques, two basic types of rayon were developed – viscose rayon and cuprammonium. … viscose is the most common and recognized process for making rayon today…. While the United States government considers fibers from all the processes to be rayon, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) prefers the name ‘viscose’ for rayon (regenerated cellulose) obtained by the viscose process. The name viscose was derived from the word viscous, which describes the liquid state of the spinning solution.”

    Thank you Celia, it is a tricky one!

  16. Joanne, this is such a great post! I’m often surprised at how either I or someone else don’t know enough about fabrics and taking care of them when we’re in contact with fabrics almost all the time.

    I also shared the post on my Facebook page (http://www.facebook.com/Dressful).
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  18. Well done on being chosen as part of the Links a la Mode weekly round-up, well deserved!
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  25. Joanne, i like your descriptive idea of cotton. “Cotton is soft and comfortable. It’s best property is its ability to ‘breathe’ by absorbing and releasing perspiration quickly that you say as your section.” In India most of women wear silk fabric sarees for some special occasions. They wear cotton sarees on regular basis as cotton fabric is good for all seasons in India. Cotton Sarees

  26. This is very helpful. Have you heard of baumwolle cotton? Do you know what’s the difference between this and cotton?

    Joanne Faith Reply:

    Sorry – I haven’t heard of that. I’m only familiar with the fabrics in my wardrobe!

    James Reply:

    @Mona, Baumwolle is german for cotton. Baum=tree wolle=wool so basically when European first come contact with cotton they thought its a wool that grow on tree.

  27. This was an educational post. But, I am still leary about washing two pair of my favorite black slacks. One is mix of 57% wool, 33% cotton, 8% poly and 2% spandex. The other pair are 76% Triacetate (which you did not cover), 22% poly, 2% spandex. They both fit so well and I would hate to lose either pair. Please give me more confidence! Can these be safely cold water, delicate cycle washed? Or must I continue to dry clean?

  28. Pingback: Notes from a Stylist Hurrah! I made it!! – Links á la Mode: The IFB Weekly Roundup! (Feb 10, 2011) | Notes from a Stylist

  29. Thanks for the tips; just what I needed – Happy Holidays!
    tina aka forrestina vintage recently posted..vintage hand mixer – Westinghouse – pastel pink – 3 speed electric – 1960s

  30. I just purchased a sweater from Eddie Bauer that is 55% cotton and 45% viscose, I never heard of viscose, but the tag says professionally dry clean, I did not notice this at the store and would not have purchased it if I had known. My question is can I wash it on gentle? What will happen to it if I do? Will it shrink? The tag says steam only, do not iron. I am considering returning it.

  31. It’s a very helpful post for me to buy clothes online because they usually mention the fabric and i can’t tell the difference.
    thank you so much.

  32. Love this post! Thanks for putting this up for everyone to reference. It’s really helpful!
    CarolAnn Edie recently posted..Reading: Think and grow rich

  33. are linen and viscose different?

    onafixedincome Reply:

    @Ritesh, Linen is a bast fiber from flax–flax is dried, then retted in water to get the flax fibers, which are then spun into linen. Viscose is plant material turned into a kind of gel-ish stuff which is then artificially spun out into long long fibers of viscose, or rayon.