Fibres to Fabrics

All fabrics are made from fibres. The three major steps for fibre to turn into fabric are:

• Fibre is spun into yarn.

• Yarn is woven/knitted/felted into fabric.

• The fabric undergoes finishing.


Fabric, cloth and material are often used in tailoring as synonyms for textiles. However, textile is basically a material that is woven or made by interlacing fibres including carpeting and geo-textiles used for reinforcement of embankments. Weaving, knitting, crocheting, spreading, felting, stitching, and bonding produce fabrics. Whereas, cloth are pieces of fabric that have been cut.


Which fibre is used in the making of which fabric is important to know from the animal ingredient aspect, i.e. whether the fibre is animal derived like silk, or non-animal derived like cotton or nylon. In addition, we need to know if any manufacturing process involves ingredients like animal fat added to sizing or pancreatic enzyme used for de-sizing. Whether pure paraffin wax rolls, or compound/blended wax rolls are used during spinning, and so on.


Fibres


Fibres are thin threads, including animal hair and other body parts, used for weaving.


Fibres can be:

• Natural (animal or vegetable/plant)

• Regenerated (biodegradable materials: plants)

• Synthetic (manufactured: petro-chemicals)

Since regenerated fibres, like synthetic ones are man-made, they too are often referred to as manufactured fibres.


Natural could be of vegetable/plant or animal origin like:

• Cotton (plant)

• Flax (plant)

• Fur (animal)

• Hair (animal)

• Jute (plant)

• Silk (animal)

• Wool (animal)


They, and many others, are all natural fibres. In fact, more than 50% of fibres produced worldwide fall into the category of natural fibres. And, of the 30 million tonne of natural fibres produced, two-thirds is cotton. Wool and jute are 2 and 3 million tonne. Some animals and plants from which natural fibres are derived have been listed separately further down.


Regenerated fibres are also made from biodegradable materials. The fibres are artificial and not truly natural or synthetic. Called cellulosics – since derived from cellulose, cotton, flax, wood-pulp, etc. – the main ones are:

• Acetate

• Lyocell (Tencel)

• Modal

• Rayon

• Viscose/VSF


Synthetic fibres, made from petro-chemicals (oil and coal), are stronger than natural and regenerated ones. The common ones are:

• Acrylic

• Nylon

• Polyester

• Polyethylene

Natural Plant/Non-animal Fibres


In an effort to increase demand for natural fibres, the Food & Agriculture Organisation (FAO) declared 2009 as International Year of Natural Fibres. All plants contain fibres but they are usually too short or weak to be used for any thing other than making paper. There are however over a hundred plants from which suitably long and strong fibres can be obtained. Some such fibres are made from stems of plants, the bark, leaves and seeds. The natural retting process is used for bast fibres (collected from the soft inner bark) like jute and ramie. The process involves steeping of stalks in water for several days so that the fibre gets separated. During this steeping process natural micro-organisms grow in the water which facilitates fibre separation. Some plant derived fibres are:

Abacá/Manila (hemp)
Banana (bark fibres)
Bamboo (leaves and bast fibres)
Coir (coconut fruit fibres)
Cotton (seed hair)
Flax (bast fibres)
Hemp/Manila (bast fibres)
Jute (bast fibres)
Kapok (seed hair)
Kenaf/Mesta (bast fibres)
Palm (leaf fibres)
Pineapple/Pina (leaf fibres)
Raffia (leaf fibres)
Ramie (bast fibres)
Sea grass (grass)
Sikki (grass)
Sisal/Agave (leaf fibres)
Sunn (bast fibres)

Fabrics made from hemp and bamboo are sold by boutique brands like Do You Speak Green, BOHECO (Bombay Hemp Co) and Organic Clothes.


Researchers of Vadodara’s Maharaja Sayajirao University have been able to recycle waste generated at banana plantations into fabric.


Natural Animal Fibres


Animal hair, fur, secretions, etc. are classified as natural protein fibres and are used for the making of fabrics. The animals are exploited and killed for all their body-parts. Some of the creatures are:
Alpaca/Llama/Guanaco (camelids)
Angora (rabbit)
Byssus/Sea silk (clams)
Camel
Cashmere (goat)
Chiengora (dog)
Costwold (sheep)
Hagfish (marine creature)
Qiviut (muskox)
Lamb
Merino (sheep)
Mink
Mohair (goat)
Muskrat
Silk
Spider
Vicuña (camelids)
Wool (sheep, goat, etc.)
Yak

Zibeline (rabbit, alpaca, camel, sable, silk worm)

Regenerated Fibres


The following are regenerated fibres made from regenerated proteins like cellulose, zein (maize/corn), seaweeds, peanut, soy bean and casein (milk):

• Acetate

• Alginate

• Cuprammonium

• Lyocell (Tencel)

• Modal

• Rayon/Viscose

• Inego (Natureworks)


Mineral Fibres


The following fibres are made from asbestos, basalt, mineral wool and glass wool and used in particular applications:

• Asbestos

• Glass/fibreglass (silicates)

• Metals (gold, silver, copper, aluminium)


Synthetic Fibres


The following are manufactured fibres:

• Acrylic/Modacrylic

• Aramide (Quiana, Kevlar, Nomex)

• Luminex

• Lurex

• Ingeo

• Nylon (6, 66, 11)

• Olefin

• PLA/Ploylactide

• Polyamide

• Polyester

• Polyethylene

• Polypropelene

• Saran

• Lycra/Elastane (Spandex)

• Vinal

• Vinyon


Fibre Blends


Blending fibres reduces cost and improves appearance, performance, comfort and after-care of the fabric. Commonly blended ones are:

• Polyester-Cotton (usually 65:35)

• Cotton-Lycra

• Acrylic-Wool

• Silk-Cotton


Yarn


Several steps are undertaken prior to spinning the fibre into yarn. One of them is carding that is performed on a machine called card and is the process of opening, disentangling, cleaning and then separating fibres to produce a continuous strand which is then spun into yarn.


Yarn is made from fibre by spinning or air texturising. Yarn may or may not be dyed.


Long fibres/yarns are called filaments, e.g. silk and synthetic. Whereas the short ones are called staple fibres/yarns, e.g. cotton, wool, jute and acrylic.

Sizing


Yarn is derived by twisting fibres and spinning them to the required thickness and length for:

• Weaving with two yarns on a loom

• Knitting by looping one yarn

• Felting by tangling and thus interlocking fibres to form fabric

The two yarns used for weaving are called warp and weft. The length of the fabric is determined by the length of the warp yarn on the loom, whereas, the weft yarn forms the width from selvage to selvage. The warp yarn that forms the basic structure, through which the weft yarn is woven, is strengthened with sizing prior to weaving. Sizing is essential for all yarns (Khadi, Khooti, handloom and textile mill weaving) but is optional for double yarns, i.e. two yarns are taken together and twisted.

Sizing is either a starchy or gelatinous mixture coated onto the warp and dried. Some times a small amount of animal fat (mutton tallow) is added to an otherwise non-animal size as a softening agent. Different substances are used as sizing, such as:

• Acrylates (textile chemical)

• Bone/hide glue (animal)

• Carboxymethyl cellulose (textile chemical)

• Flour

• Gelatine (animal)

• Maize

• Polyvinyl alcohol (textile chemical)

• Potato starch

• Sago starch

• Wheat starch

Weaving is done on manually operated or electrically operated looms. The manual ones are handlooms, frame looms, pit looms and semi-automatic looms. The electrically operated ones are power looms and come in different types. Some like the jacquard loom (that produces designed fabric) are available in both manual and electrical categories.


After weaving, the cloth is de-sized or washed. Pancreatic enzyme, derived from the pancreas of slaughtered animals, is some times used in the removal of size or starch even though bacterial enzymes can be used instead. Thus, the sizing and de-sizing can both contain animal substances.


Dyeing


Dyes and pigments are colouring materials and the main difference between them is that dyes are water soluble whereas pigments are completely water insoluble. Therefore, pigments are generally used for printing, not dyeing.


If the yarn has not been dyed (colour added) prior to being made into fabric, the fabric is bleached, coloured or printed at this stage. Dyeing can be carried out when in fibre, yarn or fabric forms. Different types of dyes and machines are available for yarn and fabric dyeing. Two categories of textile dyes are used:

• Natural (extracted from animals and plants)

• Synthetic

The majority of natural dyes or colorants are from plants (roots, berries, bark, leaves and wood) and called vegetable dyes. Other sources are fungi, lichens, and invertebrates. Mineral derived colours also fall under this category.


Some dyes derived from plants:

• Catechu/cutch tree (brown)

• Gamboge tree resin (dark mustard yellow)

• Himalayan rubhada root (yellow)

• Indigofera plant (blue)

• Kamala tree (red)

• Larkspur plant (yellow)

• Madder root (red, pink, orange)

• Myrabolan fruit (yellow, green, black)

• Pomegranate peel (yellow)

• Turmeric (yellow)

• Weld herb (yellow)


Some dyes derived from animals:

• Cochineal insect (red)

• Cow urine (Indian yellow)

• Kermes (red)

• Lac insect (red, violet)

• Murex snail (purple)

• Octopus/Cuttlefish (sepia brown)


Dyes derived from organisms:

• Fungi, Mushrooms, Lichens, etc. (blue, green, beige, yellow, brown, rust, orange, pink and many more)


Environmentally friendly (eco-friendly) fabrics can very well contain animal ingredients, not only by way of fibres (silk and wool most common) but colours and processing aids too.


Synthetic dyes have replaced natural dyes to a great extent. These synthetic dyes are industrially produced from different chemicals. They are derived from coal tar (vegan) and are more popular than natural colours.


Fibres and dyes must complement each other. Plant origin fibres require fibre-reactive, direct/substantive, and vat dyes, which are colourless, soluble dyes, fixed by light and/or oxygen. Whereas, animal fibres require vat, acid, or indirect/mordant dyes, that require a bonding agent. Each synthetic fibre requires its own dyeing method, e.g. nylon requires acid, disperse and pigment dyes, rayon acetate requires disperse dyes, and so on.


Animal and plant pigments:

• Cochineal (animal)

• Gamboge (plant)

• Indian yellow (animal)

• Indigo (plant)

• Rose Madder (plant)

• Tyrian purple (animal)


Printing


Single or multi-coloured design printing on fabric is via various methods of printing:

• Batik

• Block

• Inkjet/Digital

• Roller

• Screen (manual, automatic flat bed, and rotory)

• Stencil

• Transfer


Note: silk screen printing is giving way to polyester mesh screen printing.


Finishing


Finishing in textile manufacturing is the last stage after which the fabric is ready to be marketed.


Calendar is a mechanical process to flatten fabric involving alternating smooth metal and cloth-wrapped rollers, similar to ironing. The process can also be used to apply different finishes to pre-treated textiles, as well as to coat fabrics with plastics or rubber.


Different finishes, as required and undertaken are:

• Anti-bacterial

• Antistatic

• Flame retardant

• Soil repellent

• Water repellent

• Wrinkle free
• Stain resistant
• Oil resistant


Minor food and other stains can be easily removed by dabbing water on resistant fabrics. Originally repellent finishes were coated with paraffin or wax which eventually washed off. Nowadays, perfluorochemicals are used to protect fabrics. Some of these resin finishes claim to be eco-friendly but that does not mean they or the fabric is not of animal origin or that they do not have any adverse effects upon human health. For example, wrinkle-free material may not have been treated with formaldehyde (a carcinogen) but releases tiny amounts of the chemical that can be harmful over time.

Textiles are made in various strengths and degrees of durability from the finest micro-fibre made of strands thinner than one denier to the sturdiest canvas and can be light gauze-like gossamer to heavy grosgrain cloth.


Silk


In the case of silk fabric, the fibre used is also called silk and if pure silk, the silk mark may be affixed. (The absence of the silk mark does not indicate it is devoid of silk.) To produce one hundred grams of pure silk, approximately fifteen hundred chrysalises have to die. The prefixes to silk can indicate:

• The name of the specie of moth killed from which the fibre is obtained, e.g. Eri, Muga, Mulberry and Tussar silks

• The names of the yarns used, e.g. Tussar and Kosa are the silk worms, and Ghicha and Khewa are names given to the yarns that are not dyed when Tussar and Kosa silks are reeled. (Reeling is unwrapping silk fibre from the killed silk worm cocoons.)

• The area where the silk was produced, e.g. Benarasi, Kashmiri, Kanjeevaram

• The blend of different material fibres, e.g. silk in warp and cotton in weft like the Begum Bahar saree

• Type of loom used in production of the fabric, e.g. handloom, jacquard, satin

• The style of dyeing, e.g. batik, bandhini, ikat


For detailed information on silk please read
http://www.bwcindia.org/Web/Awareness/LearnAbout/Silk.html


Wool


For wool too the raw material is called wool and it may carry one of the many wool marks. (The absence of a wool mark does not indicate it is devoid of wool.) We shouldn’t as the idiom goes, pull the wool over our eyes – wool is a product of sheep husbandry and represents cruelty and death of sheep.

Any fabric that contains wool is called worsted. Wool is found in knitwear, garments, headgear, shawls, gloves, blankets, wall-hangings, carpets, upholstery, insulation, stuffing for baseballs, covers for tennis balls and pool table baize. Such a wide range of uses demand different modes of production, so not all wool is used for knitting, but most of it is turned into fabric.


For detailed information on wool please read http://www.bwcindia.org/Web/Awareness/LearnAbout/Wool.html


Cotton


India has over 20 varieties of cotton and 4 million handlooms that produce cotton cloth. Traditional cotton weaving revolves around Khadi for which hand-spun cotton yarn is used. Wool and silk yarns are also used for making Khadi. (Surprisingly polyester Khadi is also available.) Thus the word Khadi does not indicate the presence or absence of animal derivatives just like the handloom mark would not. The same applies to fabrics found at Tribal marketing outlets. Khooti fabric is just like Khadi – spun on charka and it need not be pure cotton or jute but can be blended with silk, wool, etc.

In 2020 Titan came out with the Khadi limited edition of watches but would not answer if the yarn utilised was silk, so BWC informed them that we presumed it was silk. Soon after, the largest shoe manufacturing hub in Agra came up with a range of footwear using Khadi as raw material.

North East India noted for handloom karigari, has weavers and looms in each and every house, has changed from traditional throw shuttle looms to fly shuttle and jacquard; and synthetic yarns like Thailand dulia and acrylic have almost replaced cotton.


Fabrics


Textiles sold in shops for making various items are called fabrics, made from fibres that are woven, knitted, crocheted, knotted, felted, or netted into cloth. So broadly speaking, fabrics, textiles and cloth are synonyms.


Material is the substance or ingredient of fibre that is used to make the fabric, e.g. cotton is the material, and denim the fabric. (Fabrics used for making garments are often incorrectly referred to as “material” as in dress material.)


Caution


When purchasing fabrics by the metre (or sarees) it is good to make it a habit to ask to see the manufacturer’s stamped details on the inside of the roll or fabric which usually states percentage-wise the fibres utilised. But, there is no way to ascertain in the shop whether animal substances in sizing/de-sizing or colours (dyeing/printing/painting) were used or not during manufacture of the fabric. However, if for example the material is batik printed/dyed, rest assured a mixture of beeswax and paraffin wax was used.


Hundreds of different fabrics are available. The names of fabrics do not all indicate the fibres utilised. Very many are not made in a single type of fibre making them blended fabrics. Certain fabrics are named indicating the style of weave or dyeing technique, e.g. twill and bandhani/tie & dye. Many types of lace, made from cotton, linen, silk, synthetic and gold/silver threads, are also available.

Greige/grey fabric is raw/unprocessed natural off-white or grey coloured and is not bleached or dyed. It can consist of different yarns and weaving styles like cotton, linen, nylon, polyester, drill, twill, satin, poplin, dobby, piqué, and so on.


Some common fabrics are:

• 2x2 (cotton)

• Acrylic (synthetic)

• Alpaca (camelid hair)

• Angora (rabbit hair/fur)

• Aramid (synthetic)

• Brocade (silk, rayon, nylon)

• Burlap (jute)

• Calico (cotton)

• Cambric (cotton, linen)

• Canvas/Duck (hemp, flax, cotton)

• Carbon (synthetic)

• Cheesecloth/Gauze (cotton, silk)
• Chenille (cotton, rayon, acrylic, olefin, wool, silk)

• Chiffon (silk, synthetic)

• Corduroy (cotton)

• Crepe (silk, synthetic)

• Damask (linen, cotton, rayon, silk, blended)

• Denim (cotton)

• Felt (wool, synthetic)

• Flannel (cotton, wool)

• Fleece (wool, synthetic)

• Gabardine (wool, cotton, synthetic, blended)

• Georgette (silk, synthetic)

• Gingham (cotton)

• Ingeo (synthetic blend with cotton)

• Lurex (metal, polyester)

• Linen (flax)

• Madras (cotton)

• Manila (hemp)

• Mashru/Mushru (silk & cotton blend)

• Merino (wool)

• Milk/Casein (milk of animal origin)

• Mohair (wool)

• Muslin (cotton)

• Nylon (synthetic)

• Olefin (synthetic)

• Organdy (cotton, polyester)

• Organza (silk)

• Pashmina (wool)

• Piqué (cotton)

• Polyester (synthetic)

• Poplin (cotton, rayon, wool, blended)

• Quilting fabric (cotton)

• Rayon (regenerated)

• Satin (silk, synthetic, cotton)

• Seersucker (cotton, nylon, silk)

• Siamoise (cotton, linen)

• Silk (silk worms, cocoons & moths)

• Spandex (synthetic)

• Taffeta (silk, rayon)

• Tiffany (silk, hemp/flax)

• Tulle (synthetic, silk, rayon)

• Tweed (wool)

• Velvet (silk, cotton, rayon, synthetic)

• Voile (polyester, wool, cotton)

• Wool (sheep, goats, other animals, synthetic, blended)


Inventions


New fabrics are consistently being developed from unusual and unexpected sources. Some, like fibre from hagfish has been mentioned above. Other surprising sources are listed below:

Micro’be’ is fabric from fermented wine – the inventor came across a vat of wine which had been contaminated with microbes with skin-like material floating on the surface.

Soysilk has been trademarked. It is a blended fabric made from the hulls of discarded soy beans.


STINGplus a fabric made from the stinging nettle plant is considered the most sustainable fabric because it is stronger than cotton, fire retardant. 25% nettle fibres are blended with 75% wool.


Qmilch makes fabric from protein found in spoiled milk – and claims to use less water in the process than other milk-based fabrics.


SeaCell is cellulose-based from a mixture of wood pulp, seaweed and algae, is it more breathable than cotton.


Newlife developed from discarded plastic bottles that are thrown away, is blended with recycled polyester. It requires less energy to produce than new polyester and is being utilised by famous fashion designers. Patagonia and Espirit were among the first, followed by Timberland, Speedo and G-Star and Levi’s Waste<Less denim range utilises 8 discarded plastic bottles (and food trays) for a pair of jeans.


Adidas has swimwear made from ocean debris and fishing nets. Whereas the world’s second largest clothing retailer H&M has also come out with recycled shoreline plastic waste clothing as part of its Conscious Exclusive collection.

 

Lenpur is cellulose carefully gathered from the white fir tree droppings and converted into biodegradable fabric that is touted as having the comfort of silk, the touch of cashmere and lightness of linen. Again, a blended fabric supposed to keep the wearer cool is summer and warm in winter!


Singtex is made from old coffee grounds – the amount used to make one cup of coffee is enough for three T-shirts. The UV-resistant and fast drying fabric is used for sportswear.

Sarona by DuPont is a biopolymer fibre. It contains 37% annually renewable plant-based ingredients, uses 30% less energy, and releases 63% fewer greenhouse gas emissions as compared in the production of nylon 6. The fibre is used for apparel including silk-like sarees in crepe, satin, chiffon and georgette. The eco-fibre is versatile and can also be made into carpets that are durable and stain resistant.

Geo-textiles were originally called filter fabrics – made from coir (coconut fibre) they are good for soil erosion control because they can separate, filter, reinforce, protect, or drain. However they are typically made from polypropylene or polyester, geo-textile fabrics are of three types: woven (resemble sacking and can be used for bags, etc.), needle punched (resemble felt), or heat bonded (resemble ironed felt). In India geo-textiles will soon be made mandatory for construction of infrastructure projects like roads, ports and dams, etc. including their use by the defence and railways.

Cocona is a fabric made of coconut-husk waste. As it is lightweight and breathable it is ideal for athletic wear.

Weganool is an alternative to Cashmere, it consists of 70% organic cotton and 30% Calotropis plant which is commonly known as milkweed or eruku in Tamil (it grows abundantly in the dry wastelands). 

In 2019 scientists created a fabric that can automatically regulate the amount of heat that passes through it, helping a person stay cool or warm depending on the weather conditions. The base yarn for this new textile is created with fibres made of two different synthetic materials – one absorbs water and the other repels it. The strands are coated with carbon nanotubes, a special class of lightweight conductive metal.

Also in 2019 a research study undertaken at the Brown University (UK) found that if graphene, a honeycomb sheet or film made of carbon atoms, lined clothing it prevented mosquitoes from biting. (Graphene, discovered in 2004 has been touted to improve things like water filtration and solar cells, is 200 times stronger than steel and more conductive than copper and as flexible as rubber.)

It is widely believed that the future of the fashion industry lives in lab-grown biological textiles and that biotechnology will change the fashion industry with garments being grown from cells. Unfortunately the materials will not all be vegan.

Page last updated on 13/01/22