Most textile materials originate from a single, fine structure called a fibre. Some fibres are naturally short in length and are known as staple fibres, eg cotton, wool and linen. Other manufactured (synthetic) fibres are known as continuous filament, eg polyester and nylon.
Wool fibres come from the fleece of a sheep, which are shorn every year during the summer. The fibres:
Wool fibres can come from rarer sources, such as mohair or cashmere (both from goats), angora (rabbit), alpaca and camel, and all have similar properties.
Silk fibres are produced by a silkworm, which spins itself into a cocoon structure before becoming a silkmoth.
Cotton is found in the seed boll of the cotton plant and is the most widely used of fibres around the world. The fibres:
Cotton is commonly used for all types of clothing and furnishing fabrics. Other seed fibres include hemp and jute. These fibres have similar properties to cotton and tend to be used for carpets, upholstery, bags and rope.
Linen is a seed fibre from the flax plant and has similar properties to cotton. The fibres are:
It is used for summer clothing, keeping the wearer cool and for furnishing fabrics.
Manufactured polymers, also known as synthetic fibres, are made from synthetic sources, such as oil, coal or petrochemicals.
They are made into simple chemical molecular chains, called monomers, which join together to form polymers.
Polyester is a very common manufactured fibre used for clothing as it is easy to care for, dries quickly and is very strong. It is water resistant (has poor absorbency) and crease resistant.
Nylon is similar to polyester but is more durable. It is used for carpets and outdoor textiles, such as tents and rucksacks.
Acrylic is manufactured to resemble wool, with an added crimp. It isn’t as insulating as wool but it is much cheaper to produce. It has poor absorbency so dries quickly and is used to produce jumpers and fake fur products, like coats.
Polypropylene is particularly strong and durable. It is usually manufactured for specific end uses, such as fishing nets, sacks and rope.
Elastane has high elasticity and is always mixed with other fibres, particularly those that crease badly like cotton. It is used to produce fabrics for sportswear to ensure a tight fit.
Aramid fibres are manufactured for specific end uses, eg Kevlar (bulletproof vests) and Nomex (firefighters’ outfits). Both are resistant to heat and extremely strong, and they are often blended together to combine their properties.
Microfibres are very, very fine - they are difficult to see with the naked eye. Consequently, they are lightweight with good draping qualities and are made into silk-like fabrics. Examples include:
As fibres have varying properties, they are often blended or mixed with other fibres to improve their performance: