Sources, origins and properties

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.

All manufactured fibres are of a continuous filament but can be cut to become a staple fibre, eg acrylic.

Natural polymers (natural fibres)

Natural polymers, also known as natural fibres, come from animals, insects or plants. They all biodegrade so are sustainable, although the processing uses energy.

Wool (animal)

Wool fibres come from the fleece of a sheep, which are shorn every year during the summer. The fibres:

  • are staple (short)
  • have a wavy appearance, called a crimp, which traps air easily giving them excellent insulation properties
  • have good crease resistance, so are commonly used to make jumpers, blankets and suits
  • are expensive
  • can easily shrink if washed in hot water

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.

A close-up of slightly dirty white wool fibres shorn from sheep.
Wool fibres

Silk (insect)

Silk fibres are produced by a silkworm, which spins itself into a cocoon structure before becoming a silkmoth.

The fibres:

  • are harvested from the cocoon as a filament fibre, a time-consuming process.
  • are costly and are made into luxury clothing, eg evening dresses
  • have a natural sheen, called lustre
  • are highly absorbent so comfortable next to the skin
  • crease easily
A large silkmoth attached to a white circular cocoon.
Silkmoth on cocoon

Cotton (plant)

Cotton is found in the seed boll of the cotton plant and is the most widely used of fibres around the world. The fibres:

  • are highly absorbent so are comfortable next to the skin
  • can be washed easily at high temperatures
  • have good tensile strength
  • are durable
  • crease easily

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 (plant)

Linen is a seed fibre from the flax plant and has similar properties to cotton. The fibres are:

  • very strong
  • more durable than cotton
  • equally as absorbent as cotton

It is used for summer clothing, keeping the wearer cool and for furnishing fabrics.

Manufactured polymers (synthetic fibres)

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.

The fibres:

  • melt when exposed to heat
  • can be made any length or any thickness
  • don’t biodegrade easily

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.

Three black bulletproof vests on a white background.

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:

  • tactel - a nylon-based fibre, not absorbent
  • tencel (or Lyocell) - highly absorbent, doesn’t crease, a regenerated microfibre made from wood pulp, so it is biodegradable

Blending and mixing

As fibres have varying properties, they are often blended or mixed with other fibres to improve their performance:

  • Blending - takes place at the fibre stage and often decreases the cost of the fabric. A common example is polycotton, a blend of cotton and polyester fibres. Cotton creases but is highly absorbent, whereas polyester isn’t absorbent but doesn’t crease. By blending these fibres, you get a fabric that has improved properties and therefore more extensive end uses.
  • Mixing - takes place at the yarn and fabric construction stage, with different yarns used for the warp and weft to change the properties and characteristics of the fabric. Cotton is often mixed with elastane, to prevent creasing but also to aid the fit of a garment, and is used in sportswear and jeans.