Textiles - natural and synthetic fibres

Types of textiles and their uses

Fibres can be classified into two categories:

  • natural polymers
  • manufactured (or synthetic) polymers

Fibres are twisted into yarns, which are either woven or knitted into fabrics. These fabrics have their own characteristics, but often reflect the properties of the fibre.

Natural fibres

Natural fibres come from plants, animals or insects. They are easily renewable and biodegradable.

Natural fibrePropertiesUses
Cotton (plant)Highly absorbent so is comfortable to wear, strong and durable, easy to care for but can shrink and has poor elasticity so creasesMost clothing, bed linen, upholstery fabric and in the medical industry (because it can be boiled)
Linen (plant)Highly absorbent and cool to wear, very strong and durable, poor elasticity so creases easilySummer clothing, upholstery fabric, table clothes and napkins
Hemp (plant)Absorbent, strong and naturally antibacterialCarpets, rugs and ropes
Jute (plant)Absorbent and very strong but coarseBags, sacks for vegetables, carpets and twine
Wool (animal)Absorbent with good insulating properties due to the fibre’s natural crimp (curl), has good elasticity so doesn’t crease much, relatively strong but can shrink on washingJumpers, suits, carpets and blankets
Silk (insect)Drapes well and has good lustre (sheen), absorbent but difficult to wash and creasesLuxury clothing, eg dresses, underwear and bedding
A close-up of slightly dirty white wool fibres shorn from sheep.
Wool fibres

Manufactured (or synthetic) fibres

Synthetic fibres are made mainly from non-renewable coal and oil refined into monomers, which join together in a process called polymerisation. The do not degrade easily but they can be made into any length (continuous filament) and thickness and for any purpose.

Manufactured fibrePropertiesUses
AcrylicLike all synthetic fibres, has good strength with good elastic properties so doesn’t crease, has poor absorbency but can be a good insulator if crimp is added to replicate wool fibresJumpers and other knitted clothing that looks like wool, fake fur jackets
PolyesterHardwearing with good tensile strength, good elasticity but poor absorbency, a highly versatile fibreClothing and sportswear
Nylon (polyamide)A hardwearing fibre with good tensile strength, has good elasticity so doesn’t crease and is resistant to chemicals, not absorbent and melts easilyParachutes, tents, rucksacks, sports clothing, rope and carpets
ElastaneHighly elastic and stretchy, strong and hardwearingClothing such as leotards, swimming costumes and gym clothing, mixed with cotton in T-shirts for a better fit
A close-up of slightly fraying blue rope made from nylon.

Nylon rope

Blended

Blended fibres are mixtures of fibres that combine properties of two or more fibres.

Blended fibrePropertiesEnd uses
PolycottonA blend of cotton (60%) and polyester (40%) fibres to improve the properties of each, cotton has poor elasticity and creases but polyester has good elasticity so doesn’t crease, cotton is absorbent so comfortable to wear but polyester isn’t absorbent so doesn’t let the skin breathe as wellEasy care shirts, bed linen and duvet covers
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