Sources and origins

Sources of fibres

Fibres used to create yarns can be obtained from either natural or synthetic sources:

  • natural fibres come from animals or plants
    • plant fibres include cotton, linen, jute, sisal and more unusual fibres such as bamboo or coconut
    • animal fibres include wool, silk and hair such as mohair (goat) or angora (rabbit)
  • synthetic fibres are created by scientists from artificial sources, eg by refining crude oil or regenerating wood pulp
    • refined fibres include polyester, nylon , lyocell and acrylic
    • regenerated fibres include viscose

The fibres a fabric is made from will affect its properties, making them suitable for different uses, eg cotton is cool to wear so is suited to a summer T-shirt, whereas wool is warm so suited to a winter jumper.

Natural fibres

Natural fibrePropertiesUses
CottonStrong and absorbent but not very durable or warmT-shirts, jeans, towels
WoolAbsorbent and warm but not very strong or durableKnitwear, socks, suiting
SilkVery absorbent and also strong, warm and durableShirts, dresses and ties

Synthetic fibres

Synthetic fibrePropertiesUses
PolyesterStrong and durable but not very absorbent or warmSchool blazers, trousers
AcrylicVery warm, also strong and durable but not absorbentKnitwear
NylonVery strong, also durable but not very warm or absorbentCarpets, fishing nets
ElastaneStrong and durable but not very warm or absorbentSportswear, swimwear

Origins of fibres

FibreMain origin
CottonChina, India, Pakistan, USA
SilkChina, India, Uzbekistan
Flax (linen)Belgium, Canada, France, Russia, Ukraine
WoolAustralia, China, New Zealand, UK, USA
Regenerated fibresOak and birch to make lyocell are from European hardwood forests, pine, spruce and hemlock to make pulp for cellulose are from alpine softwood forests, and cotton waste extracted from seeds can be used as cellulose
Synthetic fibresOil producers include UAE, USA, Russia

Manufacturing fabrics

Fibres are first spun together to make a yarn, which is then made into fabrics by being:

Woven fabrics

Woven fabrics are created on a loom; warp threads are held under tension and the weft thread is woven between them, creating the patterns and design in the weave. A woven fabric will often fray and seams will need to be finished, eg by overlocking, to prevent this.

There are different weaves available:

  • plain - strong and hardwearing, eg calico and drill cotton, used for fashion and furnishing fabrics
  • twill - strong and drapes well with a diagonal pattern on the surface, used for jeans, curtains and jackets
  • satin - fabric can be woven to give the surface a 'right' side with a shine, created by long floats on the warp or weft threads, and a ‘wrong’ side that is matt
  • pile - woven in two parts together that face each other and sliced apart down the centre once off the loom to create the pile, eg velvet
A close-up of a white plain weave (one over and one under).

Plain weave fabric

Knitted fabrics

Knitted fabrics are created by interlocking loops of yarn over each other to create a fabric that is more stretchy than a woven fabric- they are not always made from wool. There are two ways to knit a fabric:

  • weft knit - created by looping long lengths of yarn together; if a stitch is dropped, it will cause a ladder to run down the length of the fabric; used in socks, tights and jumpers
  • warp knit - created by a knitting machine interlocking the yarn along the length of the fabric; as a result, they do not ladder; used in swimwear, underwear and geotextiles
A representation of the structure of a weft knit alongside an image of a pink woolen weft knit.

Weft knitted fabric

Non-woven fabrics

Non-woven fabrics turn the fibres into fabrics without first spinning them but, instead, by felting or bonding them.

  • felted - the most common is made from wool fibres matted together using moisture, heat and pressure; it has little strength, drape or elasticity and is expensive but is warm and does not fray; used for hats, slippers and in handcrafts
  • bonded - made from webs of synthetic fibres bonded together with heat or adhesives; they are cheap to produce, easy to sew, crease-resistant, do not fray and are stable to washing and dry-cleaning - but are not as strong as woven or knitted fabrics; mainly used for interlining