Fabrics of Our Lives

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Sometimes we take for granted the very things that shape our everyday lives. The other day I noticed an intriguing pattern in a blouse that a friend was wearing. We see patterns in fabric all of the time in the clothes that each of us wear. Many times, those clothes define who we are. As I soon discovered, the simple process of weaving simple threads into fabrics with many variations in patterns is not so simple after all.

Photo by Pixabay/Johnrp

The entire textile industry is based on the conversion of fiber into yarn, yarn into dyed or printed fabric, and then fabric into clothes. It is the most basic of principles, and yet the process can become quite complicated. Whether done small scale at home or in a factory, the weaving process uses a loom, a device that intertwines length threads, called warps, and cross threads, referred to as wefts. The whole process passes back and forth in a shuttle that carries the yarn, which is the fibers that are twisted into threads used in weaving or knitting. Weaving is the oldest method of making yarn into fabric.

On the loom, the warp forms the skeleton of the fabric and requires a higher degree of twist than the filling yarns that are interlaced widthwise. Cloth is formed by the wooden shuttle that moves horizontally back and forth across the loom, interlacing the filling yarn with the horizontal lengthwise warp yarn. Modern mills use shutterless machines, which produce endless varieties of fabric. Some carry filling yarns across the loom as fast as 2,000 meters per minute and is pretty silent in so doing.

Cotton is the most important and most widely used material for fiber. Textile mills purchase cotton and receive bales from cotton warehouses. The factories start with the raw material and process it in stages until it becomes yarn or cloth, which is fabric or material that is constructed from weaving or knitting. Incidentally, there is a distinct difference between woven or knitted fabric. In knitted fabric, one continuous yarn is looped repeatedly to create what looks like tiny rows of braids, whereas in woven fabric, multiple yarns cross each other at right angles to form the grain, much like in a basket.

There are three basic types of weave. In plain weave, thread is alternately passed over one warp yarn and under the next, pretty basic and simple. This method is used for ginghams, percales, chambrays and other similar fabrics. The twill weave interlaces yarns to form diagonal ridges across fabric. This method produces sturdier fabrics like denim, gabardine, herringbone and ticking. The most common of the three weaves is the satin weave. It produces a smooth fabric with high sheen. It has fewer yarn interlacings  and neither the warp or filling yarn dominates the “face” of the cloth. It is used for cotton sateen.

Still, I wondered how the numerous patterns were woven into the fabrics. Basically, color and the different ornamentation is accomplished in woven fabrics by imparting pre-determined placement and interlacing of particular sequences of yarns.

Solid colors are produced by using the same color yarn for the warp and weft. Different colors may be combined to produce either a mixed or intermingled color effect in which the composite hue appears as a solid color.

Figured and patterned material is created by selecting different groups of colored yarns and placing them in certain ways in the warp and weft. In certain patterns, textural effects may be created entirely through the use of different values and closely associated hues of certain colors.

Various fabrics are often defined by thread count, which is a measure of coarseness or fineness of fabric, which is determined by counting the number of threads contained in 1 square inch of fabric and includes the warp and weft threads. Thread count usually refers to sheets and the higher the thread count, the softer the sheet. Thread counts usually range from 200 to 800.

It amazes me that there are such numerous types of fabric and what distinguishes each type is how it is woven or knit and what type of yarn is used. Some of the more basic types are:

  • Barkcloth: This was popular from the 1930s through the 1950s. It was used for interiors fabrics and was characterized by patterns of large vines, leaves and florals.
  • Basket Weave: Like its name, it resembles a basket with fibers common in home décor.
  • Boucle: This type can be either knit or woven with small curls or loops that create a nubby surface. It is mainly used for sweaters, vests and coats.
  • Broadcloth: This is a plain weave, tightly woven fabric, usually made of cotton or cotton blends and used for quilting and shirts.
  • Burlap: This is a plain weave pattern with a rough hand and is loosely constructed and has a heavy weight. Used mostly for draperies, decorations and crafts.
  • Canvas: This is a strong, durable and closely-woven cotton fabric.
  • Chambray: This is a plain woven fabric with a colored warp (usually blue) and white filling yarns. It is made with cotton, silk or manufactured fabrics.
  • Chenille: The name is French meaning “caterpillar.” It is created with fuzzy chenille yarns and is characterized by raised cords and channels.
  • Chantilly Lace: This is a netted background created by embroidery with thread and ribbon to create floral designs.
  • Corduroy: This uses a cut pile weave construction. The number of wales indicates the number of cords in an inch.
  • Denim: A twill weave cotton fabric with different colored yarns in the warp and weft.
  • Eyelet: This fabric has patterned cut-outs with stitching or embroidery around the cutouts for appeal and to minimize fraying.
  • Flannel: Usually made of 100 percent cotton that is brushed on one or both sides for softness.
  • Gabardine: A worsted twill weave that is wrinkle-resistant.
  • Gingham: A plain weave with a plaid or check pattern that is created with dyed yarn.
  • Muslin: A plain weave, low-count cotton sheeting.
  • Nylon: Developed in 1938, nylon was the first completely synthetic fiber developed. It is known for its strength.
  • Satin: Has a lustrous, shiny surface.
  • Terry Cloth: Made of uncycled, looped pile. It is highly absorbent, which makes it the first choice for toweling.
  • Velvet: This is the most luxuriant type of fabric.

Of all the types of fabric, there is one type that is not made in the traditional way. Silk is probably the most natural fabric of all. It is produced by silkworms, which are the offspring of moths. They spew out thread from tiny holes in their jaws which they use to spin into their egg-bearing cocoons. This entire process takes only 72 hours, during which they produce between 500 and 1,200 silken threads. Amazing!

I probably will never look at clothes the same again. Just like most things in the world, the art of creating fabric is an artful, intricate and yet simple process.