If we define fabric as something flexible that has length and width, but not much thickness, then some fabrics are "found". Perhaps they are worn as-is, or merely cut and joined — green leaves are sometimes worn in hot climates. More often, found fabrics are treated to preserve them; for example, animal skins are tanned into leather or cured into parchment or vellum.
Most of our fabrics are made.
Some are made by extruding or molding sheets of a plastic substance. Such fabrics are used for drop cloths, table covers, see-through pockets, rain gear, and many other things, but are apt to be uncomfortable on the skin. Pushing a needle through film fabrics (and most found fabrics) leaves a permanent hole, so they must be sewn with great caution. Some cannot be sewn at all, because they tear along the line of holes that a seam creates. Most film fabrics, however, can be welded or glued.
Most of the common fabrics are made by combining fibers.
Papyrus and bark cloth are made by arranging narrow slips of fragile found fabric —slices of reed, or strips of bark— and pounding them until they stick together.
Paper, felt, and "non-woven" interlining are made by inducing fibers to stick together in sheets.
Fibers run every which way in felted fabrics, but the fibers often have a preferred direction, or two or more preferred directions. Cutting such felts with due respect for this preferred direction is called "cutting with the grain". Stretch felt gently in every direction to see whether it has a grain. Sometimes felt has such a pronounced grain that it pulls apart easily when stretched at right angles to the predominant direction of the fibers, but felt of this quality should not be marketed as apparel felt. Non-woven interlining may tear more easily in one direction than another; it won't tear neatly in any direction.
Garment fabrics are usually made by first spinning fibers into threads, then weaving or knitting the threads. There are dozens of ways, maybe hundreds of ways, to make threads into fabric, but only weaving, machine knitting, and a few machine-lace techniques produce fabrics that are cheap enough to cut and sew.
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Weaving is probably the oldest way to make fabric; it certainly antedates the spinning of thread. Our remotest ancestors wove baskets and mats from twigs, stems, and everything else they could find or make. In the millions of years since, we've found thousands of ways to weave, but all methods that can properly be called weaving start with threads somehow stretched and held parallel. These threads are called the "warp".
If you have trouble remembering that word, think of threads stretched on a frame so tightly that the frame warps from the tension. Hey, it could happen. Down through the ages, a few weavers must have warped their looms while they were warping them. (It would have to be a pretty poor loom, and "warp" and "warp" are completely unrelated words, but mnemonics don't have to be sensible.)
When sewing woven fabrics, we refer to the warp threads as the "lengthwise grain".
The threads woven under and over the warp threads are called the "weft". Weft threads are at right angles to the warp, and in sewing, this direction is called the "crosswise grain".
Think of "weft" as "that which is woven", just as "straw" is "that which is strewn." This is in the general neighborhood of the real etymology.
In old references, you may find "woof" where "weft" is meant. This was also derived from the same root as "weave", in a different dialect. When they met, "weft" won.
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The place where the weft threads turn to go back across the cloth is called the "selvage", a corruption of "self edge". Often there is a band of different warp threads at the selvage, or a different style of weaving.
Sheeting and some kinds of toweling are woven with a particularly thick and sturdy fabric at the selvage.
Some fabrics simply end at the selvage, but are straight and smooth and need no finish: twill tape, seam binding, some ribbons, and the better grades of linen toweling are examples.
In some fabrics, the different warp threads at the selvage are meant to help in keeping the edge straight during weaving, and were under greater tension than the rest. The extra-tight threads will shrink more than the rest, causing the selvage to pucker. Such a selvage must be torn off (or cut off, if the fabric doesn't tear neatly), but if it is wide enough, and if the shrinking is even enough, it can be used as tape. Check to see whether these special warp threads are the same fiber as the rest of the fabric; they won't be listed in the fiber content, since you aren't expected to use them.
Sometimes the special threads shrink less than the rest, causing the selvage to ruffle after the fabric is washed. You can lay out your pattern without tearing off the ruffles, since they don't prevent the fabric from lying flat, but it's often easier to lay out without the ruffled selvages. Like puckered selvages, ruffles sometimes flatten into usable tape when torn off, but may not match the rest of the fabric.
Sometimes the selvage lies flat, but the weft threads are distorted or curved at the point where they fold back, or the selvage has little notches in it where some weft threads are tighter than others, or one or both selvages are messy with weft threads carried from one stripe to the next. There is no risk in cutting out with selvages like this still on the fabric, and those that aren't too distorted can be used as finished edges in places that don't show. Snip off long floats, and avoid selvages in which the warp threads are distorted, and those that feel stiff or tight or in some undefinable way wrong.
It often happens that selvages don't match, so look at both closely before deciding what to do with them.
In the bad old days, torn-off selvages —called "list"— were sewn to fabric in overlapping rows to make a sort of pile fabric. This "list work" was done primarily to give wealthy women something to do with their time, and secondarily to provide beggars with warm garments.
Not all fabrics have selvages — the fastest weaving machines blow individual threads through the shed instead of carrying a single thread back and forth on a shuttle. There is a special thread to keep the fabric from unravelling, but these fringed "selvages" wear out too quickly to be used as finished edges.
However, the more-expensive "tuck selvage", in which the ends of the weft threads are tucked back into the shed to resemble the old-fashioned selvage, stands up quite well to wear. You will spot this selvage by the rough streak on the wrong side, where the tucked ends poke out.
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The "true bias" of woven fabric runs at forty-five degrees across the cloth, intersecting both sets of threads at the same angle. Other angles are called "bias" or "off grain", according to context.
Woven fabric usually has more "give" along the weft threads than along the warp threads, because the warp threads were under more tension during weaving, and have stretched as much as they are going to. Since the warp threads have been stretched, woven fabric usually shrinks more lengthwise than crosswise when it is first washed.
Woven fabric has the most give of all when pulled on the true bias, as threads can yield by shifting their angles as well as by elongation.
It is easier to crease most woven fabrics parallel to the warp threads, because the weft threads bend more easily, and spring back less vigorously. Often, the warp threads are stronger than the weft threads, because the weft doesn't have to stand up to much strain during weaving. Sometimes the difference between the lengthwise grain and the cross grain is marked, sometimes it is hard to keep track of which is which. The very expensive "evenweave" fabrics sold for art embroidery attempt to have no difference at all.
(It is, of course, possible for a weaver to use a stretchy thread for the warp and an inelastic thread for the weft, but this is not common.)
Most fabrics hang better when the warp threads run up and down; belts and bands usually have the lengthwise grain running horizontally, because it is stronger than the crosswise grain, and because it stretches less.
The rule for wovens is, have the warp threads —the lengthwise grain— parallel to the stress. (Unless, of course, the warp threads are Lycra and the weft threads are not. Stretch an unfamiliar fabric in all directions and see where the give lies.)
Seams usually lie more neatly if both pieces are cut on the same grain, whether it's lengthwise, crosswise, true bias, or slanting. It is wise to pay close attention to the grain when cutting out; if the threads don't run true to start with, they may try to straighten themselves out later, causing the garment to twist, hang oddly, be uncomfortable, and wear quickly.
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If the warp threads conceal the weft threads, the fabric is called "warp faced". If the weft conceals the warp, the fabric is "weft faced". True tapestry is a weft-faced fabric. These unbalanced styles of weaving tend to be thick and stiff, so they are used more often for rugs, blankets, belts, webbing, and the like than for apparel fabrics, but some kinds make excellent outerwear.
Twill weaves are softer and more flexible for their thickness than plain weaves, so are often used for durable fabrics — the denim used in jeans is a twill. In twill weaves, the weft goes under or over more than one thread at a time, shifting with each throw of the shuttle so as to make diagonal lines on the fabric. Examine a piece of twill tape and note the diagonal stripes: streaks of horizontal threads alternating with streaks of vertical threads. In twill tape, the weft usually goes over and under the same number of warp threads, so that the weft and warp show equally, in separate stripes.
To assure symmetry, tape twills usually reverse direction in vertical stripes, producing a herringbone pattern. It is also possible to make herringbone in horizontal stripes, or to change both horizontally and vertically, covering the fabric with diamond patterns. Bird's eye diaper fabric is a diamond-pattern twill. (The word "diaper" originally meant a diamond arrangement of motifs; it was probably the absorbancy of cotton woven in the bird's-eye diaper pattern that effected the change to the current meaning.)
If the number of warp threads gone under is different from the number gone over, the width of the weft stripes will be different from the width of the warp stripes. If the difference is considerable, and if the shifting of the pattern is done in such a way as to obscure the diagonal lines, you will have a satin weave in which the face of the fabric is smoothly covered with floats of warp thread, or a sateen weave in which it is smoothly covered with floats of weft thread. In either case, the back is likely to look more like a plain weave than like a twill, but some expensive ribbons are double faced satin: covered with warp floats on both sides, with a bead of weft only one or two threads wide showing at the selvage.
Cloth merchants are apt to call either weave "sateen" when it is made of cotton or an imitation of cotton, and "satin" when it is made of silk or an imitation of silk.
If a pattern is made by combining patches of satin weave with patches of sateen weave, you have a damask. The word "damask" conjures up elegant table linen with a subtle white-on-white pattern, but when the warp and weft are different colors, the patterns can be striking. The ever-popular red-checked tablecloths are a damask in which most of the fabric is one weave, but a rose is depicted in the other at each of the places where a red stripe intersects a white stripe. Checkered damask is now available in many different colors, and with many different symbols on the two-color squares.
Sally Fox once sold an elegant variation of damask in which the warp is white, the weft is brown, and a design is picked out in three shades by combining plain weave with satin, sateen, and other twills. She called this "paisley".
There are many fancy weaves, but most can be regarded as complications of twill weaves and plain weaves.
If a loom has four or more "harnesses", as the assemblies that raise and lower the warp threads are called, a weaver can make two separate lengths of fabric on one warp, by assigning half the harnesses to one layer and half to the other. The weaver may use this trick to make a piece of fabric twice as wide as his loom, or a seamless tube. A more exciting possibility is that he may use two shuttles (weft carriers), and weave two fabrics of contrasting colors which trade places at intervals to produce a double-faced fabric with a light-on-dark pattern on one side and a dark-on-light pattern on the other.
There are an infinite number of other ways to produce woven-in color patterns. The easiest way is to switch shuttles at intervals to produce horizontal stripes, or to use several colors of warp threads to make lengthwise stripes. If the weaver varies both the warp and the weft, he produces checks and plaids.
Checks are ideal to practice sewing on, because they magnify the grain and make it easy to see what you are doing. The designer's favorite fabric for "muslins" —trial garments to be taken apart and used as patterns— is checked gingham, because it is marked with a convenient grid.
Plaids also mark the grain for you, but a pattern that's more complicated can be more complicated to match. Plaids may be unsymmetrical, and plaids with a very long repeat may waste a great deal of fabric in the cutting. You can handle it, but be aware that you are going to have to look at the fabric and think.
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The structure is much like that of hand knitting; most of the time, the only difference is that the factory fabric is knitted of a thread so fine that it would try the hand-knitter's patience, eyesight, and temper. Some tricks that are easy on a machine are difficult on needles, and some tricks that are easy on needles are difficult or impossible on a machine.
Like hand knitters, the machines can make two-layer fabrics. The two layers can each have a presentable face, or one face can be a tangle of the colors not used on the other face. Sometimes both faces are presentable, but one is plainer than the other; the faces may clash, or one face may be a particularly suitable trim for the other. When both faces are plain, the fabric is called "interlock". Fancier two-layer knits are called "double knit". In interlock and most double knits, the two faces are welded together by rows that have stitches on both faces.
Double-knit fabrics are usually more stable and easier to sew than single-knit fabrics, longer wearing, more opaque, warmer, and less inclined to muss. Some cotton interlocks are so stretchy as to make one look closely to make sure they aren't one-on-one ribbing.
A plain single knit is called "jersey". Cotton jersey is apt to be called "T-shirt knit".
Some fabrics that appear to be double-woven or double knit are actually two fabrics glued together. (Sometimes one of the fabrics is woven and one is knit.) Under heavy wear, glue sometimes gives way and allows the layers to separate. Bonded fabrics are particularly unsuitable for garments that get filthy every time they are worn, as many kinds of dirt attack glue, and strong detergents and vigorous washing tend to remove the glue along with the dirt.
Warp knits are made of a large number of threads, each running up the fabric, looping alternately to the left and right. The tricots used in underwear are warp knits. Warp knits stretch less than weft knits, particularly in the lengthwise grain.
The direction of maximum stretch on a knit is the crosswise grain — along the threads of a weft knit, and at right angles to them in a warp knit.
The direction of minimum stretch is on the lengthwise grain — marked by columns of stitches in both varieties, if the stitches are not obscured by a fancy pattern.
There is no true bias on a knitted fabric. If a piece is to be cut on the bias for greater stretch, cut it on the crossgrain of a knit, as that is where the maximum stretch is. The equivalent of bias tape in a knit is a strip cut on the cross grain.
Most knits have little inclination to ravel. Some, however, are liable to run: if one loop breaks, the loop below it will be free to slip out of the next loop below, which is then free to slip . . . etc. This is most noticeable in thin fabrics which are made of slippery fibers and worn under stress: you will note that this describes nylon hose perfectly. Note whether the fabric is inclined to run before deciding how to finish the seams. Some fabrics will run in one direction, but not in the other, so examine both cut edges.
Plain weft knits tend to curl toward the front on crossgrain edges, and they tend to curl toward the back on lengthwise edges. Fancy knits may reduce this tendency: for example, double knits usually have two front sides, so that the fabric can't curl either way, and single-knit patterns may be composed of equal patches of "front" and "back", so that the fabric can't decide which way to curl.
Ribbing gets its great horizontal stretch by being made of columns that alternate front and back; each little stripe tries to curl into a tube; when you pull it crosswise, you open out these little tubes.
Likewise, the less-common fabrics made up of horizontal stripes of front and back, called "welting", will stretch easily when pulled vertically, until they reach the height that they would have had if knitted plain.
You usually can't draw a thread in knit fabric, but if you do succeed in drawing a thread out, the fabric will fall into two pieces.
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Nearly every fabric should be washed, or at least be thoroughly wet, before you work with it.
The primary exception to pre-washing is the object expected to shrink after it is made. A tailor's ham, for example, should be made of unwashed loom-state fabric, so that it will tighten still more after being stuffed as firmly as possible.
A fabric which can be machine dried should be machine dried, to shrink it as much as possible. Set the dryer so hot that you have to hang around and watch it. Take your fabric to a laundromat and use the big dryer, to reduce wrinkling.
If you don't use a dryer, you need a large, clean surface to dry the fabric flat. Use a towel-covered bed, or a freshly-scrubbed picnic table — the lawn will do, if you lock up the dog. In a pinch, thread the cloth through several coat hangers hung on the line. Avoid line drying, or at least put the pins very close together. You can also iron it dry; there is still danger of drying it unevenly stretched, but not as much danger as there is in letting all the weight hang from one edge.
You can dry fabric draped back and forth over the ironing board, if your ironing board is rectangular, or your fabric is narrower than the straight part of your ironing board. Set the board as high as it will go, and let the fabric hang as near the floor as is safe, to reduce the number of layers.
A long shower-curtain rod is also a good place to drape large pieces of wet fabric.
If you can't get a fabric or notion wet, at least get it damp. Be careful if you use damp towels for this purpose, for it often happens that the reason something is marked "dry clean only" is that the dye bleeds, and will stain your towels. If you are foolish enough to work with dry-clean-only fabrics often, save some large rags, such as old cotton sheets, to use when you "sponge" fabric. Solid-color cloth can be folded up in close company with wrung-out sheets for an hour or two before it's pressed and laid out to dry.
If you don't want to risk sponging, take the fabric to a dry cleaner and ask that it be steam pressed.
If you are using up remnants, it's useful to know that some dry-clean-only fabrics will shrink and acquire a different-but-still-attractive texture when they are washed and dried by machine, and can then be made into washable garments. To convert dry-clean to washable, use hot water, and lots of agitation. Fabric will shrink and felt faster if you crowd the washer. Watch out for lint, bleeding dye, and ceremonial fabrics that won't take any wear at all. Expect the fabric to get fuzzier, and quite a lot thicker.
Wash doubtful fabrics at least twice, and heavy fabrics three times, to be sure of getting out all the finishes and stiffeners. If the color is solid, you can soak the fabric in detergent and cold water overnight, then wash it in the same water. Whether cleaning or pre-treating, fabric must be rinsed in at least two changes of water to get out the soap. Watch out for "water saving" washing machines that leave suds in your clothes; it may be necessary to put the fabric through an entire extra cycle without soap or detergent.
If you fear that the fabric will ravel while being washed and dried, overcast the edge with a zig-zag machine or a serger.
If you can't machine overcast, baste the raw edges together, making a big loop, and wash with the "right" side of the seam out. (Some say that this also reduces tangling.) If a plain seam doesn't seem adequate, baste in a french seam. The fabric may fade or wear along the crease, but this part of the fabric will be a seam allowance or inside a hem.
Tapes (and other notions that would tangle in the washer) can be soaked in a bowl or a sink. Give them plenty of time to relax. Some notions shrink more than ten percent. Blot tape in a towel and iron it dry, as hot as you dare.
Consider tying tape into hanks and then sewing it into a pillowcase before running it through a gentle cycle. Use the hottest water and strongest soap you dare, and give it plenty of soaking time.
You pretty much have to trust bias tape, since shrinking would take out the folds, but steam-iron it at some stage before final stitching, or press it through a damp cloth. If you make your own tape, wash the fabric before you cut it. Use detergent, to get out anything that might wash out later. If it comes out loppy and hard to sew, starch it, or use a spray-on stiffener. Bear in mind that it will go back to being loppy when the garment is washed.
If you have to use a store-bought bias tape and it has to be washed first, you can baste the folds in. I've only done that once, but it worked perfectly. Stitch an eighth of an inch from the raw edge, and press the tape before you remove the basting.
If you can't find laundry starch in the stores, stir a tablespoon of cornstarch into a pint of water, and bring it to a boil while stirring constantly. This solution can be used full-strength and boiling-hot for board-like stiffness, or you can dilute it with cold water. Use more cornstarch to make stuff stiffer, and less cornstarch to make stuff less stiff. If the dye and fiber are boilfast, small bits of coarse lace can be dropped into boiling solution dry, for maximum stiffness, but anything more than a few inches across must be wringing wet, so that it can absorb the starch evenly.
Starch solution gets weaker as it is used, because fabric scavenges starch out of the water.
Traditionally, clothing is washed, removed from the washer, dropped into a bucket of starch solution, swished about, wrung by hand, shaken out, dried thoroughly on a clothesline, sprinkled lightly, left rolled up for a few hours or overnight, and ironed.
For a light finish, starch solution can be added to the final rinse. Use the same precautions you use with bleach, to avoid stiff spots. Machine-wrung fabric may be ironed dry, but it is easier to line dry it, dampen it, and then iron.
Starched fabric should not be machine-dried, because tumbling takes out the starch.
Small articles can be blocked instead of ironing them. Plaster a dripping-wet item to the side of the fridge, a window, or other smooth surface, and pat with a towel to flatten it and remove excess water. Allow to dry, and peel off. The side next to the smooth surface will be glossy, and the exposed surface will be matte. Put the right side down if you want it glossy, and put the wrong side down if you want the right side to be matte.
You can also block freshly-starched articles by pinning them out, or by stretching them on various frames which used to be made for this purpose. (Pants stretchers are still available, but curtain stretchers must be found in antique shops or custom made.) Remove excess starch by wringing, spinning in a washer, blotting or rolling in a towel, or whatever seems appropriate. If the blocking board is waterproof, the item can be pinned out dripping and then blotted just enough to keep starch from filling up the holes in the lace. (I'm assuming that you wouldn't go to the trouble of pinning out if it weren't lace.) Use rustproof pins, and pin diagonally-opposite points first, then pin about halfway between previous pins until the piece has the desired shape. Do not remove the pins until you are quite certain that the piece is perfectly dry.
Stainless-steel T pins are good for pinning out, as you can push them firmly without hurting your fingers.
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Rough sewing is at least as fussy about grain as fine sewing; simple things leave you nowhere to hide slaunchwise threads. If a dish towel is off-grain, for example, it will fight you every time you try to fold it and put it into a drawer. Since dish towels are at their best just before they disintegrate altogether, an off-grain towel will annoy you on a great many wash days before you can discard it.
For this reason, the practical seamster tears cloth to shape whenever it's feasible. Most natural fibers will tear neatly. Exceptions include knits, and fabrics that are too strong to tear at all. I won't swear to the tearing qualities of silk. I had passed my sewing prime before we re-established trade with Red China, so the only silk I've ever torn is velvet. (Velvet tears beautifully, but has little place in practical sewing.)
Tearing synthetics or synthetic blends is hazardous; sometimes threads will pull inches or even feet into the cloth before they break. (This is why the cloth meter that notched fabric for tearing was replaced by simple yardsticks in fabric stores.) However, the same slipperiness that displaces threads when you try to tear usually makes it easy to draw a thread.
Some blends combine the properties of their fibers in such a way that the threads pull easily, but won't draw at all. Luckily, there is little use for blended fibers in work where almost straight isn't good enough.
Blends are useful mostly in cotton-type shirts, where they save ironing time. Adding synthetic to wool does nothing but bring the price down, and dramatically reduces the durability of the fabric. Polywools are useful for practice pieces and pattern testing, since they closely mimic the properties of the real thing when they have not yet been worn. Wool blends also reduce the cost of ceremonial garments that aren't worn much and are never washed.
Before buying a blend to make a shirt, find the corner of the fabric, crumple it in your hand, squeeze for a few seconds, then release the fabric and see whether the creases spring out. If you can smooth it with the palm of your hand, you might have a no-iron fabric. If the fabric looks unalterably messy, pass it up. Also pass up any fabric that is visibly off grain, since permanent-press fabrics cannot be straightened.
Seams in wool shirts and shirts that will have to be ironed should be flat-fell. (Mock-fell fringes inside a shirt would tickle, and the seams of shirts are not subject to hard wear.) If the fabric is thick, one of the bound seams may be more appropriate. Note also that slightly-felted wool does not ravel.
Permanent-press shirts should have no top stitching, since top stitching tends to pucker and need ironing. Assemble permanent-press shirts with french seams. It may be worth your while to sew patch pockets on by hand, since a carefully-done back stitch won't pucker.
The first time a no-iron shirt is washed, press it with steam whether it appears to need it or not. This helps to set the shape.
Under heavy wear, blends are less durable than either of the fibers used straight. The synthetic fibers seem to grind away natural fibers that are spun together with them. (I also suspect that cheap, short-stapled fibers are used for blending.) When separate threads of natural and synthetic fibers are plied, knitted, or woven together, you do get a reinforcing effect. Another trick is to put a nylon patch over the natural fiber to shield it from friction, but make sure that the "give" of the two fabrics is the same in every direction. If one stretches more than the other, the patch will tear away at the stitches.
Having straightened the ends of fabric by tearing or by cutting along a thread, you may find that the threads are not at right angles to one another. If so, get a second person to help you grab a section at the corners of a square and pull vigorously on first one diagonal and then the other several times, then shift your grips a few inches and repeat until the whole fabric is relaxed. (In knits, pull lengthwise and crosswise.)
If you have no help, you face a tedious process — instead of relieving the stress by alternate stretching, you must stretch the diagonal that is too short, working out of one corner, along the length, and into the other corner, over and over until it stops springing back.
Sometime a crooked fabric will straighten itself when washed and machine dried, and if it doesn't, it might shape up if you fold it in half lengthwise, baste the edges together, and run it through again.
Some fabrics have a definite right and wrong side, some are the same on both sides, and some appear to be the same on both sides, but prove to be different once the garment is made up.
Before cutting, you must decide which side is the right side and, if the difference isn't obvious, mark the wrong side with chalk. Large X marks are often suggested for this purpose, but if you use "this side up" arrows, you can also mark the nap and grain.
It is a good idea to put more arrows on scraps as they fall away, so that you can continue to match sides and grains when you use the left-overs. If you think the chalk arrows will wear off in storage, use small graphite-pencil arrows in places where they aren't apt to spoil the finished product.
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Rayon often confuses people because it is man-made, but not synthetic. Cellulose from various sources is dissolved, then extruded into filaments. There are many kinds of rayon, known by many, many names. One early variety was nitrocellulose — a substance also known as guncotton! Needless to say, it was jerked off the market rather hastily, and modern rayons are no more of a fire hazard than unregenerated plant fibers.
Originally made as a substitute for silk, rayons are smooth and comfortable to the touch, but tend to fade and lose luster when washed. Rayons make excellent underwear and ladies' stockings because they combine the breathability of plant fibers with the slickness of synthetics. There is currently a regrettable vogue for making dress-up garments of rayon and marking them "dry clean only".
"Acetate" is short for acetate rayon.
Really, really persistent Googling revealed that "bamboo" is also a regenerated cellulose fiber. Many of the people who have used it assert that it is superior to the other rayons.
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Polyester has little or no stretch, tends to resume its shape after washing, and doesn't absorb water. Polyester makes good rain gear — and lousy towels. It makes excellent kite strings and climbing rope, and is good for garments where a neat appearance is important.
Polyester is often knitted, or combined with Lycra, so polyester fabrics may have a great deal of stretch even though the fiber itself has none. The tendency of the fiber to resume its original crimp or straightness imparts elasticity to the fabric.
Polycotton makes good office clothes, but is inclined to pill unless at least 65% cotton.
Polyester double knit is made of filaments, not chopped into staple like polyester blends, so it wears better than blends, and the knit structure makes it comfortably stretchy. People got heartily sick of polyester doubleknit in the seventies, so it will be called by some other name, but it is still good for clothes that must look neat and need not endure hard wear. Modern doubleknits do not snag as easily as the seventies polyesters.
Polyester tends to melt when exposed to heat, so should not be worn near fire. Don't use polyester in children's sleepwear or other garments they will wear when unsupervised. Chemical treatment of the fabric will stop it from bursting into flame, but can't stop it from melting.
It's hard to buy sewing thread that isn't polyester. The better brands of polyester sewing thread are decent, but cheaply-made polyester sewing thread is fit only for basting, and the fuzz makes it hard to pull out. Polyester thread wrapped or blended with cotton has no redeeming virtues — unless you sew so fast that your needle gets hot, in which case a cotton wrap can keep a polyester core from melting.
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Nylon has lots and lots of stretch, and is water repellent and slippery. Excellent for sewing thread and rain gear. Inclined to ravel if not cut with a hot knife, so seam finishing may be very important. It is very strong and makes good bags etc., but its slipperiness makes it inclined to pull out at the seams under stress. Nylon is often used to reinforce other fibers at points of wear. Most nylons melt when exposed to heat, but the Nomex used in fire-fighter's "turnout" uniforms is a nylon. When in doubt, assume that the nylon in hand is a fire hazard.
Pure nylon fabric is usually woven, and has very little stretch. (Each fiber stretches easily, but stretching a hundred fibers at once requires immense force.) Nylon fiber is often given a permanent wave to imitate the "crimp" in wool, and blended to provide stretch and spring-back in knitted fabrics. "Wooly Nylon" is a popular thread for overlock machines.
Nylon sewing thread is very strong but, because of the slipperiness, it requires care in securing the ends.
"Nymo", an excellent brand that is regrettably gone, was parallell strands like fine dental floss. At this writing, dental tape is displacing dental floss, but the manufacturers are retaining the label "floss" in the belief that customers won't understand that tape serves the same purpose as floss. This may do strange things to the language. Tape is much better at cleaning your teeth, but nearly useless for needlework purposes. If you have floss that really is floss, it can be useful when you need a very strong thread — but it may be too strong, and cut your fabric. (Dental floss will also cut cheese, which may be handy to know if you ever buy an entire horn of Colby. Wrap the ends around sticks —pencils work— to avoid cutting your hands.) Since the fibers aren't twisted together, you can split dental floss to obtain a finer thread.
Nylon thread that is plied like spun thread — staple is "spun" and filament is "twisted" but this is not the place to discuss thread-making techniques — is much used in industry, but nylon thread is hard to find in sewing stores. Monofilament nylon, on the other hand is common under the name "invisible thread"; because the single filament is so thick, it's prone to permanent kinking, and may break at the kink. Monofiliment should not be used in seams that may touch the skin, as the single fiber is so coarse that an end can cause visible damage to your skin if it's allowed to persist in scratching you.
Monofilament nylon would probably be better than dental floss for cutting cheese, but I don't buy whole horns of cheese any more and can't check.
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Acrylic fibers are noted for making cool summer clothes.
Filament acrylics are as pretty as silk but not as inclined to sag, and they are comfortable enough to wear next to the skin. Unfortunately, acrylic is mostly made into imitation wool. This is fine and dandy if you want a "wool" suit to wear in an overheated office, but can cause discomfort, even danger, if someone accustomed to wool puts on an acrylic sweater for protection against the cold.
Many a poor soul thinks that wool is "scratchy" because he put on a wool sweater as thick as the acrylic sweaters he was accustomed to, and promptly began to sweat profusely.
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Cotton and other plant fibers tend to be cool to the touch, because they absorb and evaporate water. Plant fibers are superb for hot-weather wear, but can be fatal in winter clothes. Cotton flannel is a staple for winter underwear in situations where it is sure not to get wet, but no trace of plant fiber should be used in winter athletic clothing for males, as active men always sweat enough to dampen their clothing.
Plant fibers tend to muss, so should not be used for formal wear, except for white shirts that are washed and ironed fresh for every wearing. (Starch helps them stay smooth a bit longer.)
Poly-cotton blends combine the appearance of cotton with the wrinkle-shed properties of polyester, but also have the breathing properties of polyester, so polycottons should be used only for clothing to be worn in climate-controlled rooms. Men seem to tolerate polyester better than women, perhaps because they are going to sweat no matter what, and so don't notice the "suffocating" properties. A poly-cotton that is less than sixty-five percent cotton may pill.
Cotton sewing thread used to be the default, but is now hard to find. When you think you've found it, it often turns out to be basting thread or embroidery thread. It takes six plies to make durable cotton thread, and it's been a long time since I've seen thread with more than three. Check by untwisting the thread: all sewing threads unwind into three thinner threads, but in serious seam-sewing thread, each of the three plies is made of two very-thin "yarns" twisted together.
I often use a hard-spun crochet cotton to sew my plant fibers. If you need to match color, you may have to choose polyester, or gamble on a three-ply thread. Since different fibers fade in different ways, it is better to start out with a contrasting thread on colors that are expected to change. (This may be why jeans were traditionally sewn with orange thread — the cheap indigo dye was certain to wash out.) (If you are puzzled by the expression "true blue" and other ancient references to the remarkable fastness of indigo, remember that expensive fabrics were dipped dozens and dozens of times, to build up the insoluble pigment inside the fibers. When fabric is dipped only a few times, most of the indigo is on the surface.)
Full-length linen fibers can be spun only by hand, and probably would have to be grown to your order, so you can forget about running linen sewing thread through your machine, but factory-spun linen hand-sewing thread makes strong seams despite lumps and a tendency to fray apart while you are sewing. Soft-spun linen is the traditional thread for sewing books, because it has less tendency to cut paper than other strong threads.
Linen is even more inclined to muss than cotton, but much-washed damask gets soft, and less inclined to wrinkle.
Linen is also cooler than cotton, and hand-spun linen is much stronger and more durable than cotton. Factory-spun linen is apt to be weaker and less durable than cotton, because of having been chopped to a length that cotton-spinning equipment can handle.
A blend of linen and cotton seems to muss less than either fiber alone, and is cooler than pure cotton.
Most plant fibers are seed hairs like cotton, or bast fibers like linen. Bast fibers predominate, because seed hairs have to be bred up to a usable length, and cotton got there first. Even in wild plants, some bast fibers are long enough to be used without being spun into thread.
Since both are bast fibers, and both are used to make rope, hemp is often confused with jute. Jute is a coarse, prickly fiber that is dark brown when not bleached; hemp is as fine and soft as linen, but has longer fibers.
Jute is most often found in burlap, a coarse, loosely-woven fabric originally used for gunny sacks. "Agricultural burlap" is a particularly loose weave used for wrapping the root-balls of plants.
Both hemp and linen are chopped to suit spinning machinery designed for cotton, so their full strength is seldom available. We could design automatic machinery to handle long fibers, but by the time our technology had advanced that far, we'd gotten used to the weak chopped-fiber threads, so it isn't worth anybody's while to do it.
Kapok is the seed hairs of a tropical tree, and milkweed down comes from a common temperate-zone weed. Both fibers are too slick and short to spin into decent thread, both are excellent stuffing, and make soft pillows and smooth-faced rag dolls. Milkweed also has a good bast fiber in its stem, but this is harvested only as a stunt.
Most bast fibers don't like sharp creases, and wear quickly along folds. (This is why fine table linens are rolled on a tube when put away for a long time.)
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Animal fibers are warm and resilient, and second only to Nomex for fire resistance.
Most animal fibers are hard to muss, and make excellent formal wear. "Silk" is sometimes synonomous with "dressy", and many animal furs and hairs are luxurious, but for easy-care formal beauty, you can't beat well-made sheep's wool.
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Wool is hard to wet, so it makes excellent athletic wear, particularly in the winter. No other fiber is as good for socks, since it is the most elastic fiber, and can fit tightly without cutting off your circulation. It also doesn't feel wet or stretch out of shape when you sweat, and wool allows air to get inside your shoes to cool your feet. It absorbs more water than any other natural fiber — which makes it the overall champion, since the super-absorbent synthetics are seldom used for apparel. Though very absorbent, wool doesn't wick worth a nickel, which makes it good for the outermost layer under rainwear — it won't pull water in through pores or flaws in the water-shedding layer.
Having been bred for spinning, wool is usually more durable than the hair, fur, and down of other animals, but there are many breeds of sheep, and other kinds of mammal fiber can be carefully spun to exploit their properties. Mohair, which is usually spun into a feeble, fluffy yarn, can be spun into such a durable yarn that it is often used to reinforce the heels and toes of wool socks.
Silk is either reeled off the cocoons in one long filament, or cut into staple and spun.
Reeled silk makes excellent sewing thread, which is stronger than cotton or spun polyester, but less likely to cut your fabric than nylon is. Reeled silk is the kind used for silky, shiny fabrics.
Spun silk makes good winter underwear, since it has cotton's virtues, but doesn't chill you when it's wet.
For durability, choose reeled silk — when knitted, it makes fine, elastic underwear. For economy, choose "silk noil" — silk spun from the scraps of reeling. Silk is used for luxury clothes, warm underwear, facings, interfacings, bindings, linings, and underlinings.
Silk fabrics are usually thin or even sheer, because the fiber is very strong and very expensive. If you can find a reasonably thick silk, it will prove to be very durable.
Silk not only withstands washing, it will wear better if it gets wet once in a while. Pre-washing is particulary important for silk, which is inclined to water-spot if it has never been washed. Silk is also likely to shrink quite a lot the first time it gets wet, having been dried under tension on the reels. Many people pre-wash silk even when they plan to make it into a dry-clean-only garment, so that a stray drop of water can't ruin it.
If you have access to left-over fabrics from garment factories, silk can be cheap enough to use for everyday clothing. A silk party dress may prove more economical than one made from synthetics, since silk will remain beautiful for a longer time, and when it is worn or unfashionable, the party gown can become a comfortable lounging robe or a warm slip.
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Feathers and bird down are mostly used as decoration and stuffing.
Goose down is the lightest insulation known, and can be compressed into a small fraction of its volume for carrying, then it fluffs out quickly when shaken, so it used to be the best stuffing for sleeping bags. However, down is useful only when you are quite, quite certain that it will remain dry, so down sleeping bags are appropriate only in the depths of winter.
Down sounds luxurious for pillows, but floofs out of the path of your descending head, or flattens into nothing under the weight. Fine feathers are much more resilient, but are very hard to find now that synthetic stuffing is so good and so cheap that people who buy natural-fiber pillows insist on the more-expensive down.
Sometimes coarse feathers are crushed to make them resemble fine feathers, but the resilience is crushed out of them, so that crushed-feather pillows are heavy, hard, and flat.
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To start a tear, snip the edge with scissors or a knife — I've been known to start a tear with a seam ripper. For accurate tearing, try to make the snip run exactly along a thread of the cloth.
Grasp one side of the snip with each hand and pull firmly and steadily, without jerking or theatrics. Watch the last few threads: shift your grip to hold and snap them as you would break a string, or stop tearing just short of the end, and cut the last quarter inch with scissors.
Press a torn edge with steam to take out any stretching and curling that may have been imparted. If the edge is ruffled, spray it with water, or touch it with a wet rag, and press.
Well-worn fabric being torn into rags can often be started without any snip, as one would tear paper. To tear in an exact spot, pinch the fabric in such fashion that your thumbnails mark the place where the tear is to begin. Be careful of places where the tear crosses a worn line such as develops along a crease, and use your tear-starting pinch to keep the tear from turning to follow the crease.
Only woven fabrics can be torn neatly, and not all woven fabrics can be torn neatly. Slick fibers may pull inches or even feet into the body of the fabric, and fancy weaves may do unexpected things.
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