Ever wonder HOW fabric is made? It blew my mind when I first saw videos of the process. Here’s what you want to know!
When we go to the library, I like my kids to pick out a variety of books including fiction and non fiction. I want them to learn how to find resources at the library and encourage a love for learning. Many years ago we found a book on how fabric is made and I’ve been FASCINATED ever since. I’ve spent hours showing the kids YouTube videos of the step-by-step process of how linen, cotton, and other materials are made.
It is just mind blowing how much time and effort go into making something that we often don’t value. Learning to sew clothing myself, I have started to appreciate clothing more and purchase quality clothing that sometimes costs a bit more, just for the reassurance of knowing it was ethically made and environmentally friendly. I don’t have the spoons to always do everything properly, but I try.
Regardless, it’s all a fascinating process. Here’s a guide to how fabric is made, including some great videos showing the processes.
How is Fabric Made?
Fabric is a material we use many times in our everyday lives – we wear it, use it to transport items, adorn our homes with it, use it to shelter us from the elements, and it covers many of the surfaces we touch throughout the day. It serves both practical and aesthetic purposes, changing the texture of a surface, acting as a barrier, or adding visual interest or decoration to a space or object.
Considering how much it affects our daily life, you may wonder: how is fabric made? Keep reading to learn more about different types of fabrics and the general fabric-making process.
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Please read the whole post so you don’t miss any important information!
What is Fabric?
The term “fabric” refers to woven, knitted, or felted cloth used to make products like clothing and household goods like bedding, rugs, curtains, towels, etc.
There are dozens of different varieties of fabrics that fall under three main categories, and each variety itself may have a dozen different uses based on the specific properties of the fabric.
Types of Fabric
There are three main types of fabric: synthetic, natural, and blended. All fabric is man-made, as processing raw material to make fiber and fabric always requires some form of human intervention, but the sources of the fiber can either come from a farmed (or foraged) resource or from a manufacturing facility.
There are different advantages and disadvantages to either kind of fabric (and to each of the more specific types within both categories) that will influence the performance of the fabric and any products made with it. Many textiles on the market today are made from a blend of the two to offer benefits from both types.
For the purposes of this post, we’ll just talk about how synthetic and natural fabrics are made.
The label “synthetic” on certain fabrics indicates that the fabric was made from artificial or chemically made materials. These fabrics are difficult to manufacture without serious equipment and expertise, and the process can sometimes produce harmful chemical byproducts.
How Synthetic Fabrics Are Made
Unlike natural fabrics, which you’ll learn about further down, synthetic fabrics almost always start out as a liquid. Different chemicals are combined in a lab or industrial setting to create a chemical reaction. This chemical reaction, known as polymerisation, creates polymers (a greek word meaning “many units”), which are chains of monomers (molecules that can be bonded to other molecules).
The liquid polymers are extruded through tiny holes to produce hair-like fibers, which are then spun into yarn or thread and then woven or knitted together to create fabric!
That fabric can be used in a wide array of applications and may have a specific purpose based on the type of fabric (neoprene, for example, is commonly used in swimwear). They can be combined with other synthetic fibers or natural ones to create a blended material.
Types of Synthetic Fabrics
These are all commonly used synthetic fabrics, and many of them go by multiple different names:
- PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride)
- Polychloroprene (Neoprene)
Advantages of Synthetic Fabrics
Synthetic fabric has a few unique qualities that may make it a more attractive option than natural fabric:
Synthetic fabrics are highly durable. Depending on the specific fabric, they can be repeatedly stretched while still retaining elasticity and are sometimes stronger than a comparable natural fabric alternative.
Just like many other man-made materials, synthetic fabrics are often cheaper than natural ones. There are usually less costs associated with creating synthetics and that savings is passed on to the consumer.
- Wrinkle Resistant
Fabrics made from synthetic materials are less likely to wrinkle than those made from natural fibers, which is usually a benefit of the fabric’s elasticity and ability to maintain its original shape.
- Water Resistant
Many kinds of synthetic fabrics are more water resistant (or in some cases, entirely waterproof) than natural fibers. This makes them great for specific applications where water resistance is necessary.
This video shows polyester as it’s made from recycled plastic.
Natural fabrics are fabrics derived from sources that occur organically, such as the hair or fur of an animal or the cellulose of a plant. Specific natural fibers sometimes undergo individualized processes to become fabrics and then usable goods, but the general process of how natural fabrics are made is essentially the same.
How Natural Fabrics Are Made
Natural fabrics are made by growing and harvesting fiber from natural sources like plants and animals. The type of fabric depends on the specific plant or animal that the fiber came from. Linen comes from the flax plant, cotton comes from the cotton plant, cashmere comes from goats, etc.
In the case of plant-based fabrics, the plants are farmed as a crop, harvested, and then broken down into fiber, which is then spun into yarn or string. Some fibers can also be felted into sheets or forms.
For animal-based fabrics, different types of livestock are raised as normal and their pelt is sheared one or more times a year. Different animals grow hair at different rates, so the number of harvesting sessions can vary depending on the breed. In most cases (though unfortunately not all), the animal doesn’t have to be killed or injured in order to obtain the fiber to make fabric.
Once the fiber is processed into usable string, it can be woven or knitted into fabric. This process can be done by hand using very few or simple tools, or can be done on a large scale using complex machines in industrial mass-production. Essentially, fabric is made by joining the fibers together to create one continuous structure of cloth.
Types of Natural Fabrics
As stated above, natural fabrics can come either from plant or animal sources. Fiber farms exist all over the world and are highly profitable, depending on the type of fiber being grown.
Here are a few examples of the most common types of natural fabrics:
Plant-based Natural Fabrics
Animal-based Natural Fabrics
- Traditional Silk
*Leathers undergo a different process than other types of fabric as they’re made from the skin or hide of the animal rather than just the hair. In the case of vegetable leather, it’s typically made from the peel or a liquid pulp of a fruit, vegetable, or mycelium.
Here are videos on the process of creating these fabrics. Watching silk being produced makes me think we don’t pay enough for it… wow.
Wool is a little easier in my opinion:
Advantages of Natural Fabrics
Here are a few reasons why you may decide to use natural fabric over synthetic:
Naturally-derived fabrics are the more environmentally conscious option, though different types of natural fibers are better than others in this regard because of the resource implications in farming, harvesting and processing the fibers (you can read more about eco-friendly fabrics here!). They’re often biodegradable and won’t sit around forever in a landfill if you do need to get rid of them.
- Odor Resistant
In comparison to their synthetic counterparts, natural fibers absorb and emit way less odor. Sometimes synthetic fibers retain a chemical smell from the manufacturing process. They’re also routinely used in athletic apparel and can hang on to bacteria and body odors over time, requiring special care (and more frequent replacement) to get rid of the stink.
Many plant-based natural fabrics are highly breathable, allowing for air circulation and letting moisture evaporate through the fabric. Certain natural materials are better suited to this than others.
Animal-based fabrics (and some of the plant-based ones) are also great as insulation, trapping and retaining heat to keep you warm even in extreme temperatures.
Natural fibers typically have a higher rate of liquid absorption than synthetic ones. This translates to fabrics that are far more receptive to moisture.
Can I Make My Own Fabric?
Can you make your own fabric? The short answer is yes…BUT it depends on how much time you have to learn and execute the skills needed to make your particular desired fabric and what types of resources you have available to aid in your craft. Making synthetic fabrics is almost exclusively reserved for a factory setting due to the nature of the fiber, so let’s talk about the more accessible type of fabric to make: natural fiber fabric.
Processing the fibers from the source is the most time-consuming and monotonous part of the fabric-making process. Some types of fibers are able to be processed completely by hand, but in most cases you’ll at least need a few tools to aid in the harvesting or refining of the material. You may even find simple machines a necessary utility in the process. You may need a spinning wheel to turn certain fibers into yarn or tanning equipment to process leather.
Once you’ve processed your fiber, you’ll have to construct your fabric. The method of construction depends on the type of fabric, and the intended use of the fabric can affect the desired outcome. Weaving is a popular method that can create sheets of fabric (in almost any shape you wish) with a customizable thread density. Other popular hand-making methods include crocheting, knitting, and felting.
In some cases, these methods can be applied to the processed fibers to simultaneously create the fabric and the desired product at the same time, essentially reducing steps. Knitting and crocheting yarns can make garments, blankets, etcetera without having to first create a measure of fabric. This isn’t the case for all types of natural fibers, as some are more delicate than others and need a specific structure to create a viable fabric.
You can customize your fabrics or fibers further by dyeing them! You can use any combination of commercially available or homemade dyes to create the desired look, either by dyeing your fiber before turning it into fabric or by dyeing the fabric once it’s processed.
You may want to make your own fabric from scratch because of a desire to participate in the process, a desire to customize your fabric to your preferences, or just out of curiosity. If, however, you aren’t interested in making your own, buying fabric is often an easy and affordable option!
Where to Buy Fabric
If you’re not too keen on making your own fabric, there is great news! Fabric is widely available in retail stores at reasonable prices all over the place, and if you can’t find a specific fabric you can order it online.
You may want to check your local craft and hobby stores first as they will have the widest array of fabrics available in different colors, patterns, and fiber blends. Fabric is usually sold by the yard, and you might also be able to find other useful tools to help you transform it into whatever you have planned.
If you need it in a hurry but don’t have a fabric store nearby or can’t find the specific fabric you’re looking for, you can order online! Shipping is usually fast and cheap if the online retailer you buy from is located within the contiguous states. It’s also easier to shop sales and source multiple fabrics from different places without leaving your home.
Another option that isn’t often considered (though it should be!) is to source fabrics by thrifting and flipping items like curtains, sheets, clothing, blankets, etc! You’d be surprised to find that a lot of high-quality fabrics with minimal cosmetic issues are just sitting in thrift stores waiting to be picked up and repurposed.
How To Use Fabric
Most fabrics are highly versatile and can be turned into any number of things, though certain fabrics are better suited for specific uses than others.
When selecting a fabric, keep the intended purpose in mind as well as the properties of the fabric you’re considering. Also be prepared to research construction methods, as certain fabrics can’t tolerate different kinds of stitching or adhesives and will fall apart or fray if used with incompatible methods and materials.
From there, you can use a pattern (check out some of my sewing patterns here), design your own, or follow a tutorial to learn how to create your desired end result! You can poke around the sewing section of my site for some ideas, or to learn the basics of how to create your own goods from different fabrics!
Please share and pin this post! If you make this project, share it in our Stuff Mama Makes Facebook Group. We have regular giveaways for gift cards to craft stores. You can also tag me on Instagram @doityourselfdanielle; I love seeing everything you make!