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Clothing is made from a huge variety of fibers and fabrics, and all of these varieties have different properties that change how they look, wear, and behave. If you want to create a certain look, give off a specific impression, or achieve maximum comfort in a variety of temperature and weather conditions, it is important to know what fabrics will help you meet your goal. This post is the first in a series covering what properties textiles used in clothing have and why they have them.
Knit and woven fabrics are far and away the two most common forms of textiles used in clothing. While each of them has many subtypes, all woven fabrics have a shared set of properties and all knits have a different set. These properties are observable regardless of the fiber type; the same fiber can be used in a knit fabric and a woven fabric and yield different results.
All of the different properties stem from how the fabrics are constructed. Knits are made from a series interconnecting loops, and wovens are made of perpendicular threads going over and under each other. Both are made by machine for commercial uses, but both can also be done by hand by hobbyists. Woven fabric is made on a loom where the warp (vertical) threads are held in place and the weft (horizontal) thread moves over and under a set number of warp threads to create the desired type of weave. The warp and weft threads are always at right angles to each other, creating a very structured fabric. Twills and some other types of weaves may appear to be diagonal, but that’s just an optical illusion. Knit fabric is created on a knitting machine which mimics the actions of hand-knitting, pulling the thread through the loops of the previous row to create the new one. While looms always create flat fabric, some knitting machines can create tubular fabrics, usually seen in seamless tees and socks.
Poplin is a type of woven fabric with thicker weft yarns.
For the purposes of this post, stretch refers to an impermanent increase in size, and not the permanent change in size that is common with some fiber types. Typically knits will have stretch along all axes, but the amount of stretch in each direction will be dependent on the type of knit. Ribbed knits are much stretchier in the horizontal direction than jersey knits, and purl knits, also known as garter stitch, is stretchier in the vertical. The elasticity in knits come from the freedom of movement and open spaces that the interconnected loops have. Wovens, however, are more structured due to the rigid, right angles and will have little to no stretch on the horizontal and vertical, but will along the diagonal, more commonly referred to in textiles as the bias. Stretchiness can be increased in all fabrics with the addition of spandex or other related material to the fiber during the yarn spinning process prior to knitting/weaving.
The ribbed hem and necklines allow for more stretchiness where it is most needed.
For the same reasons that knits stretch, they also resist wrinkling. Wrinkles are caused by heat or moisture which causes the fibers to move and reset into new uneven or bent positions. The interconnected loops of knit fabric and their elasticity make it easier for knit fabric to bounce back to their original shape instead of getting stuck in the new wrinkled shape. This doesn’t mean knit fabric can’t wrinkle, it just takes more to make it wrinkle than woven fabric. Some fiber types don’t wrinkle at all regardless of what type of textile they are, including many blended fabrics, chemically treated cotton, and cashmere.
Twill is commonly used for pants, and the way it is woven gives it a diagonal appearances, despite threads still being perpendicular.
Pilling occurs when a loose end of spun fiber detaches from the yarn and becomes entangled with itself and other loose ends. Excessive rubbing and abrasion increases pilling. It is far more of a problem for knits than wovens because of the ease of movement and greater distance between the yarn in knits. The highly structural nature of wovens make it harder for the individual yarns to rub against each other the way knits do. Looser weaves and knits are more prone to pilling than tighter ones for the same reason.
Jersey is the most common type of knit and used in everything from underwear to cocktail dresses.
Raw edge hems have become popular in recent years, and if you’ve taken a close look at them, you’ll notice that all items made with a raw finish are knits. This is because woven fabric will unravel and fray if there is no finishing. The weft threads will come loose and come off the fabric, leaving dangling warp threads. Wovens will also fray if a hole is torn in them, while knits will run, a problem most commonly noticed in stockings and tights. Runs occur because once the hole happens the loops above and below it are no longer secured and come undone.
Oxford cloth is a hard-wearing, basketweave woven fabric.
The different properties that knits and wovens have allow them to serve different purposes in a wardrobe. Typically woven fabric is more structured and therefore more formal, while knits are more casual. Knits are easier to fit because of their stretchiness. However, these aspects are not the only considerations needed when deciding on a fabric for a given piece, the fiber type, how loose/tight the knit/weave is, and color are all other important factors.
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