The Wide World of Fabric

The wearing of clothing is unique to the human species, and is a feature of nearly every society on the planet. Exactly when the practice started has been lost to the mists of time, but much evidence suggests that it may have begun as far back as 100,000 to 500,000 years ago. What appear to be sewing needles have been found and dated to around 40,000 years ago. The earliest examples of these needles originate from the Solutrean culture, which existed in what is now France from 19,000 BC to 15,000 BC. Meanwhile, the earliest dyed flax fibers have been found in a prehistoric cave in what is today the Republic of Georgia, and date back to 36,000 BC. Anthropologists have conjectured that animal skins and vegetation were first used as coverings as a method of protection from cold or heat or the elements, especially as humans settled areas in climates alien to them. Another possibility is that the coverings may have been first used for other purposes, such as belief in magic, as a ornamental decoration, as part of cult rituals, or for additional prestige, and then was later found to be practical on its own accord.

For these reasons and much more, clothing and textiles have been important throughout human history and reflect the materials available to a civilization as well as the technologies that it has mastered.

Now, we are not going to provide a whole walkthrough on the history of fabrics! We all know textiles are as ancient as time. Instead, what we want to provide is a better understanding of what we have available in today’s market. And today, thanks to technology, we have evolved so much from the prehistoric methods that the diameter of the fiber (which will contribute to a finer yarn, and therefore provide a more luxurious comfort and pleasure for the wearer) is less than of the human hair!

How does this work? The fineness of a fiber is measured in micrometers (microns). 1 micron=one millionth of a meter. The average diameter of a high quality fiber is 12-24 microns for wool fabrics. The human hair is about 100 microns in diameter. Hmm, hello Super 230s!

But beware the quality of the cloth, or what we refer to as “Super 100s” up to “230s” does not necessarily mean that finer is better. You could have a good 15-micron wool or a bad 15-micron wool. Fineness is just one of the quality components. Length, strength, color and crimp are the others. With the first two particularly so. Length is critical: the longer the fiber the stronger the yarn that can be spun from it. Strength is also essential because the yarn must be twisted tightly to achieve a fine weave.

That said, here is a look at what our most used suit and casual wear fabrics are:

Wool

Wool is the textile fiber obtained from sheep and certain other animals and is the most widely used textile in the world. Often refered to as “the plywood” of fabric, you can make almost anything out of it. Because of the structure of its fibers, wool has a unique insulating quality and excellent elasticity (meaning that even if wrinkled and stretched, the fabric will recover its original shape). Its fibers’ thin outer membrane is paradoxically water-resistant while also being very absorbent. This means it absorbs moisture away from the body while preventing outside moisture from penetrating. Pure genius!

Wool Gabardine

A tightly woven fabric that is ribbed diagonally on one side and smooth on the other, with a slight sheen.

Wool Crepe

This is a “broken” twill, which means that its yarns are highly twisted to provide a slightly irregular texture.

Wool Silk

Lightweight and semi-sheer. This fabric is softer than wool, but warmer than silk. One of your summer suits’ best friends.

Cotton

Cotton is a soft, fluffy staple fiber that grows in a boll, or protective capsule, around the seeds of cotton plants of the genus Gossypium. The fiber is almost pure cellulose. The fiber is most often spun into yarn or thread, and used to make a soft, breathable textile. The use of cotton for fabric is known to date to ancient times; fragments of cotton fabric have been found and dated to 5000 BC.

A brushed cotton suit provides a polished look for a hot day, just make sure, if worn separately, both parts of your cotton suit are washed together to keep color on both pieces to fade at the same rate.

Linen

Linen is a textile made from the fibers of the flax plant. Linen is labor-intensive to manufacture, but when it is made into garments, it is valued for its exceptional coolness and freshness in hot weather. Linen textiles appear to be some of the oldest in the world, dating back to 8000 BC.

Linen is a bast fiber. Flax fibers vary in length from about 25 to 150 cm (18 to 55 in), and average 12-16 microns in diameter. There are two varieties: shorter tow fibers used for coarser fabrics, and longer line fibers used for finer fabrics. Flax fibers can usually be identified by their “nodes,” which add to the flexibility and texture of the fabric.

Linen fabric feels cool to the touch. It is smooth, making the finished fabric lint-free, and gets softer the more it is washed. However, constant creasing in the same place in sharp folds will tend to break the linen threads. This wear can show up in collars, hems, and any area that is iron creased during laundering. Linen has poor elasticity, and does not spring back readily, explaining why it wrinkles so easily.

Seersucker

Seersucker is a thin, puckered, all-cotton fabric, commonly striped or checkered, used to make clothing for spring and summer wear. The word came into English from the Hindustani languages (Urdu and Hindi), and originates from the Persian words “shir o shekar,” meaning “milk and sugar,” probably from the resemblance of its smooth and rough stripes to the smooth texture of milk and the bumpy texture of sugar. Seersucker is woven in such a way that some threads bunch together, giving the fabric a wrinkled appearance in places. This feature causes the fabric to be mostly held away from the skin when worn, facilitating heat dissipation and air circulation. It also means that pressing is not necessary (play blissful music here)!

Bamboo

Because the fibers of bamboo are very short (less than 3mm long), they are impossible to transform into yarn in a natural process. The usual process by which textiles labeled as being made of bamboo are produced uses only the rayon that is being made out of the fibers with heavy employment of chemicals. To accomplish this, the fibers are broken down with chemicals and extruded through mechanical spinnerets. Retailers have sold both end products as “bamboo fabric” to cash in on bamboo’s current ecofriendly cachet. Be aware of the chemicals involved in this process if you are really going for the “green” effect, though.

Silk Bamboo

Created by spinning the pulp of new bamboo canes into threads, which are then blended with pure silk and woven into a luxurious fabric. It has the softness of cashmere, and is even more breathable than cotton. Perfect for luxurious sleepwear and casual apparel.

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