Glossary: Fibers, Fabrics, and Materials

Textiles are complicated, and the terms used for textiles and other materials tend to change over time, and sometimes mean different things in different places. Fiber is not the same thing as fabric, and neither of those are the same thing as weave.

Fiber is the raw material from which thread, yarn, or fabric (or felt, or quilt batting, etc.) is made. Fabric is (often) woven (or sometimes knitted, or sometimes felt) material, which comes in an almost infinite variety of weaves, weights, textures, colors, etc. Weave refers to the way in which the yarns of fiber are put together, during weaving, on a loom – so it does not refer to knit or felt materials. Sometimes the word “weave” is used in a broad way, to indicate a certain “type” of fabric, which often includes fiber and weight and perhaps other qualities, along with the characteristics of the actual weave.

Natural fibers include cotton, linen, wool, and silk, as well as some less common materials including hemp and ramie. Synthetic fibers include polyester, nylon, spandex, and acetate. Rayon is often classified as a synthetic fabric, but in fact it is actually only man-made: it is made from cellulosic material (natural material) which is artificially processed to render it into fiber which can then be made into thread, yarn, or fabric. Rayon has qualities of both synthetic and natural fibers, but unlike almost all synthetic fibers, rayon breathes fairly well (though not as well as natural fibers.)

The most basic weave is the over-one-under-one pattern of the “plain” or “tabby,” weave, also sometimes called “linen” weave, and historically sometimes referred to as “cloth” (though that term could also imply different things, most commonly that the cloth was of wool). There are also twill weaves, which can create many variations, with diagonal effects. There are specialty weaves, which include fabrics which change weave from one section to another, and pile fabrics, such as velvet, faux fur, or carpet. There is also satin weave, which involves long floats of yarn that go over before going under very briefly; this creates a shiny surface, especially in lustrous fibers such as silk.

The combination of fiber and weave, along with other characteristics such as weight and “hand,” are what give a particular fabric its individual nature. Weight indicates how light and thin versus heavy and thick a fabric is. Hand indicates how crisp or stiff versus soft and drapey a fabric is.

Examples of medium-weight, plain-woven fabrics with a fairly crisp hand include: cotton broadcloth (such as quilter’s calico), most linen suiting, some varieties of wool tabby (which is often suiting), silk taffeta, and some acetate or polyester taffeta (though some is much thinner and lighter weight).

Examples of sheer (meaning see-through), lightweight, plain-woven fabrics with a soft, drapey hand include: cotton voile and cotton batiste, some handkerchief linen, silk chiffon, rayon georgette, and polyester chiffon.

Cotton, silk, and synthetic silk-imitators are all readily available in varieties of satin weave, but often, cotton satin is referred to as cotton sateen, or simply as sateen.

Choosing Fabrics

When choosing fabrics for a given project, it is important to select something that will have the right properties for the project’s intended use. This can be a complicated process, and at times dauntingly expensive. Often, especially in historical sewing, natural fibers are the best choice, for many reasons, include durability and comfort as well as authenticity. High quality natural fibers, especially wool and silk, can be expensive and hard to find. But sales are available, and there are many creative ways to use natural fibers while still keeping to a tight budget.

Over the years, my experience with historical sewing and with, well, wearing clothes, has taught me that 9 times out of 10, if not more often than that, natural fibers are best – even when historical accuracy isn’t an issue! But I have also found that rayon can be a good choice fairly regularly, for instance for trims that are no longer available in natural fibers, or for vintage-style clothing. I do sometimes work with synthetic fabrics, often when sewing for other people, and every time I do, I am frustrated by how very difficult they are too work with, and how difficult they often are to keep clean and undamaged. Add to that how uncomfortable synthetics generally are to wear (especially in the heat!), and I have a strong motivation to avoid synthetic fibers when I can manage it.

For more information about an individual fiber, fabric, or other material, select it on the right side menu for “Fibers, Fabrics, and Materials.” This will bring up all entries which have that tag, including (in most cases) a Glossary post which will offer a definition of that fiber, fabric, or material, and sometimes also offer useful links to outside sources on working with it. For a directory of all textile glossary posts, go to the Glossary Table of Contents.

Outside Links About Fibers and Fabrics:

Testing Fabrics to Determine Fiber Content:

Caring for and Pre-Washing Different Fabrics:

Fabric Structure: Weaves, Knits, and Finishes

Print Resources:

The entire book is very helpful, as others in the series are reputed to be. It even includes swatches of fabric.

  • Butterick Publishing Company, The. Vogue Sewing. Revised edition. New York: The Butterick Publishing Company, 2000.

Section on “The Wonderful World of Fabrics,” pages 36-54. Helpful, but geared toward modern fashion sewing.

The Glossary includes a variety of textile terms, on pages 210-220.

Section on “Choosing Materials,” pages 70-81. Very helpful.

Glossary, pages 312-314.

Chapter on “Fabrics,” pages 59-93. Very helpful, but not focused on long-term wearable comfort or on historical accuracy.

In the “Glossary of Terms,” there is a section for “Fabrics” on pages 175-181, which is help for the mid-19th century, though it does not cite sources and is not entirely reliable.

Roughly half of this large book is a textile dictionary, though it is focused on furnishing materials, and only includes definitions of clothing materials for differentiation purposes (page 142). Bearing this in mind, the dictionary can still be helpful, especially because it contains a great many quotes. The dictionary goes from “adatais” to “zanella,” on pages 143-377.

Updated January 10, 2012

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