Cotton is everywhere. It is casual, but it can be dressy. It’s basics. It’s socks, underwear, and sheets. It’s easy. It’s ‘the fabric of our lives.’
Cotton is the best selling fabric in the US and one of the best worldwide. The word comes from the Arabic ‘quatun’, which means ‘fancy fabric.’ Cotton is such a strong plant that it even can travel by wind for thousands of miles, even across oceans. This is probably why cotton has evolved in many different cultures independently. Most of the cotton grown today is white and can be dyed any color. Our money is made from cotton, so is gunpowder, and blue jeans.
Cotton has also made a big comeback. After synthetic fabrics rose to popularity in the ‘50s and ’60s, the US passed the Cotton Research and Promotion Act of 1966 to help cotton compete.You know that old jingle ‘the touch the feel of cotton; the fabric of our lives’? Cotton industry propaganda people!
Pros: Cheap, easy to clean, durable, ubiquitous, comfortable
Cons: Can be a bit boring, stretches and wears out over time
Care: Sending cotton shirts to the dry cleaners can scorch or weaken the fabric. The good news is that cotton can, for the most part, be machine washed and dried. Bleach can be used on cotton as well.
Nothing is cooler than white linen on a hot summer’s day. Not only is Linen a lightweight fabric that breathes well in hot weather, it is also, you know, cool. Glamourous, effortless, sophisticated; linen has the unique ability to be casual without being sloppy.
Linen is also really, really old. It was used by the ancient Egyptians to wrap mummies. Linen is a natural fiber and it comes from the flax plant, just like flax seeds.
Linen, though, can be a bitch. You can look at it and it wrinkles. The best way to prevent wrinkled linen is to wait till the last minute to pack it in your suitcase. Be sure to fold it well and unpack it as soon as you can. Linen jackets can also be stuffed with tissue paper to keep the integrity of the shape.
Pros: Natural, lightweat, glamorous
Cons: wrinkles very easy
Care: Wash by hand or in gentle cycle. Try not to machine dry them, as that weakens the fabric. Ironing is fine and easy.
The word silk is used to involved luxury, plushness and sex. Silk is, well, silky. The world ‘silky’ has such a specific and well known meaning, it’s hard to think of a synonym. Yet, the making of silk is anything but glamourous.
Silk is a natural fiber that comes from the larvae of the mulberry silkworm. Basically, after the worm goes into its cocoon, but before it becomes a moth, it is thrown in boiling water and its fibers are then spun into silk. This sounds kind of gross, and is certainly not vegan, but the result is gorgeous.
The silk fibers have a prism-like stucture, which causes them to refract light and create a rainbow-like sheen. Silk also feels great on bare skin and really hugs the body.
Pros: Soft, beautiful, natural
Cons: Expensive, hard to care for, involves killing worms
Care: Hand wash or dry clean
Polyester is not just a punchline for disco-era jokes, it is quite an amazing fabric. When it was first introduced in 1951, it was celebrated as a miracle textile. It can be worn over and over without fading and without losing its shape. Think about your great old vintage dresses from the 60s- the reason they still look exactly like they did way back when is because they are polyester.
What we refer to as polyester is actually polyethylene terephthalate, and involves the linking of the many esters in the fabric through a chemical process. Polyester is made to be duralbel. Not only does it hold its shape, it also dries easily and is a good insulator.
Pros: Durable, holds shape, easy to clean, cheap
Cons: Seen as uncool, can be itchy, doesn’t ‘breathe’, not biodegradable
Care: Wash, dry, whatever. Polyester can take a beating.
Wool, for the most part, comes from the hair of sheep. Additionally, it can come from goats (mohair, cashmere) and rabbits (angora). Wool is also really, really old. The oldest known wool textile has been dated back to 1500 B.C.E.!
Pros: Wool is biodegradable, hypo-allergenic, flame retardent and restistant to static electricity. It is also very warm, it even has the ability to keep you warm even after it gets wet.
Cons: Can be itchy. Possible animal rights issues associated with livestock
Care: Hand wash and lay flat. Or dry clean. Do not put in a dryer or you will be sorry.
Nylon was invented in the ‘30s to be a synthetic replacement for silk. During World War II, nylon was used instead of silk to make parachutes and tires. It was then used in lieu of silk to make women’s stockings, hence the term ‘nylons.’ Today, nylon is still used in the manufacturing of many mechanical parts as well as clothing.
Pros: Strong, inexpensive, versatile
Cons: Not many. Was once seen as tacky, but not so much anymore. Production could be bad for the environment, but same could be said for other synthetic fibers (and natural ones too).
Care: Can be easily washed and dried
Rayon is a manufactured fabric from naturally occurring fibers. Thus, it is neither fully natural nor synthetic. Rayon can be used to mimic the feel of silk, wool or linen.
Pros: Rayon fabrics are soft, smooth and comfortable. They are also highly absorbent without insulating body heat, making them ideal for use in hot and humid climates
Care: Dry Clean only. (For the most part)
SPANDEX and LYCRA
Spandex (aka Lycra) is a synthetic fabric known for its ability to stretch and while maintaining its shape. Fun fact: the word spandex is actually an anagram for ‘expand.’
Spandex is great for wetsuits, leggings and workout clothes of all kinds. Warning: this fabric should only be worn by those with the utmost body confidance, as it hides nothing. Spandex is also what gives skinny jeans, their hip-hugging appeal.
Pros: Comfortable, allows for maximun range of motion
Cons: The elasticity will wear over time, can be unflattering on many
Care: Machine wash, dry on low heat. Try not to iron. Do not bleach.