Part 2:Fiber Content 

Fiber Content: or, Cynthia validates her prejudice against man-made fibers via science. (Heck, if I'm gonna have an agenda, I might as well be up-front about it.)

Remember that there are three types of fabric in the world (previous lesson)? Well, there are two types of fiber (ie, threads that go into fabric), and those two are "natural" and "spawn of the devil." I mean, er, manmade fiber.  Natural fibers used for clothing include:

Manmade fibers include: The important quality of natural fibers is that they are more porous than the man-made ones. This allows them to absorb moisture from your body and then the moisture evaporates from the cloth, allowing your skin to "breathe." In this sense, we're mostly talking about water exchange, not oxygen, as you might think from the term.

Even if you're not sweaty, you put off moisture from your skin. If you are wearing a polyester shirt rather than a cotton one (to use a common example) the moisture will stay on your skin, although some of it will evaporate into the space between your body and the shirt. When you move, the shirt will come into contact with your damp skin and stick to it. Or you will feel overheated because of the layer of damp air around you that can't escape into the air.  There are a very small number of manmade fabrics that wick water off; they are usually sold for hiking or traveling, and cost a moderate chunk of money.

These same principles apply to anything else you want to absorb water or feel nice next to your body, from towels to underwear to upholstery fabric.

If sweatiness is a concern, be pragmatic.  Denim jeans are tightly woven and very thick; they would be hotter than chinos/Dockers or similar.

The wrinkle issue

Natural fibers will wrinkle if compressed,  either while wearing, when folded, or if left in the dryer after it stops spinning.  That's the price you pay for using them, but there are easy/lazy things you can do to ameliorate the problem.

First, be aware that even natural fibers are sometimes, er, assisted in the wrinkle-avoidance department by addition of "resin."  Basically, it's a plastic.  That's how you get "no iron" cotton sheets.  This description comes from the March 99 Consumer reports on Khakis:

"Wrinkle reistance is achieved with a resin based finish with cross-linked molecular chians that lock the fibers in place but make them more brittle.  The cross links are formed during a heating  process either before the fabric is cut or after the pants are made.  Unfinished cotton tends to be more durable, but it's more likely to shrink and often requires a working relationship with an iron."

The older solution is to use a thread of polyester that has been wrapped with cotton; the polyester reists wrinkling and the cotton makes it feel nicer. A shirt that says it is 60% cotton and 40% poyester uses this core-wrapped- with-cotton technology.

This doesn't mean that you will be ironing your clothing for the rest of your days.  Two steps will let you avoid this fate: 1: hang your clothes up on hangers immediately after they comes out of the dryer (or fold carefully) and 2: keep a water mister available at all times.  When you get up in the morning (or the night before, if you're more organized than I am) hook the hangers over a doorframe and lightly mist them with water -- enough so that they are ever so slightly damp.  By the time you get your breakfast or a shower, the clothing's major wrinkles will have 'hung out.'  Misters can be bought for about $3 in the shampoo/makup aisles of large stores or supermarkets.  They have different settings for 'mist' 'stream' and 'off.'  And they usually have more range on 'stream' than most water pistols -- usually 10 feet or more!  But I digress.

If you don't mind slight rumpledness, linen shirts are even more wonderful than cotton ones. They feel wonderful and soften with washing. If you prefer a more formal appearance, you'll have to iron a linen shirt; the spritzer technique will be less effective.

Most of the cotton shirts can be thrown in the dryer and the wash without worry. Linen and silk can also--if you don't mind a little shrinkage.  See the details about silk on the silk page.

In addition to the benefits of cotton, it also avoids the biggest downfall of synthetics: after a while, nylon and polyester turn grey. There's nothing that you can do about this; it's a chemical reaction, not a dirt one.

It is interesting to note that Rayon is an organic fiber, but made by humans. They take a bunch of cellulose, stew it up in a special way, and inject it by spinnerettes into an acid bath, which hardens it. Fascinating, yes?  Some rayons feel very nice, but the many are slick and plastic feeling, like the nylons or polyesters.

Questions from the first run:

Do the natural fibers shrink every time, or just once?
The first wash/dry, they shrink a lot, (depending on the fiber) then diminishing amounts until they stop shrinking -- for example, a wool blanket I washed shrank 5" in one direction the first time, 1/2" the next time, and not enough to measure thereafter. The other fibers aren't as noticiable as they shrink. A reputable manufacturer will pre-shrink their fabric, and only after that process is complete will they cut the pieces out to make their garment.  If you do wash linen or silk, don't dry it at very hot temperatures, this will shorten the life of the garment.
So Rayon might be OK, if you found the right one?
Right. I have one rayon shirt which I like, and one dress which feels like a windbreaker. I'd advise not buying rayon unless you get to feel it in the store first. Fortunately for the guys, most men's clothing isn't made of rayon -- one finds it a lot in women's "career" dresses.
Next time: Color & Pattern
All material (c) 1999 Cynthia Virtue Email Author with comments
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