There are a few other "fabrics" you may encounter for which it is useful to know what to look for. These are: fake leather, real leather, lace, elastic, upholstery fabrics & other housewares.
Modern fake leathers can look and feel a *lot* like real leather. The best way to tell if something is imitation is to 1: familiarize yourself with what real leather looks like:, and 2: examine a suspect item closely. Fake leather betrays itself best at the cut edges, and on its "wrong" side. The edges of fake leather will usually look as if it is a foamy substance (real leather will often look somewhat smooth, or possibly fuzzy.) The back of imitation leather is usually a tricot (knit) or woven support structure, that takes the stress of use in the item. Imitation leathers are often made out of vinyl. The best ones can be quite durable, and are used in seat cushion covers, etc, but the worst ones, often used in purses and cheap shoes, rip in cold temperatures, are not resistant to abrasion, and look bad fast.
Real leather will usually say that it's real. If it doesn't have a tag that says it is real, it might well be fake. There is also "bonded leather" which like "bonded marble" in statues, meaning that it's ground-up leather (ie, a puree of little bits & pieces) stuck back together by a plastic matrix. It might as well be fake leather, because it doesn't "breathe" like real leather (since it's plastic with stuff in it) nor does it behave much like real leather in other respects (strength, scuffability, etc.)
For real stuff, there are many types of dyes that are used to color leather.The best ones are the ones that are more like a stain than a paint, where the color sinks a bit into the leather, rather than just remaining on the surface. This becomes apparent when the leather gets a little worn; you don't have undyed leather showing through the scratches. Leather should usually be flexible and soft, unless it's shoe-sole leather or other specialty leather that needs to retain its stiffness. New shoes should not feel like cardboard or stiff plastic; if they are very stiff, they are not made with quality leather.
Lace: At some time in your life, you'll end up looking at lace, even if you're a guy. Your female friends will wear it at some point, and it's always a good strategy to have a clue about it. Lace is made in several ways; most lace you will see has been made on a machine, although there are very interesting ways to make it by hand. The sort of lace you see in underclothes is usually knitted, using very fine threads, in a giant sheet of many strips of lace which are then snipped apart by people who can't find better jobs. Heavier laces are made in single strips. Laces can be knitted, crocheted, woven, and sewn.
The most useful thing for you to know about lace is that sometimes lace is made with diferent weights of thread in it, in order to deliniate the pattern. The heavier threads are called "gimp." If you are looking at lace, the medium-to- more-expensive laces will probably have a gimp thread in them. The side on which you can see the gimp is the correct side to have showing. Really fancy laces (like for wedding dresses and other formal occasions) will sometimes have beads and sequins added, but IMHO, a good lace will look better unadorned than covered with geegaws.
Elastic: A lot of clothing, from your socks to your hats, will have elastic items in them. Elastic has progressed a long way since the natural rubber used in many rubber bands; there are fancy polymers that take washing and drying very well; there is Lycra and other variants. The major thing about elastic is that it should *always* be covered by other fabrics or fibers. If you have 'bare' elastic that contacts your skin, it will often grab the fine hairs on your arms (or wherever) and rip them out when you move. Fortunately, most elastics are covered these days. If you have long hair, be sure to use the hair elastics that are coverd with thread; they won't rip your hair out. There are some new "bare elastic" products that claim not to rip your hair out; a friend of mine says they work fairly well.
Upholstery & other housewares: These items should mostly follow the guidelines for good stuff that I've given you earlier. They tend to be more often made of synthetics, but in general this is ok, as you won't have them on your body. Bed linens and towels should be cotton; in the first case they will feel better, and in the second case, because they will absorb better. I do have two caveats: upholstery fabrics on chairs & sofas should be tightly woven -- about as tightly as denim jeans. There are a lot of cheaply covered sofas out there, in weaves that are loose and easy to snag by cats and other hazards. These tend to wear through and look terrible in a year or two -- beware! The second caveat is that you will often find it cheaper to use cloth towels in the kitchen than to use even the best paper towels. They are reusable, very strong (won't turn to shreds when rubbing) and will last a very long time. I keep a roll of paper towels on hand for really gross jobs, but mostly cotton kitchen towels (or rags, if you realy want to recycle) do just fine.
Historical digression: My mother keeps a pillowcase with a hanging-loop on it in a closet near the kitchen; it is filled with clean rags. Old cotton shirts that have the elbows worn or are otherwise unfit for service have the buttons taken off (and put in the button box) and are torn into squares of various sizes and put in the rag-bag. Likewise worn sheets, etc, meet this fate.
In addition, it should be noted that cotton rags are less abrasive than wood fiber paper towels. If you have plastic glasses or other items that need polishing or cleaning, a rag is a better choice than a paper towel or a tissue, because it won't put fine scratches in your posessions..
Next time: Maintenance Tips for Clothing
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