Textiles 101

A question I get weekly at work is "do you have any satins?". My response is always "Yes, what kind of satin are you looking for?" and 9/10 times the answer is "real satin". I cringe every time and explain that satin is a type of weave and I may need more information. And it's totally not the customers fault, there isn't a whole lot of textiles education out there, so today I'm hoping to teach y'all some basic textile knowledge so when you do go buy fabric, you know what you want and can communicate it better.

I want to start by noting that I do not at all want to sound like a condescending fabric snob. We all started somewhere and honestly, I used to think quilting cottons were an ideal clothing fabric and chiffon was anything that was sheer. I even knew how to knit, but could I distinguish a knit form a woven? Absolutely not. Even with my fashion design degree, I didn't learn nearly as much about textiles and their structures as I had planned and came to found that there was some information on the internet, but not a lot. So here we go!

Contents vs Weaves

Lets begin with the difference between a content and a weave. When explaining this, I like to use the potato analogy. A potato is what things are made of. You can have potato fries, mashed potatoes, potatoes au gratin, etc. There are many different ways to prepare a potato. The content of the fabric is like distinguishing that it's made of potatoes. So silk=potato. Then you take the silk and you weave or knit it into whatever fabric structure you want. So lets say the satin weave=mashed potatoes. Now let's say polyester is cauliflower. You can mash/puree cauliflower to be similar to mashed potatoes. With that being said, you can you have a polyester satin? Absolutely. But is there a difference between them? Anyone with taste buds will say yes. Basically the content of the fabric is the ingredients and the weave is your recipe. And just like mashed cauliflower is different than mashed potatoes, polyester satin and silk satin are different. That being said, if you come in and ask me for satin, you gave me a meal but no ingredients. There is no magical fabric that is made of satin. Anything can be woven into satin, but there's a big difference in what they're made of. Lets say cotton is also broccoli; could you mash the potatoes and broccoli into a dish? Sure! And just like you can mix ingredients, you can mix contents.


Now that we've established the difference between content and weave, lets talk about the contents of textiles more in depth.

Cotton - Cotton is a natural, cellulose fiber (plant based). It's fluffy, soft and extremely versatile. Known to be lightweight and breathable. It's commonly made into terrycloth towels, denim, sheets, and t-shirts.

Linen - Linen is another natural, cellulose fiber derived from flax. It's highly absorbent and breathable, making it ideal for hot weather apparel and table linens. Wrinkles extremely easily. (fun fact, it's what they used to wrap mummies💀)

Silk - Silk is a natural protein fiber (animal based) that comes from silkworms' cocoons being unwound. It's know for it's ability to produce a smooth soft sheen on fabrics. Silk is considered more of a luxury fiber and is commonly used in formalwear, mens ties, and lingerie.

Wool - Wool is a natural protein fiber (animal based) that comes from sheep's fleece. Known for retaining heat. Wool is cool because you can weave it, knit it, or felt with it. Commonly used in coats, blankets and sweaters.

Polyester - Polyester is a synthetic fiber that was created in 1951. It's know for its strength and the fact that it's easy to clean. It has a more slippery feel than a natural fiber, making it more difficult to sew. It's commonly blended with other fabrics and is used in almost anything you can think of, especially clothing. Just check your label.

Rayon - Rayon is derived from cellulose fibers, but made synthetically. Because of this, it has properties of both natural and synthetic fibers. It's soft and drapes like silk, but is durable like a polyester. It takes dye very well and is commonly used in Hawaiian shirts. (It also happens to be my favorite fabric, and I wrote a whole blog post about it)

Nylon - Nylon is a synthetic fiber derived from coal, created in 1935 for toothbrush bristles originally. It was known to be very fine, yet durable, and gained popularity in women's stockings. Now it is used in many things like polyester, especially blended with other fabrics. It is also used in a lot of knits.

Now there are all sorts of other fibers out there, but these are your standard basic ones that make up most textiles. Now that we have a base understanding of contents, let's move on to what we can do with the fibers.


A weave is where you have fibers going in 2 different directions, perpendicular to each other, creating a textile. This creates a grain(warp) and cross-grain(weft).

Plain Weave - The plain weave alternates over and under, creating a basic textile with minimal sheen.

Basket Weave  - this weave follows the same over and under structure, but does so with 2 strands at a time in both the warp and weft, creating a more visual, thicker weave pattern that resembles a basket. Often used in canvases.

Twill Weave - this weave staggers the over and under weave with floats (the weft fibers that cross over the warp uninterrupted) of 2 instead of 1, creating diagonal lines instead of perpendicular lines. This is the weave used in denim and often in other pants/suitings.

Satin Weave - the satin weave has many variations, but its common characteristic is long floats over the weft threads(Afloat refers to the number of cross-grain strands a thread goes over before going under again). This one shows floats of 3 threads, creating a classic satin with a sheen.
The longer the floats, the stronger the sheen. Charmeuse is an example of a variation of a satin weave, known for its extreme sheen and smoothness.

Knits  - Knits vary from wovens in the fact that they have one continuous fiber that is manipulated to create a textile without a cross-grain. Most commonly, you'll see a jersey knit, like what T-shirts are made of, where the stitches are alternated every row to create a homogenous look with a right and wrong side. Other common knits include rib knit, which creates vertical lines by alternating stitches within the rows (think jacket cuffs and ribbed tank tops), and tricot knits which are commonly used in athletic wear and swimwear.

Felt - Felting is unique because it doesn't require that the material be spun into filaments, it really just involves tangling/matting the fibers so much they create a flat textile. This is done through needle felting (where you poke it with needles so much it forms a material) or wet felting (water does a lot of the work for you)

*Note that I'm totally kidding on the felt diagram - there's no good way to illustrate matted, tangled, felted fibers. I have included a picture of actual felt for reference though!

In Conclusion

Hopefully, this gave you a better understanding of contents, weaves, and textiles in general! I know it's a lot to take in, but I think we covered all the basics. Was there anything else you were wondering about? Did I leave anything out? Let me know because we can always move on to textiles 201 for you smart cookies!

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