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Textile Fibers – the building blocks of the textile industry

Characteristics of textile fibers and its properties

Fiber is a hair-like strand of material. It is flexible and can be spun or twisted for weaving, braiding, knitting, crocheting, etc. to make desired products. Fibers can be obtained in natural form from plants and animals as well as in synthetic form. Man-made or synthetic fibers are either made up of chemicals or by processing natural fibers to create new fiber structures/properties.

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Fiber is the fundamental component required for making textile yarns and fabrics. There are two types – natural and synthetic. Natural fibers come from animals (sheep, goats, camelids, etc.) or vegetable-based fibers (cotton, flax, linen, and other plant fibers). Mineral fibers (asbestos, etc) are also classified as a natural fiber.

Synthetic fibers are man-made and manufactured from synthetic chemicals – (byproducts of the petrochemical industries) – nylon, polyester, acetates.The characteristics of fibers directly affect the properties of the fabric it is woven into.

The history of fibers is as old as human civilization. Traces of natural fibers have been located to ancient civilizations all over the globe. For many thousand years, the usage of fiber was limited by natural fibers such as flax, cotton, silk, wool and plant fibers for different applications.

silk cocoonFibers can be divided into natural fibers and man-made or chemical fibers. Flax is considered to be the oldest and the most used natural fiber since ancient times.

A unit of matter which is capable of being spun into a yarn or made into a fabric by bonding or by interlacing in a variety of methods including weaving, knitting, braiding, felting, twisting, or webbing, and which is the basic structural element of textile products.

It is the smallest textile component which is a microscopic hair-like substance that may be man-made or natural.

They have length at least hundred times to that of their diameter or width.

Classification of Fibers

Comprehensive list of Textile Fibers
Type of fibers classified by fiber sources

Downloadable PDF Charts – Textile Fibers



Textile Fibers - Summary


Natural Fibers

Synthetic Fibers

Inorganic Fibers

Types of Fibers


There are four types of fibers: natural, manufactured, synthetic, and minor miscellaneous types.

Natural fibers include Cotton, Linen, Flax, Wool (any form of animal hair including human hair; not just sheep wool as a most associate with wool), and various other minor novelty fibers such as Hemp and Spun Cone. These fibers you can pick up and spin right into a fabric.

Manufactured fibers are types that come from cellulose and protein such as Rayon and Acetate. Rayon was the first manufactured fiber in 1949 and is also known as “artificial silk” since it was developed to mimic the costly silk fabrics of the time.

Many people consider Rayon a natural fiber but technically it is not. Rayon is spun from naturally occurring polymers that replicate a natural fiber.

Synthetic man-made fibers could take up a whole book along with the many styles and varieties. New fibers are developed all the time. Common fibers include Polyester, Microfiber, and Nylon to name a few.

Special use fibers are less common, but people may not realize that they come into contact with them on a daily basis. Surprisingly fibers such as rubber are used in Spandex. Metal such as stainless steel is used in carpets, and other metals such as silver and gold are woven into fabrics. New an innovative uses for fibers are being developed every day.

Fiber Properties

Reading a fabric bolt label is comparable to reading a food label. Often the consumer does not understand the ingredients, why some cost more, and what exactly do they do? Understanding each ingredient of a fabric helps sewers answer questions such as “Why are there blends?” and “A natural fiber seems better, why should I use synthetic?” There are many answers to these questions.

One fabric may have a blend because it was cheaper to produce, another might be that the cotton crop had a shortage so they had to blend with a synthetic, yet another might be technical since cotton is a weaker fiber, the blend helps to create a stronger yarn for fabric production enabling garments created from the fabric to last longer.

Fibers are like vitamins in that you are customizing characteristics to get a certain result in your fabric. It sounds complicated, but it is really simple to the consumer. Educate sewers about the basics and they will be much happier with their fabric selections.

Some basic fiber properties, pros, and cons that are applicable to the home sewing consumer include:

  • Natural Cellulose Fibers: Cotton and Flax are examples of natural cellulose fibers. These have good absorbency and are a good conductor of heat. They wrinkle easily and pack tightly. They are heavy fibers, very flammable, and printed easily.
  • Natural Protein Fibers (Wool): These fibers have an animal origin. They resist wrinkling. They are hygroscopic-comfortable in cool, damp climate but weaker when wet because they shrink. Natural protein fibers are harmed by dry heat. They are flame resistant and dye well.
  • Synthetic Fibers: These are fibers made from chemicals. They are heat sensitive and they melt easily. They are resistant to moths and fungi, have low absorbency, and are abrasion-resistant. Synthetic fibers are strong and easy to care for. They are less expensive and
    readily available.