I work part-time in a locally-owned independent fabric store, where I am closely involved with the customers on a daily basis. Often I find that when people ask for or describe a type of fabric they are looking for they use incorrect terminology, which is certainly not their own fault and mostly comes from being unfamiliar with fabrics and their construction. So what is a clothing shopper to do when they encounter fabric terms they are unfamilar with? Do you know the difference between "silk" fabric and "satin" fabric?
Here is a quick primer in fabrics that you might see specified in my work and elsewhere in your clothing shopping adventures:
Woven: When fabric is woven it is made from threads interlaced like those potholders you used to make in summer camp. A set of threads is stretched out across a loom and another thread is literally "woven" through them. Over-under-over-under... etc. Woven fabrics are not stretchy unless they contain an "elastomer" like lycra (also called "spandex") or rubber, and even then will only have a small amount of stretch. Woven fabrics include satin, twill, denim, broadcloth, calico, taffeta, velvet, etc.
Knit: Knit fabrics are made with needles locking a single long piece of thread together over and over again like a chain. This is why when you get a snag in your sweater or pantyhose they unravel all over the place, because cutting that one thread undoes the entire structure of the fabric. Knit fabrics can be quite stretchy without the need for an elastomer. Knit fabrics include jersey, french terry, ribbing, velour, stretch velvet, and your standard-issue T-shirt fabrics.
Animal fiber: anything made from an animal product. Wool, silk, alpaca, etc.
Plant fiber: anything made from a plant or tree product. Cotton, linen, etc.
Man-made fiber: Broadly, anything made through chemical processes. "Synthetic" fabrics include polyester, nylon, and acrylic and are generally petroleum-based. "Cellulosics" include rayon, tencel, lyocell, acetate, and bamboo (word up! bamboo is not straight off the bamboo plant!), and are generally made by processing paper mulch, sawdust, or waste cotton until it's a squishy goo and forming it into fibers. Vegan but often not eco-friendly.
Blend: often fabrics are made from threads that use more than one type of fiber. This lets you get the qualities of both fibers in your fabric, or helps to reduce costs. Cotton is often blended with polyester to help prevent wrinkles. Wool is likewise blended with polyester to help bring down the price. Lycra is a huge deal these days, and it's nearly impossible to find a pair of pants that doesn't contain a small amount of lycra to help them fit a little nicer and return to shape after you sit in them for a long time.
Microfiber: I use this rarely, but you see it a lot so I thought I would point it out. Microfiber is always made from a man-made fiber such as polyester. Microfiber simply means that the fibers that make up the threads are very fine and narrow compared to standard polyester fiber. Thus the fabric is quite soft and drapes nicely and is often used to clean glass and plastic because it won't scratch the surface easily. All true microfibers are man-made and vegan. "Wool microfiber" is not truly microfiber, it's just degraded wool.
Cotton: Everyone knows what cotton is, right? Well, not really. A lot of people call a fabric "cotton" if it is soft or if it is stretchy like a T-shirt. But cotton is a plant fiber that can be made in to many different types of fabrics. I often use "quilting cotton" which is a smooth, non-stretchy, mid-weight fabric with a print on it, or "broadcloth" which is a similar fabric but in a solid color, for linings in my jackets, shrugs, and vests. They also make great shirts, dresses, skirts, you name it. Heavier types of cotton include "twill" (usually a solid color or print) and "denim" (usually woven with two colors of threads, like the fabric blue jeans are made from) which both have a subtle diagonal weave pattern to them that you can see if you look very closely. These days cotton often has a bit of lycra in it to add stretch. I almost always use cotton twill for my corset linings, and another heavyweight cotton called "canvas" or something similar for the interior structure of the corset. Cotton is a plant fiber and is vegan-friendly. Here is a cotton from my shop.
Linen: Another plant fiber, linen is often slightly slubby or very smooth and crisp. Linen wrinkles easily when it isn't blended with another fiber, and the industry (hand to god) calls them "status wrinkles". As in "I can afford to not care if my clothes are all wrinkly". Because of this I usually like to use linen for tops and jackets, but generally not for skirts or pants. Linen is vegan friendly. Here is a linen.
Silk: This is the #1 word that people use when they are trying to describe a smooth, lustrous, often diaphanous fabric to me. It is almost always NOT what they mean. They mean "satin" or they mean "china silk" but they do NOT mean actual silk. When I say "silk" in my listings I am referring to 100% silk fibers, made from the cocoons of silk moths. It can be smooth and shiny, or slubby, rough, and otherwise textural. Silk charmeuse is a satin fabric that is very shiny and soft. Silk habotai is lightweight and airy, but not shiny. Silk shantung and dupioni both have streaks of slubby texture running throughout the weave, and are lustrous and stiff. Silk noil (pronounced "noyl") or "raw silk" is very rough and slubby with a soft drape and no shine. Real silk is rather expensive. Silk is made from animal fibers, and is not vegan-friendly. Here's an example of silk.
And here's a silk satin
And here's a silk dupioni.
Wool: Wool is made from the fur coat of sheep. It can be woven or knit in to many different types of fabric and can be found in a lot of different qualities. "Suiting" is usually a smooth, flat, wool used for jackets, skirts, pants, etc. "Wool flannel" has a soft brushed finish. "Wool crepe" has a slightly crinkly look. I love to use wool. Most of my wools are blends, simply because 100% wool is rather prohibitively expensive for a lot of things. It is often blended with polyester or acrylic (both man-made fibers). Obviously, wool is not vegan-friendly. An example.
Satin: This is usually what people are talking about when they think of "silk". This is a slick, smooth, shiny fabric that you often see used in formal wear, wedding gowns, the linings for jackets, etc. Satin can be lightweight and drapey, like charmeuse satin, or heavyweight and firm like "bridal satin" or "duchesse" satin. A common heavyweight satin that is slightly dull rather than brightly shiny that I like to use is called "peau de soie" (pronounced Poh-Du-Swah). Satin is made using a special weave that creates the shiny effect. It can be made from silk, but is often made from polyester, acetate, or another man-made fiber. It can also be made from cotton, in which case you will sometimes see it called "sateen". In my listings I will specify either "silk" or "polyester" in my materials list, and I never use acetate satin because it deteriorates badly with age. Satin can be vegan-friendly if made from synthetics, but can also be made from animal fibers, so make sure you read carefully if that is a concern for you. Synthetic satins are generally low to mid-range in price, silk satins can be VERY expensive. Here's a satin in the shop.
Taffeta: taffeta is a stiff, formal wear fabric that makes a nice scrunching sound when you rub two pieces of it together. That "swish swish" sound is called "scroop" in the industry and is supposed to be a mark of quality and opulence. Taffeta can be made from silk, polyester, nylon, and sometimes acetate. It can also have a bit of lycra in it to make it stretch slightly. I usually use only polyester or silk taffeta, and again it will be specified in the listing. This one, just like satin, can be vegan or not depending on fiber content and can vary in price likewise. A taffeta for reference.
Pongee: soft, lightweight, often polyester. Rarely silk. Used in linings more than anything else. Not shiny. Here is a pongee under-layer In white) with a chiffon over-layer (in green)
China silk: lightweight and slick. Can be 100% silk or polyester (polyesters tend to be shinier). Often used in linings. Real silk China silk is often called "habotai".
Chiffon: sheer, lightweight, and drapey. Can be silk or polyester. Totally see-through. Usually seen in clothing with a layer of something opaque underneath it. This one in the shop is a jacquard woven chiffon.
Organza: sheer, stiff, not drapey. Used a lot in home decorative projects and in formal wear. Can be silk or nylon/polyester. Also totally see-through.
Velvet: velvet is a fabric made with little extra threads that stick out from one side of the fabric and give it a soft, fuzzy texture. It can be woven or knit for stretchiness. Synthetic fibers like acetate and polyester are the most common velvets available, but silk velvet (which is actually a silk blended with rayon) are also available and are softer and more luxurious. Stretch velvets and acetate velvets are the least expensive velvets, but even they are rather difficult and expensive to produce and are in the mid-to-high range price-wise. Silk velvets can be quite expensive as can some of the better quality polyester microfibers. "Cut" or "burnout" velvets have designs etched into the fabric though the fuzzy pile to expose the base fabric underneath. Velvet made from cotton is called "velveteen" like the rabbit. Here's a burnout stretch velvet and some regular stretch velvets.
Brocade/Jacquard: Woven fabrics generally made in synthetic or silk blends. They feature a design (flowers, crosses, etc) created through the weaving process. Often people will call these "embroidered" but they are not (embroidery is added to fabric after it's already finished. Brocades and jacquards have the design woven right in to them). Expensive to produce, brocades are often spendy fabrics, and are usually found on corsets and formal wear. If you want to tell if your fabric was jacquard (pronounced "juh-card") woven flip it to the wrong side. The design should still be visible, but in reverse, like a photo negative. Here's a brocade.
Polarfleece: Always ployester. Thick, soft, stretchy, very warm, sometimes made from recycled soda bottles and the like. You probably have a jacket made out of this. Or a blanket. I use it sometimes for shrugs. You also see it used a lot in stuffed animals, fingerless gloves, etc. Doesn't unravel when you cut it so it's pretty versatile. Here's a shrug in polarfleece.
Anything I didn't cover that you want to know about? Let me know!