Natural Fibers: Fabric 101 for Fashion Designers Without Degrees

natural fibers, fabric 101

Fabric 101: Designing With Natural Fibers

While fashion design requires many crucial components, fabric knowledge is the most fundamental part of the design process. The fabric is so important, that we often encourage our clients to choose their fabrics before sketching or sampling! As a designer, start to think of your fabrics as the predominant part of your design’s user experience. Does your fabric need to drape? Does your customer have a budget for dry-clean only care? Do your pieces need to be sweat-proof? Simple qualities like these are all determined in your fabrications- which is why smart designers begin with fabrics in mind.

Fabrics are categorized by fiber, construction, color, and design. All are important, but understanding fibers is as fundamental as fabric knowledge is to fashion design.

What is a fiber and why does it matter?

Fiber- a thread or filament from which a textile is formed.

  • The fiber is the genetic DNA of your fabric. Different types of fabrics yield various, distinctive qualities and characteristics in the fabrics you source for your collection.
  • Everything from wrinkle-resistance, to drape and durability can be understood with fundamental fiber knowledge. Certain qualities may be desired for your specific market needs.

Natural Fibers Versus Synthetic Fibers

Natural Fibers exist naturally in fiber form and they are either sourced from plants or animals. They are comfortable and absorbent- allowing the skin to breathe more than synthetic fibers. Natural fibers are categorized by plant fibers and animal fibers.

Synthetic fibers are made from petroleum byproducts, natural gas, alcohol, and coal. They don’t absorb moisture and they are less comfortable than natural fibers, but they are strong and durable.

Natural Fibers and Their Benefits

The benefits of all-natural fabrics are endless.  These fabrics not only look great, but they are good for the body and the planet. If you’re a designer with eco-conscious intentions, then sourcing all natural fibers is the way to go. Besides the finishing processes- natural fabrications require no chemical additives and they are 100% biodegradable. From the wearer’s standpoint, natural fibers are preferred. Fabrics made up of all natural fibers yield the most breathability and the best hand-feel.  Unlike the 60s and 70’s, synthetic-crazed generations, today’s consumers are willing to pay more for clothing produced with natural fabrics.

Plant Fibers Aka Vegetable Fibers

Cotton and linen are the two most commonly used plant fibers.


Cotton comes from the cotton plant and it outsells other fabrics by 60% in the US alone.


Washability & Durability

Cotton launders well in hot or cold temperatures and can be tossed in a hot dryer or line dried with no damage. Cotton is not harmed by detergents or store-bought bleaches.  It can be ironed and pressed at high temperatures without being scorched.

Absorbency & Breathability

Cotton absorbs and releases perspiration quickly. This trait makes it ideal for people who live in warm climates. Absorbing up to 15% of moisture, cotton resists static and doesn’t cling to the body like synthetics. This trait makes it great for intimate apparel and underwear. Cotton’s high absorbency also explains why it dyes and bleaches so successfully.


Cotton is porous as it allows the skin to breathe. This is another reason why it’s extremely comfortable in the summer season.


Cotton is the most cost-friendly natural fiber. It’s easy to sew for beginners yet still vast in its forms. This along with its durability makes it a very approachable fiber.


WRINKLES!! High shrinkage, low elasticity, minimum draping capability, deteriorates from perspiration and must be washed frequently.

Popular Fabrics and End Uses:

Denim, Swiss Cotton, Gingham, Eyelet, Organdy, Oxford Cloth, Pique, Poplin, Sateen, Seersucker, Cotton Twill, Batiste, Voile, Chambray, Corduroy

Shirting, Light-weight suitings, dresses, blouses, sportswear, t-shirts, undergarments, pajamas, jeans


Natural fibers

Linen is a plant fiber made from the stem of the flax plant.  The fibers appear like fine, smooth bamboo shoots when viewed under a microscope.



High absorbency is linen’s most attractive quality as it’s fibers literally pull perspiration from the body. Linen fabrics dry almost instantly when wet because the fibers cannot hold air or heat for long. Since the moisture in linen evaporates so quickly, the fabric maintains cool, airiness- never clinging to the body. With a 20% moisture absorption rate (cotton is 15%), linen is more cooling than cotton- making it extremely useful for sheets and bedding as well as clothing-especially in warm climates.


Linen has twice the strength of cotton and much like cotton; it becomes stronger when wet. Washing and wearing of linen only add to its strength, luster, and softness over time. The rigidness of the fiber prevents it from clinging to the body- but also makes it less drapeable than cotton.

Low Maintenance

Linen can be machine-washed, hand-washed, or dry-cleaned. Its tensile strength is 3x stronger than wool or cotton. Linen’s qualities only improve with age as it lasts 12x longer than cotton fibers. Its durability also makes it lint-resistant and high-abrasion resistant. Linen fibers can withstand high temperatures when pressing and yields only moderate shrinkage. Linen is also resistant to moths, dirt, and stains. Its agility promotes heavy use.


WRINKLES!!!, Low elasticity.

Popular Fabrics and End Uses:

Linen shirting and suiting fabrics, cross-blends with wool/silk to reduce wrinkles, cross-blends with cotton to lower cost

RTW, bedding, home decor, drapes, and curtains

Animal Fibers Aka Protein Fibers

Silk and wool are both protein fibers.


Wool comes from a variety of herd animals including sheep, goats, llamas and even rabbits.  Its fibers appear to have overlapping scales along the surface. Wool is a vast and complex fiber that can be spun into thick fuzzy yarns or woven into fine, smooth fabrics.



Wool is the most absorbent fiber– capable of holding 30 percent of its weight in moisture. Wool is absorbent, yet porous- allowing the skin to breathe in warm temperatures and acting as an insulant in cold temperatures. Its absorbency is the reason wool dyes beautifully. In both wool and silk fibers, dyes penetrate to the core of the fiber and the color holds vividly and permanently.

Cleanliness and Wrinkle-Resistance

Wool does not need regular washing.  Washing in a home machine can be difficult so you’ll most likely be making frequent trips to the dry cleaner aren’t. The fiber’s waxy coating inhibits bacteria-causing odor and blocks stains and dirt from being fully absorbed. Wool garments shed wrinkles easily so frequent ironing/steaming isn’t necessary either.


Wool has a higher elasticity (ability to stretch) than cotton and linen. One wool fiber can be bent up to 20,000 times before it snaps. The moisture retained by wool keeps it from getting brittle over time. It’s resilience also results in its drape. Wool has the best draping capabilities after silk fibers.


Fabric pills and produces lint very easily (especially knits), shrinkage, sensitivity to high heat and laundering, sensitivity to harsh bleach and detergents.

Popular Fabrics and End Uses:

Boiled wool, boucle, tweed, coating, flannel, crepe, felt, double knit, gabardine, glen plaid, herringbone, houndstooth, jacquard, suiting, blanket cloth

Men’s/Women’s suiting, outerwear, coats, sweaters, dresses, blankets, cold weather accessories



Silk is the only natural filament fiber; unreeled from the cocoon of silkworms.  The fiber has double strands- making it appear smooth and shiny.  Its considered to be the most luxurious fabric because of its luster.


Luster and Color

Silk fabrics reflect light well, creating a luster unknown to other natural fibers. Silk is also highly absorbent and colorfast. Printing and dyeing yield rich, bold color on these fabrics.


Silk fibers are long and smooth with a nice weight that allows it to drape more easily than any other natural fabric.

Strength & Elasticity

Silk is the strongest natural fiber for its weight. Silk fibers can stretch up to 20 percent without breaking and it’s able to spring back to shape when stretched.


Silk fabrics provide warmth without the weight of itch or wool. Much like wool, silk has low heat conductivity. Depending on construction and finish, it can be suitable for winter or summer seasons.


Easily damaged by most laundry detergents, decomposes with extreme heat, deteriorates and fades from perspiration, loses strength when wet, easily damaged by strong bleaches, requires higher maintenance care than other fibers.

Popular Fabrics and End Uses:

Satin, Brocade, Charmeuse, Chiffon, Cloque, Crepe, Crepe de Chine, Duppioni, Gabardine, Georgette, Habotai, Jacquard, Organza, Taffeta, Gazarre, Shantung, Velvet, Faile, Lace

Women’s/Men’s RTW, blouses, dresses, ties, eveningwear, bridal, lingerie

So are you considering sourcing all natural fabrics for your collection? Stay tuned for our upcoming blog on synthetic fibers if those are more up your alley! If you're entering the fabric sourcing stage, we encourage you to download our FREE Fabric Sourcing Guide here.

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