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When you’re buying new clothes, one of the best tools in your arsenal is to have a good grasp of common clothing materials.
When I’m shopping for a new piece, one of the first things I do is check the fabric. I’ll run it underneath my fingers to see how it feels and immediately look at the tag or online description to see what the item is made of.
By checking what kind of fabric a piece is made of, I can get a decent idea of what kind of quality it is, how long it might last, and whether the price is worth it or not.
Obviously, fabric alone won’t give you an indication of quality (we have to factor in construction, whether the brand is known for quality, etc), but examining the fabric gives me a good idea as to whether the item is worth my money.
I also look at how sustainable the fabric is. While none of us are perfect and we have many considerations to think about (such as budget), I try to be more conscious of how environmentally and worker-friendly a fabric is when I’m shopping.
The main things I personally look for in fabric are: 1) is it comfortable? Is it breathable/will it make me sweat a lot? 2) Is it a good price for the item or am I paying a lot for low-quality materials? 3) Is it appropriate for the season? 4) how sustainable is the fabric?
Cotton: One of the Most Common Clothing Materials
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Cotton is a great choice for both summer and winter as it breathes really well, is durable, and tends to hold its shape.
Of course, if you take a look at some of the 100% cotton items in your closet, you’ll find that they feel different/fall differently on the body.
For example, those standard cotton t-shirts you get when you participate in an event are a lot boxier and thicker than a “fashion” t-shirt, so remember to just pick something that you’ll like and that feels good to wear.
While cotton is a natural fiber, it’s not the most environmentally friendly given the high water content that’s required (as well as the pesticides that are used), so if you’d like to go for a more environmentally friendly option, go for organic or recycled cotton where possible.
Linen is a great alternative to polyester, and it’s a completely natural fabric.
It’s also one of the naturally antimicrobial fabrics, which makes it great for any weather or activities where you know you’ll be sweating.
Linen is made from flax and is another great pick for summer as it’s super lightweight and breathable.
I often wear head-to-toe linen when I’m in a hot, humid climate, and since it’s so breathable, I can wear long pants and long sleeves to protect myself from the sun even when it’s really hot out.
You can find linen in all sorts of items, from t-shirts to pants to cardigans and even things like tablecloths.Linen is a great, environmentally friendly option given that it requires minimal water to grow and every part of the flax plant is used to produce the fabric.
Lyocell is one of my absolute favorite natural fiber fabrics, particularly as a summer fabric.
It’s unbelievably soft, lightweight, breathable and moisture-wicking (I often wear it when I’m dancing outdoors in the summer).
Made out of regenerated cellulose fiber, lyocell is a great environmentally friendly fabric choice because it uses much less water than, say, cotton production.
Another version of this fabric is sold under the trademark Tencel®, made of wood pulp, so look out for this name as well when you’re shopping.
Lyocell is also one of the best fabrics for dresses that you wear in the summer because it’s so breathable.
For some more resources on common clothing materials, how they’re made, and their sustainability, check out the website Good on You and their guide to the most sustainable fabrics.
Modal is a semi-synthetic fiber, meaning that it is made out of natural fiber (beech tree pulp), but also needs to be soaked in chemicals during production, which is what makes it semi-synthetic.
This makes it one of the more common natural and synthetic fabrics.
This fabric is also resistant to shrinkage and pilling, so it might be a good option for you if you often put your clothes in the dryer.
When mixed with fabrics like cotton, modal makes for very soft, luxurious-feeling t-shirts and can be a comfortable choice.
It’s also completely biodegradable and doesn’t require much water for the trees to grow, so it’s another more environmentally friendly choice, but given that it’s considered a luxury fabric, modal can be a bit more expensive.
These two are often touted as the same thing, but there are subtle differences between the two in terms of plant fiber composition and the fabrics they’re meant to imitate.
You may find one or the other on your fabric label, or both (one of my favorite shirts says it’s half rayon and half viscose).
Both of these fabrics are made out of wood pulp and are lightweight, breathable and soft.
Viscose and rayon aren’t as environmentally friendly as modal as they’re soaked in high concentrations of chemicals and waste a lot of water during the production process.
However, you can get viscose from companies like Lenzing™ , whose Ecovero™ viscose produces fewer emissions and uses renewable wood resources
This type of fabric can stretch quite easily, especially when wet, so it’s recommended that you dry clean it or gently hand wash your garment and hang it or lay it flat to dry.
While cheap, polyester is one of the least breathable fabrics.
Given that it’s made out of petrochemicals (e.g. coal, petroleum), it’s also not environmentally friendly and doesn’t biodegrade (it could take up to 200 years to decompose!).
Manufacturing polyester also uses a lot of water. Additionally, the fabric is difficult to dye, requiring dyes that are insoluble in water, making the wastewater difficult to treat, particularly when it enters ecosystems.
Given that polyester is durable, you can find many polyester items at the thrift store and at least give them a second life.
The first thing that probably comes to mind when it comes to nylon is probably nylon stockings, but this synthetic fabric is often mixed with other fabrics and can be used for many things, from swimwear to activewear to umbrellas.
Unfortunately, nylon is not environmentally friendly as it’s made of crude oil and things like coal and petroleum.
While nylon is strong and durable, it’s not biodegradable and can take hundreds of years to decompose.
On the upside, nylon, being a type of plastic, can be recycled, so keep an eye out for brands or items of clothing made from recycled nylon!
We all love denim, and no wonder it’s one of the most common clothing materials given its versatile and ever-fashionable look.
Unfortunately, denim can be one of the most polluting fabrics out there, given that the cotton needed to make it requires a lot of water and pesticides, not to mention the chemicals and polluted wastewater involved in the dyeing and bleaching processes.
Luckily, many companies these days are taking the steps to make their denim more sustainable, so look at what your favorite companies are doing when it comes to this.
This being said, denim can be really durable, versatile, and looks great, so I try to buy higher-quality denim that’s going to last me longer.
A way to do this for less money is to look for high-quality denim brands at the thrift store, where you can get great jeans for a fraction of the cost that they would be retail.
To reduce the environmental impact of your favorite jeans, you can also look for denim made out of organic cotton or made by brands that have an honest commitment to environmental responsibility.
I often see acrylic used in sweaters as a cheaper, synthetic alternative to wool. Acrylic can be pretty warm and is sometimes mixed in with wool for more budget-friendly knitwear.
But being made from oil, acrylic is entirely synthetic.
Be careful when putting acrylic sweaters in the dryer, as acrylic pills easily and should be air-dried flat to prevent it from stretching out or losing its shape.
Acrylic mixed with other materials may be a more durable choice, and you may be able to find some gently used acrylic sweaters at the thrift store as well.
These two are actually the same thing. Lycra is a very elastic, synthetic fiber that is often mixed with other fabrics to provide more stretch to clothes such as jeans and athletic wear.
Often, having a little bit of Lycra in your clothes can also make them more comfortable.
Since the fibers tend to be UV-resistant, Lycra can take a very long time to break down in the landfill.
Thankfully, most items aren’t made of 100% Lycra, as it’s only added for stretch and comfort most of the time.
Top 10 Common Clothing Materials – Conclusion
I hope this quick reference guide of common clothing materials helps you the next time you’re out shopping and are looking at the labels inside a piece of clothing.
Learning to understand fabric composition has been a huge help for me in being able to predict how comfortable and breathable an item might be, as well as how sustainable it is.
Plus, reading the fabric label can help you decide if the item you’re looking at is worth the price or if it’s way overpriced!
What’s your favorite everyday fabric?
Posts related to common clothing materials:
- 4 Eco-Friendly Polyester Alternatives for a More Sustainable Wardrobe
- How to Spot Quality Clothes: 8 Tips for Smarter Purchases
- 7 Thrift Shopping Tips to Score You the Best Finds
This post was all about common clothing materials