Examining Clothing Materials

Throughout recorded history, choice in fabric material has played an important role in clothing and their manufacture. Before the advancements of the Industrial Age, natural fibers were used exclusively in creating material for clothing. Although many synthetic blends of cloth are popular in the fabric industry today, nothing can compare to the comfort, durability and luxury that is exclusive to natural fibers. The most popular natural materials which offer these qualities are cotton, wool, silk and down.


Cultivated since ancient times, cotton is established as being among the most durable and popular plant material used in garment construction throughout the world. With its shrub-like appearance, the plant grows well in warm climates and produces its fibers in a hard-shelled boll that grows around the seeds. These bolls are then picked and placed into a cotton gin. During this process the fibers are separated from the leaves, stems and dirt. Once this accomplished, the fiber goes through a saw gin that removes the remaining seeds. When this is completed, the cotton is known as lint. It is then baled and sent to mills to be carded and spun into different types of fibers. Long fibers are thought to be the highest quality and are known as Egyptian grade. Other grades considered less desirable are the medium length American and the shortest fibers known as Indian. Since its beginnings over seven thousand years ago, the fibers of the cotton plant have been used in producing a wide array of fabrics including denim, chambray, muslin and terrycloth. Highly absorbent, cool and comfortable, fabrics made from one hundred percent cotton material are always in demand.

  • Cotton Fibers: A comprehensive site dealing with cotton manufacturing.

  • Cotton Campus: Educational site devoted to learning all about cotton.

  • Cotton Gin: The history of the cotton gin and its creator, Eli Whitney


Another popular choice in cloth material is wool, a natural animal fiber. It is predominatelassociated to the dense, furry coat of sheep. However, many other mammals produce a type of wool used in the production of clothing. Goats are a sought after source of wool, with cashmere and mohair being the most well known. Other commonly used sources include alpaca, which is spun from camel hair and angora that comes from the hair of rabbits. No matter which type of animal fur is used, each is processed in much the same way. After the fiber is gathered, it is washed thoroughly to remove any traces of debris. Then it is wrapped and sent to processing plants to be carded and spun into thread or yarn. When the process is finished, each type of wool is sent to individual manufacturers to produce their own products. Wool has its own unique properties when used in garment construction, such as a natural ability to repel water and thermal abilities when used in clothing.

  • Wool Facts: In depth explanation of the wool gathering process.


Considered by many to be a luxury material, Silk comes from the fibers in the cocoons of silk worms. Adult silk moths lay their eggs, which hatch into worms. After an average of thirty-five days, these worms grow into caterpillars and are ready to begin spinning their cocoons. The process to form a full cocoon takes only forty-eight to seventy-two hours to complete. Once the cocoons are formed they are harvested by silk farmers and boiled in vats of water. This destroys the encased larvae and softens the fibers of the cocoons. After this process, the fibers are unwound in continuous strands, sometimes stretching over a mile in length. These strands are then spun, three or more together, to produce the silk thread to be made into fabric. Silk’s smooth feel and natural draping ability make it a popular material for use in the clothing industry. Many bridal and formal dresses are made from silk, as are blouses, shirts and ties.

  • Silk: An overview of the history of silk with many pictures of silk artifacts.


Sometimes overlooked as a material, down has been used for centuries in the production of clothing. Found naturally in birds, the term is given to the very fine feathers located under their harder top feathers. The most sought after down is that of the Eider duck. These birds line their nests with down, thus making it easy to gather it humanely with no harm to the animals. Most of the time, birds raised for food production provide the source of down. Once the down is gathered, it is carefully washed, sometimes up to fifteen times to remove dust and debris. After cleaning, the down is then dried and hand sorted by size before being sent to manufacturers. Some companies go one step further with a treatment of chemical to remove any residual impurities.  Down has a natural ability to capture and retain air making an insulated padding. It is used primarily for lining vests, jackets and coats worn in colder climates.  

  • Feathers: Discusses the various types of feathers in birds.

  • Down in Nests: Interesting site with pictures, including types of down feathers.