A Crash Course on Fibers for Print Service Providers
As more and more wide-format printers expand their range of offerings into textiles, they may find themselves hearing a lot of new textile terminology. While you don't need to know everything about a fabric to print on it, it helps to have a basic understanding of the language of textiles. Especially important to know is the textile's fiber content and what unique properties that fiber has.
Fibers can be categorized broadly into two main categories: natural and synthetic.
Natural fibers exist in nature in their fiber state. There are three categories of natural fibers:
- Protein fibers come from animals and consist of protein molecules strung together. Examples of protein fibers are silk and wool.
- Cellulose fibers come from plants and are cellular in composition. Cotton is an example of a cellulose fiber.
- Bast fibers come from the phloem, or bast, surrounding the stem of certain types of plants. Linen and hemp are both bast fibers.
Synthetic fibers refer to fibers that do not naturally exist in fiber form. Instead, they are manufactured in a lab. Synthetic fibers fall into two main categories:
- Fibers manufactured from something in nature as a raw material, such as wood.
- Fibers created in a lab from polymers.
Natural and synthetic fibers are classified as either staple fibers or filaments.
- A staple fiber is short in length. Its length varies according to fiber, but typically a staple fiber ranges from one to three inches. During manufacturing, staple fibers are arranged parallel to each other before being spun into yarn. Generally, the longer the staple fiber, the higher the quality of yarn made from that fiber.
- Filaments are one long continuous length. Filaments are more commonly seen in synthetic fibers, but they do exist in nature, primarily in silk. When spun together, filaments make luxurious yarn.
There are five commonly used natural fibers in commercial textile production: silk, wool, cotton, linen, and hemp.
Each fiber type is unique, with very different properties and end uses.
Silk is a continuous protein filament and the only natural fiber that exists in filament form, although not exclusively. It is also produced as a staple fiber. Highly prized for its luster, soft hand, and high tensile strength, silk dyes beautifully for rich and luxurious fabrics.
Wool is a protein, staple fiber from a sheep's fleece whose quality depends heavily on the breed of sheep (of which there are hundreds). Wool is classified by its staple length and micron count and is best known for its insulating properties.
Cotton is a cellulose staple fiber from the cotton plant's seed pod. Worldwide, it is the most widely cultivated natural fiber. Its staple length ranges from one to two inches. Cotton is soft, absorbent, and cooling, making it ideal for warm-weather garments and textiles worn close to the skin.
Linen is a bast fiber from the flax plant. Processing linen is laborious, but the fibers it yields have a long staple length and create fabric with a beautiful natural luster. Linen is strong with low elasticity. This can make it stiff and easy to wrinkle, but with time and wear, it softens. Linen is perfect for warm weather clothes as well as home textiles such as tablecloths, napkins, and runners.
Hemp is another bast staple fiber, this one the product of the cannabis sativa plant. Its staple length is shorter, making help scratchy next to the skin. Yet hemp's strength and low weight make it ideal for ropes and cordage. It also has a high absorption rate and is naturally resistant to mold.
The five commonly used synthetic fibers are nylon, acrylic, polyester, rayon, and bamboo.
Nylon is the first truly synthetic fiber and caused a revolution when it was invented in 1938 by DuPont. Nylon was famous quickly for its qualities of strength, elasticity, weight, and resistance to mildew. It ushered in a new era of comfort in clothing, as well as disposability.
Acrylic was also developed by Dupont and intended to mimic the properties of wool. Manufactured as a filament, it is cut down to shorter staple lengths. It is known for being lightweight, soft, warm, hypoallergenic, and machine washable.
Polyester, another DuPont fiber, is petroleum based and was initially marketed as a substitute for cotton because it was lightweight and required no ironing. Today, polyester is used in a staggering amount of products on its own or blended with other fibers such as cotton.
Bamboo and rayon are both examples of manufactured fibers made from a natural material, wood. Molecules are taken from the wood and regenerated to form a viscose material that is then extruded into a fiber. Rayon was developed to find a less expensive substitute for silk. Known to be soft and lustrous, it is often blended with other fibers to increase luster and absorbency. Bamboo is created similarly to rayon, using regenerated cellulose from bamboo stems and leaves. Bamboo is naturally antistatic, giving it a nice drape in garments. It is also naturally antibacterial, making it popular for home goods such as bedding or towels.
Is there a best fiber? Are natural fibers better than synthetic ones?
Each fiber has its good and bad qualities. All fibers have positive and negative effects on the environment, depending on their processing. The challenge is not to find the best fiber but the fiber best suited for the purpose and product.
Kristen Dettoni is the founder and CEO of Design Pool LLC, the only pattern library created exclusively for interior designers. Since 1996, Kristen has worked for mills throughout North America, designing fabrics for automobiles, furniture, and home furnishings. She developed the first sustainable upholstery fabric for office interiors, the first sustainable upholstery fabric for automotive interiors, and was awarded a patent for automotive suspension seating. Kristen believes strongly in the power of good design to transform our environments and experiences.