If you see a fabric listed as silk taffeta, you are being told that the fiber is silk, and the fabric type is taffeta. Likewise, a rayon jersey is a jersey knit fabric made of rayon fiber.
If you have a piece of vintage clothing without a fabric content label and you’d like to know what the material is made of, try the most accessible test out there: A fiber-burn test. I described how to do this in detail for the Vintage Fashion Guild’s Fabric Resource. The basic process involves snipping a small piece of fabric from an inseam, carefully burning it with a lighter, then comparing how the fiber behaves (looks, smells, feels) while and after it is burned.
This takes a little practice, but I guarantee it can be learned. You can practice burning snippets of fabric that you already know to get the feel of how, say, silk burns.
How Fabrics Wear, Look and Feel
Cotton is a fiber obtained from the seed pods of the cotton plant. It is naturally fine, soft, fluffy and absorbent. Fabrics made from cotton can be crisp or soft; most are easy to care for, washable in warm water, cool and comfortable to wear. The wide variety of cotton fabrics range from sheer batiste to heavy denim, ribbed corduroy to the interlock knit used for t-shirts.
Silk is obtained by reeling filaments from the cocoons of silk moths. The filaments from a single cocoon of one silkworm are on average a mile long, and are strong, glossy and resilient. Made into widely varying fabrics, silks are often very dressy and elegant. Find sheer and limp chiffon, sheer and crisp organza, lustrous satin, and textured shantung among many others.
Wool is a fiber obtained from the coats of sheep. It is spun into a yarn that is strong and flexible, an excellent insulator, naturally water repellent but also absorbent. The fibers are naturally crimped and springy, allowing them to bind together when spun. Wool is what makes heavy coat materials like melton and fleece, suit fabrics like gabardine, felt used for hats, light and drapable challis, and many knits.
Some of the related specialty fibers are angora (from the angora rabbit), camel’s hair (camel), cashmere (cashmere goat), and mohair (angora goat).
Linen is both the name of a fiber and the name of the finished fabric made from this fiber, which comes from the flax plant. Its natural fiber variations create slubs in the texture. Linen is famous for its use in making garments worn in hot climates—it is exceptionally absorbent and cool. Linen fabric is crisp and smooth when pressed, but also can wrinkle easily.
Made from cellulose, rayon was the first man-made fiber, dating back to the middle of the 19th century, and in commercial production during the first decade of the 20th century. The name rayon (“beam of light” in French) was first used in 1924 in the U.S., whereas viscose was used as the name of the most common process for making the fiber, and the cellulosic liquid from which the rayon was made. Viscose was adopted as the name of the fabric in Europe.
During manufacturing, viscose rayon can be blended with any other fiber, and the finished textile can be soft and silky or sturdy and strong. It can have a dull or bright finish and can be silken, linen-like or even wool-like. Rayon’s clothing uses range from delicate lingerie to coats.
The second man-made fiber created from cellulose was acetate, patented in 1894. Both acetate and rayon were originally called artificial silk. Acetate was given a grouping separate from rayon by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission in 1953. Acetate is silk’s closest competitor for drape and sheen.
The first successful synthetic fiber, nylon dates from the 1930s. After women’s hosiery made of nylon was introduced at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, it became a raging success—the clamor for nylons (as they came to be called) was so great. Strong, elastic, quick-drying, insect- and rot-resistant, find nylon in blends with other fibers as well as on its own.
Invented in the ‘30s, improved in the ‘40s and finally commercially introduced in the 1950s, polyester is a synthetic manufactured fiber. Some may think of it as that somewhat-too-common and low-end fabric of the 1960s and ‘70s, but polyester’s uses and aesthetic qualities are wide-ranging. It is a strong and washable, relatively inexpensive fabric—one that is abrasion-, fade-, wrinkle-, insect- and mold-resistant. Its most significant drawbacks as a finished fabric are its lack of absorption, its tendency to hold onto oil-based stains, and the difficulty to remove its pilling.
First introduced to the public in the early 1950s, acrylic is a synthetic fiber manufactured to be used like wool, either on its own or in a blend. It can also be manufactured to imitate cotton. Acrylic adds strength in blends with wool, and on its own, it is washable in warm water. As compared to wool, acrylic holds its color and is resilient, but is not as soft and springy, nor as warm when wet.
Something to keep in mind is that even though a fabric is characteristically made of a certain natural fiber, it may also be made from a blend of fibers, or a similar manufactured fiber. Let’s say you love the quality of silk and want to find a vintage evening skirt made of silk satin. Satin is not necessarily woven of silk, in fact, it is relatively uncommon to find this fabric made of costly 100% silk from a time after the introduction of acetate and rayon.
Another thing you may notice is the use of fabric trade names on labels, such as Dacron (polyester) and Acrilan (acrylic). Saying a polyester blouse is made of Dacron is like saying an adhesive bandage is a Band-aid, except in Band-aid’s case, the name (pardon the pun) stuck hard.
There is a lot to know about fabrics—consider this summary a mere snippet. You can explore fabrics in greater depth by looking through the Vintage Fashion Guild Fabric Resource, a project to which I am adding regularly, with a focus on the fabrics you most often find used for vintage fashions.
Next time: How to clean vintage