Fabrics shopping guide: a small encyclopedia

Shopping is our mania however, before you buy you should know what you are buying, especially for what concerns the fabrics of the clothes. Fabrics shopping guide: is a small encyclopedia to give you a thumbnail idea of the different types of fibres and textiles.

Fabrics_Shopping_ Guide-

Fabrics shopping guide

Do you know that sudden nonplussed feeling you get when you – accidentally – happen to glance at the label on a garment that tells you what it’s made from? I’m sure you do. I’m also sure that, aside from a few rare cases of professional bias, none of you has any idea of what seersucker is. Or ramie. Or polypropylene. The truth, girls, is that we’ve lost our touch – that magic, perceptive touch our grandmothers had. Before they bought any item of clothing, whether it was an evening dress or a thermal vest, they touched it, felt the weight of it, stroked it, sniffed it – for minute after minute – scrupulously inspecting even the hidden seams.

But we buy as if there’s no tomorrow, as if we’ve just heard the apocalypse is coming – and we’re completely heedless of what we’re buying. Silk, cotton, polyester – what does it matter? That little sweater’s so cute! So we end up spending vast sums of money on a stock of questionable printed blouses (which we often didn’t need at all – but that’s another story), all made from the same material you use to repair the leaks in the bathroom tiles. And the real tragedy is that it doesn’t bother us.

Have you ever followed your boyfriend when he goes shopping? If the answer’s no, then try it immediately – you’ll be amazed how much you’ll learn. A man will never buy six mixed acryllic sweaters in different colours. He’ll buy one, probably blue, and only after he’s made certain that it’s 100% Shetland wool. If even men can teach us something on this subject, it means that the situation’s serious. Really serious. So we’ve created a Fabric shopping guide in form of small encyclopedia in part form to give you a thumbnail idea of the different types of fibres and textiles. Who knows, perhaps your next shopping trip will be a little more careful than usual. For those who wish to learn here is the link where to buy the volumes on the subject.

Fabrics shopping guide: chemical fibres

We’ll start with the chemical fibres (which can be divided into artificial and synthetic). These, to be clear, are those that make your hair stand on end and are liable to combust spontaneously on public transport the moment the sun comes out. For obvious reasons – except for when they’re combined in miniscule amounts with natural fibres – you should never ever wear chemical fibres.


This is a synthetic fibre made from crude oil – and that alone should be food for thought. Think for a second what could happen if you simply lit a cigarette in the vicinity of a 100% acrylic jersey. Plus it absorbs moisture badly. That means that once you’ve broken sweat (or danced out under the rain), you’ll – to put it bluntly – stink like a goat. However, acrylic, if mixed in small quantities with natural fibres such as wool and cotton, gives fabric softness and helps to keep those horrible moths at bay. It’s true, it dries quickly and it doesn’t crease endlessly like linen, but if the acrylic content is above 20%, it’s a big no-no.


This is a mixed, synthetically produced fibre containing at least 85% polyurethane, a plastic that is used for fridge, freezer and building insulation, mattress padding, car parts, tyres and shoe soles (among other things). An odd characteristic of lycra is that it’s incredibly flexible – you can stretch it to six times its original length. It resists oxidising agents and pollutants, so it’s ideal for swimming costumes and wetsuits you leave all year in the wardrobe in your beach house. A small quantity of lycra in denim is needed to make “stretch” jeans. In this case you’re justified – we know how difficult it is to get into a freshly laundered pair of jeans (turn to page… for more on this).


Never use the word “polyester” around your grandmother – you could provoke an unexpectedly violent reaction. Another crude oil derivative (see “Acrylic” above), it was behind the frenzied revolution of “wash and wear” clothes you didn’t need to iron. The truth is that you should never iron something made from polyester, especially if you’re no ironing expert. This hugely resistant synthetic fibre creates an unpleasant “slimy” effect when worn next to the skin and, as if that weren’t enough, attracts dust particles. Avoid polyester like the plague.


The thread in this fabric is made by weaving synthetic fibres together and coating them with vapourised aluminium, which gives a metallic look. Lurex first appeared on the market in the 40s and reached the summit of its fame in the 80s and 90s, cascading off shoulder-padded jackets and skimpy disco tops. It’s highly flammable and pretty unbreathable, so it’s better left as the exclusive privilege of the pop star (Madonna and Rihanna have used it a lot).

Viscose (Or Rayon)

An artificial fibre often confused with natural fibres, viscose is perhaps the only exception in the “dangerous” world of chemical fabrics. It loses it shape and creases fairly easily, but it’s a very soft material (it feels like silk to the touch), absorbs sweat well and lasts a long time. It was invented in the nineteenth century as a cheap substitute for silk and is one of the most commonly used fibres today in the textile industry. You can wear things with more than 50% viscose in, but beware of putting them in the spin dryer – one look and they shrink.

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