Textile fibers

The Ultimate Guide to Textile Fibers

Whether discussing rugs, carpet, upholstery, draperies or most other soft surfaces, they are all made up of the same thing: fibers. The qualities and drawbacks of these fibers, as well as the way in which they are used to create upholstery and floor coverings vary greatly. Some are woven while others are knitted. Some are produced by hand while others require mechanical machinery to come together. The biggest variable, however, in dictating the actual performance and inherent properties of a fabric or floor covering, are the textile fibers that make up its being. In this post, we will cover the strengths and weaknesses of the fibers that make up the furnishings in your home, and how to get the most out of them.  

What are Fibers?

Fibers are the primary materials from which textiles are made. More technically, fibers are units of matter of hair-like dimension with a length at least 100 times greater than their width, allowing them to be spun into yarns. These yarns can be used to create fabrics and floorcoverings through many methods, including weaving, knitting, braiding, and felting. There are two broad categories of textile fibers: Natural – made from plants or animals, and Manmade – which can be created from plant or synthetic polymers.

These two categories can then be split into four main categories, each of which will largely inform us on the inherent performance properties of the fiber types within it.

Natural Cellulosic
(Plant)

best fabric protector spray

Protein
(Animal)

rayon upholstery

Manmade Cellulosic (Synthetic & Plant)

Natural Cellulosic
(Plant)

Protein
(Animal)

Manmade Cellulosic (Synthetic & Plant)

Manmade Non-Cellulosic (Synthetic)

Natural Cellulosic Fibers
Cotton, Linen, Sisal, Jute, Coir, Seagrass
natural fabric

Natural cellulosic fibers, derived from plants, feature cotton and linen most commonly in upholstery, and sisal, jute, coir, and seagrass most commonly in floor coverings. Though each of these fibers possess their own unique qualities, cellulosic fibers as a class share several common properties. An example would be their poor reaction to low pH substances (acids); moderate acidic cleaners will degrade and damage cellulosic fibers causing them to discolor and lose strength. On the other end of the pH spectrum, cellulosic fibers are very resistant to strong alkalis (high pH).

Cellulosic fibers tend to be hydrophilic meaning they are more absorbent than other textile fibers. Fabrics made up of these fibers have a much longer drying time than others, leaving them prone to potential problems like mildew and bacteria growth.

Maintaining Natural Cellulosic Upholstery & Floor Coverings

Cleanability

Natural plant fibers typically clean up well, and can withstand cleaning by either solvent or water-based cleaners. Thorough testing remains extremely important before cleaning to prevent color loss on dyed fabrics or other discoloration.

Cellulosic Browning

Cotton, linen, and other cellulosic fibers become stronger when wet, allowing for greater agitation when spot cleaning. However, with un-dyed cellulosic fabrics, cellulosic browning can occur if certain precautions, such as minimizing moisture and drying quickly, are neglected.

Color Loss

Depending on the specific fiber type, natural cellulosic fibers can be described as having anywhere between poor to average resistance to sunlight fading; spot cleaning with a bleaching agent such as OxiClean can quickly leave you with a bleach spot in your natural upholstery or floor covering. Neutral cleaners are always the safer route.

textile fibers

Before and after correcting cellulosic browning on linen sofa

Image from Tapestry Fine Carpet Cleaning          

Protein Fibers
Silk, Wool, Mohair, Camel Hair, Cashmere
wool rug cleaning

The protein family of textile fibers comes from animals and has been used in upholstery and floor coverings for thousands of years. This group features silk, wool, mohair, camel hair, and cashmere. Contrary to the previously discussed natural cellulosic plant fibers, protein fibers do not hold up well to alkalis (high pH). They do hold up well against acids, though silk is not as resistant as wool.

Similarly to plant-based fibers, protein fibers are also very absorbent. Silk tends to dry very quickly, while wool and mohair dry much slower. This makes it important to avoid an overly humid environment if possible, and to use quick-drying methods after wet cleaning is performed. These textile fibers, particularly wool and mohair, have excellent resilience, meaning that they tend to recover to their original form after crushing.

Maintaining Protein Textile Fibers

Cleanability

Textiles made up of animal fibers are generally sustainable and cleanable fabrics, largely due to their strong resiliency and durability. However, because of their high absorbency, addressing the spot or spill as soon as possible is crucial. When using water-based cleaners to spot clean silk upholstery, it is highly recommended to clean seam to seam (the entire face of the cushion) with a neutral pH cleaner to avoid commonly seen ringing issues. 

Regular vacuuming becomes ever so important with wool rugs, as they are extremely effective at hiding dirt and soil. Though you might not be able to see these particles, they will eat away at soft wool fibers if not addressed.

There are also certain silk and mohair finishes, such as embossed or gaufrage silk or mohair velvet, that can only be dry-cleaned so as not to permanently ruin the design.

 

Sunlight Resistance

While strong, direct sunlight can weaken the fibers of wool and mohair furnishings, they are relatively resistant to sunlight fading when compared to silk. Dyed silk that is exposed to sunlight will likely fade. Natural white/off-white silk will yellow over time and is known as the patina of silk. If exposed to sunlight, this yellowing will happen more quickly and be more pronounced. To combat this, regular flipping and rotating of silk cushions can help even out the inevitable fading.

Manmade Cellulosic Fibers
Rayon, Acetate, Triacetate
rayon fabric

Manmade cellulosic fibers are made from wood pulp, bamboo, and other plants that is treated with synthetic polymers, either by dissolving the polymer in a solvent or by melting the polymer. Rayon, also known as viscose, is by far the most common textile fiber in this group, accounting for about 5% of the total global fabric market. Acetate and triacetate also belong to this group.

Rayon has a natural appearance of bright luster similar to silk. It can also be manufactured to mimic cotton and other fibers. It didn’t take long after its birth for rayon to skyrocket in popularity among interior design, for its lustrous appearance and silky soft feel. It is also significantly cheaper to produce than real silk. Additionally, rayon upholstery and floor coverings are often labeled as “bamboo silk”, “art silk”, and other misleading names. With its beauty, rayon brings a slew of issues that make rayon fabric among the most difficult to care for.

Maintaining Manmade Cellulosic Textile Fibers

Cleanability

Being a cellulosic fiber, rayon does share some of cotton’s better qualities, such as being soft to the touch and resistant to static. However, it does not share the cleanability of natural plant fibers. Rayon loses 50-80% of its strength when wet, leaving it prone to shrinking, shading, crushing, fraying and shedding when exposed to moisture. This means that any water-based cleaning methods pose a huge risk in permanently altering your fabric.

Fabric Shading

Fabric shading is a phenomenon that occurs when a pile-constructed rayon experiences moisture and crushing, causing the affected area to appear different than the rest of the piece. This occurrence is compounded by the fact that rayon is one of the least resilient of all fibers.

Yellowing

One of the toughest issues to correct in the world of fabric care is pet urine which leaves behind a yellow stain. When rayon fabrics are constructed with a cellulosic foundation yarn, yellowing can occur without urine – all it takes is a small amount of water. Oftentimes, these discolorations are larger than the actual spill.

Environmental Concerns

Despite claims of sustainable production processes, the production of manmade cellulosic fibers requires massive amounts of water and energy, much of that water being polluted with potentially harmful chemicals. Air emissions from these plants include sulfur, nitrous oxide, carbon disulfide, and hydrogen sulfide. As the Rug Chick puts it, viscose (rayon) is the sausage of the fiber world.

Rayon fabric can crush with a very small amount of moisture and agitation

Manmade Non-Cellulosic Fibers
Nylon, Acrylic, Olefin, Polyester

Manmade non-cellulosic fibers are fully synthetic fibers that came to be in the 20th century, making them the youngest of the four main fiber families. They feature nylon, acrylic, olefin and polyester, all of which are largely known for their highly durable and cleanable properties. Each of these fibers has unique inherent qualities, but synthetic fibers as a class share several common characteristics. They are all sensitive to heat and have a melting point lower than other fiber types. These fibers are also quite hydrophobic (water resistant), and dry quickly.

Maintaining Synthetic Fibers

Cleanability

Because of their excellent fiber properties with regards to durability and resistance to harsh chemicals, synthetic fibers make up some of the most cleanable, and sustainable fabrics. Particularly if solution dyed, bleaching agents can even safely be used on heavily soiled synthetic furnishings – with the proper testing of course.

Performance Fabrics

The synthetic class of fibers are what make up performance fabrics, a broad term that encompass fabrics that offer increased resistance to any or all of the following: staining, fading, microbial growth, and abrasion/wear. These fibers offer extreme versatility and are used in upholstery and other soft surfaces in both indoor and outdoor environments due to the previously mentioned characteristics, including their resistance to mildew.

Solution Dyeing

Most fibers and yarns are conventionally dyed, but the making of synthetic fibers offers another method: solution dyeing. Not only is this a more eco-responsible and sustainable way of dyeing fibers, but it is what gives these fabric fibers the ultimate fading resistance.

textile fibers
Fiber Blends and Constructions in Fabric Upholstery and Floor Coverings

While knowing what each fiber offers in terms of appearance and performance can go a long way in choosing the best upholstery fabrics and floor coverings, there are other important variables to consider. Oftentimes, two or more of these fibers are blended together before coming up with the final product. Unfortunately, if a high-performing and sustainable fabric fiber is combined with a problematic fiber, the cleanability and sustainability of the fabric is largely governed by the weaker fiber.

Fabric construction and rug construction also play a large roles in the longevity of your furnishings. Whether it is a pile construction vs a flat weave upholstery fabric, or a machine-woven vs hand-tufted rug, the way in which the fibers are crafted will have a say in how to care for a furnishing.

How Fabric Protection Plays its Part

The reality is that no fiber or fabric is bulletproof – and most are far from it. Fabric protection is an option that will significantly reduce the absorbency and increase the repellency of a soft surface, allowing spots and spills to be easily blotted away. Choosing the best fabric protector can be a tall task, but Fiber-Seal aims to make that decision easy. With service centers located all around the United States, each is equipped with trained fabric care experts to professionally apply our treatment products to all your furnishings.

The service doesn’t end there, as each customer is provided a fabric care kit to address spots and spills as they happen. If the spots persist, as they sometimes will, Fiber-Seal sends a technician out to provide the finishing touches on spot removal, free of charge.

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