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Unraveling the Threads of Fashion

Remi Zelin

Mar 22, 2024

Unraveling the Threads of Fashion

There is an immensely wide variety of fabrics that designers use to create their clothing, each carrying its own form, texture, and purpose. Dating back to around 3 million years ago, different materials are used for distinct products, as each one holds different properties; some are thick and structured while others are silky and flexible. Depending on its application and the designer’s vision of the silhouette, certain fabrics are more suitable for specific pieces, such as the use of wool to retain heat for winter wear. The fabric used dictates the feel of an item, and every material unfolds a story through the way in which it falls on the wearer.

The production of every fabric involves a complex process that transforms it into a usable form for design creation. The production may begin at large-scale textile hubs like China, India, or Pakistan. And, thanks to the Textile Fiber Rule, effective November 2020, textiles sold in the US are required to be labeled with the “percentages by weight of the constituent fibers in the product” and “the country where the product was processed or manufactured.”

The journey, simply put, is from fiber to yarn to fabric to garment. The three main categories of production are natural fibers, synthetic fabrics, and animal materials. With the use of natural materials like modal, cotton, bamboo, and linen, the first step is harvesting the crop and balling the fibers together. The collected fibers are then transported to a spinning mill, which can be in another city or even another country, and the raw material is turned into yarn. Going through multiple machines, the preparation is broken down into steps in a ‘blow room’. For synthetic materials, such as polyester, nylon, and acrylic, the process starts in a lab, as the materials are man-made using chemicals. The substance used is then hardened, cut, melted, and brought together to form strands of yarn that is eventually used to create fabric. When using animal materials, such as furs, the hair is harvested from the animal and then spun with methods of woolen or worsted spinning, which dictates the density of the yarn.

Pieces made from fabrics such as polyester are generally loved because of the material’s low cost and high durability; by 2017, around 80% of synthetic fibers were considered to be polyester. But with these benefits, comes endless costs. Made using plastic derived from petroleum, the material is non-renewable and not biodegradable, which leads to microplastics infringing on clean water and air. Also, due to its easy accessibility and synthetic manufacturing production, the fabric has fueled the growth of fast fashion.

On the other side of the spectrum are high-end, exclusive materials such as Vicuna Wool. Referring to the extremely fine animal hair of the Vicuna, part of the Camelidae family, this fiber is not only difficult to spin but only 200 grams are produced every three years, making it challenging to get even several meters. Brand Mahogany Cashmere sells four items made of 100% Vicuna ranging from $2,316.60 to $10,125.00, emphasizing the material's preciousness. Considered the “wool of gods”, the soft material is only used in a few hundred pieces a year.

Not only does it impact the production process and texture of a piece, but the choice of material also determines the shape of the item. For example, let’s take two dress configurations into consideration; a cotton mini dress consisting of a corset-style bustier top with structured boning and a tight bottom, and a maxi dress made of loose-fitting silk that drapes down to the floor, unveiling a train. One style creates the appearance of a cinched waist and emphasizes one’s assets while the other holds a sense of softness and elegance. Depending on the look one sets out to present, the material of the clothing unfolds their story.

The fabric chosen is a critical step in a designer’s finished product. From the feel to the structure, the choice determines the appearance, accessibility and affordability of a piece. An item’s purpose is dependent on the fabric.

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