Fabric Finishes: Definition & Types

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

There is a lot that goes into creating a good, reliable, and useful textile. In this lesson, we'll look at the final stages of textile production: how a fabric is finished.

Finishing Fabric

It's often been said that it doesn't matter how you start an endeavor, it matters how you finish. Whoever said this must have known a thing or two about textiles. Many people are surprised the first time they purchase raw fabric material because it looks and feels different than what we're used to; that's because it hasn't been finished. In textiles, finishing refers to the processes which alter the final look, feel, or functionality of a textile after it has been produced and dyed. Sometimes, it really does come down to how you finish.

Without being finished, many textiles would look and feel different than we expect
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Functional Finishes

For nearly as long as they've been producing fabrics, people found ways to enhance certain qualities; there are dozens of finishing techniques. To keep them straight, we often categorize the techniques into three, non-exclusive categories. Let's start with function.

Functional finishes increase the utility or purpose of the fabric. There are two basic genres of functional finishes, and the most basic are the aesthetic finishes. These increase the appearance of the fabric (remember, looking good is a purpose of textiles). For example, cotton may be bleached to make it whiter or starched to increase the weight and shine. Since every fabric is different, you need to study each finish individually to know how it will impact that specific textile.

Other finishes are purely functional; they make the fabric perform better. Waterproofing, fireproofing, bulletproofing, and even wrinkle resistance are examples of finishes to make certain textiles more useful.

Charles Macintosh, a Scottish inventor who developed the process of waterproofing in the 19th century
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Performance

Another classification of fabric finishes describes the performance of the finish. Some finishes need to last longer than others depending on the fabric and its intended use. There are four basic levels of performance-based finish. The lowest level is a temporary finish; it will wash or wear off quickly. If you starch your own sheets, you've probably noticed that this is something you have to do frequently.

Semi-durable finishes can last multiple washes but will eventually wear down. Bleaching is a common example of this. You don't have to re-do it after every wash, only after several uses. On the other hand, durable finishes only need application once in the lifetime of a fabric, even if the finish starts to lose its effectiveness. Finishes to make garments wrinkle-resistant are a good example.

Finally, there are permanent finishes. As the name implies, permanent finishes are…permanent. The finishing process actually changes the structure of the fibers themselves, often through the addition of chemicals. For example, when you waterproof something, you aren't just adding a coating to the fabric, you're binding a water-resistant chemical to the actual fibers within it.

Chemical and Mechanical Finishes

The last major way we categorize finishes is through the method by which they are applied. A large number of our fabric finishes are applied by adding some sort of chemical to the fabric, known as chemical finishes. Since they're generally applied in liquid form, they're also often known as wet finishes.

Chemical finishes tend to be durable or permanent so again, you should always check how a finish will impact your fabric before using it. For example, sodium hydroxide solutions can be added to cotton to make the fibers stronger and shinier, a process known as mercerizing. Silk can be treated with anti-felting chemicals to stop the fabric from attracting dust. Wool can be finished with chemicals to make it inedible to moths, or to stop the wool from felting (shedding in little clumps).

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