Fabric Finishing & Treatments: Process & Methods

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Why are some fabrics extra soft and shiny, while others keep you dry in a rain shower? It's because the fabric has been taken through a finishing process. In this lesson, learn about treatments and methods used in fabric finishing.

What is Fabric Finishing?

Ever wonder how fabric becomes waterproof? Or why flannel feels so soft? It's because of fabric finishing and treatments. After many fabrics are woven, they are taken through physical and chemical processes to add certain qualities. For example, they may be treated to make them softer, water resistant, or to enhance dye penetration.

Fabric finishing is the general term for this process. Immediately after fabric is manufactured, it's raw and harsh and not yet ready to be made into fabric goods. At this stage, the cloth is sometimes called grey goods and it needs further refinement. This is where fabric finishing processes become important. Generally, the finishing process includes three basic stages: washing and drying, stabilizing, and pressing. In addition, some fabrics are then treated to make them anti-static, water repellent, or flame retardant.

Many methods applied to fabrics in these stages are very specialized and we can't discuss them all. However, we can cover a few of the basic ones. And to clarify, in this lesson, we're not talking about processes that add color to fabric, like printing and dyeing.

Washing and Drying

In this stage the fabric is cleaned thoroughly. Any dirt from the manufacturing process is removed, and it's prepared for dyeing and coloring. One of the most basic chemical finishing methods that happens during this stage is one you might be familiar with. Bleaching removes all natural color from fabric to prepare it for dyeing.

Another chemical method that happens during washing, especially to cotton fabrics, is mercerising. Raw fabrics are dipped in a caustic soda solution that increases their fiber strength and makes them shinier. The fabric is immersed in the soda solution for under four minutes, and then treated with water or acid to neutralize the soda. This process improves the strength of the fabric and its affinity for dyes.

When such process are done, the fabric is carefully dried to remove any water that has accumulated in it. Drying happens in a very controlled environment to ensure the fabric isn't heated too much.

Stabilizing

During washing and drying, fabric is subjected to lots of force and it's sometimes stretched. In the stabilizing stage, fabric undergoes physical actions like the application of friction, pressure, or heat to achieve a desired effect. It's stabilized to prevent further shrinkage, create desired finished surfaces and ensure the best possible condition for dyeing and printing.

Another process used during stabilizing is Sanforizing, done with a machine called a Sanforizer. This process uses drums filled with hot steam and rollers under pressure. Fabric goes through this process to pre-shrink it and compact its fibers, thus controlling any additional shrinkage.

Advertisement promoting Sanforized fabric, from the late 1940s
ad for sanforized fabric

Pressing and Specialized Finishes

At this point, some fabrics are pressed to achieve a final texture. For smoothing, a method called calendering could be used, which involves running fabric between a pair of steel rollers or calenders. While the fabric is pressed under these rollers, it's heated. The combination of heat and pressure creates changes to the fabric's surface, smoothing and compressing it to give it a flat glossy finish.

Example of a calendering machine from around 1889
calendering machine

Sometimes smooth texture isn't what's desired. A process called raising or napping involves running fabric through revolving cylinders with short barbs or wires to lift short loose fibers and create a textured surface. Raising, sometimes also called gigging, is often done to woolens to make them heavier, softer and warmer. It creates the comforting surfaces of textiles like blankets and flannel.

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