Textile Fibers: Definition, Properties & Types

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  • 0:04 Textiles and Fibers
  • 2:27 Natural Fibers
  • 4:47 Synthetic Fibers
  • 5:30 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

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

Textile fibers are an extremely important part of the textile manufacturing process. In this lesson, we're going to explore various kinds of textile fibers and see what makes them right for the job.

Textiles & Fibers

Making clothes is a lot like cooking. Textiles, or human-made clothes or fabrics, are made up of many parts. The dyes, fabrics, yarns, threads, and decorations that come together to make a finished textile are like the ingredients used to make a meal. Just as good cooking is defined by using the best ingredients, so are textiles defined by their most basic components. The base of any textile is the fiber, a slender object that is substantially longer than it is wide. A fiber is generally hundreds of times longer than it is wide, giving it a hair-like appearance. Fibers can define almost every aspect of a finished textile. So, if you want your textile to be something you're proud to present, you've got to start with the right ingredients.

Fibers are incredibly important to textile production, but the first thing you need to know is this: not all fibers are suitable for textiles. Textile fibers are those which have properties that allow them to be spun into yarn or directly made into fabric. This means they need to be strong enough to hold their shape, flexible enough to be shaped into a fabric or yarn, elastic enough to stretch, and durable enough to last. Textile fibers also have to be a minimum of 5 millimeters in length. Shorter fibers cannot be spun together.

So, all textiles are made of fibers, but not all fibers can be used to make textiles. For example, cotton plants contain fibers that are strong and pliant enough to be spun into yarn. These are textile fibers. On the other hand, have you ever noticed those little strings in your corn-on-the-cob? Those hair-like structures are technically fibers. However, they are too weak to be spun into yarn without breaking, so they are unsuitable for textiles.

Finally, it's important to remember that not all textile fibers are created equal. Each fiber contains different qualities and will result in a different textile. Some retain heat better than others; some hold dye very well; some are more durable; and some are more comfortable. Achieving the finished textile you want requires an understanding of the best fibers for the job. Think of fibers like spices in cooking. Yes, you could add any spice to any dish, but only the right ones will make the meal taste right.

Natural Fibers

Since textile fibers are so important, let's get to know them a little better. There are two broad categories of textiles: natural and synthetic. Natural fibers are those that occur naturally. You can find them in nature. We have domesticated many of these fiber sources, but they're still naturally occurring. Natural fibers can come from one of three sources: plant fibers, animal fibers, and mineral fibers.

Plant Fibers

Around the world, plants are one of the most common sources of textile fibers. Many plants get their structure from fibers, so we have many to choose from. Some come from the bast, or inner stem of a plant, like flax or hemp. Bast fibers tend to be soft and flexible. Flax fibers, for example, are used to make linen. Fibers can also be found in the seed or fruit. We pick and use cotton because the fibers used to make textiles are in the seedpods. Finally, plant fibers can come from leaves. Leaf fibers, such as those from the sisal plant, are hard and durable, but much less comfortable. Sisal fibers are most often used for rugs or rope.

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