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What Are Textiles?

Many people think of clothing production when they hear the term “textiles.” While clothing is a common application, textiles entail a multitude of products, like bedding, rugs, curtains and many more.

Textiles traditionally contained natural fibers like cotton, wool and flax. Today, many synthetic fibers such as acrylic, nylon and polyester can also create textiles. Each fiber has unique properties to give textiles their defining features. This guide will explore textiles in detail, covering the different types of fibers, materials and products.

What Is a Textile?

A textile is a broad term encompassing finished and unfinished materials that can serve a range of purposes. Originally, textiles only described woven fabrics. The word textile derives from the Latin term textilis, which means “woven.” However, the term now covers all fabrics and any materials used to create them.

Fiber-based materials like yarns, threads and filaments are considered textile products. Knitted, felted and nonwoven are other types of manufacturing that can produce textiles. Additionally, many fabric materials like cotton, chiffon, denim, linen, satin, silk, leather and wool fall under the textile umbrella. Every element of a textile, including the fabric, yarn, fiber and finishing, impacts the final product.

Textiles are divided into two main categories — technical textiles and consumer textiles for domestic uses. Comfort and aesthetics are primary factors in consumer textiles, while technical textiles prioritize function. Medical textiles, geotextiles and industrial textiles fall into the technical classification, while products like furnishings and apparel are consumer textiles.

Production processes and materials in textile products can vary depending on the intended purpose. Textiles are present in many everyday items, such as clothing, furniture, bedding, carpets and more.

Textiles vs. Fabrics

People often use the words “fabrics” and “textiles” interchangeably, though the terms refer to different things. Textiles are finished or unfinished materials used for many applications, while fabrics are finished materials used for clothing production.

In strict definition, textiles are products made from woven fibers using a variety of methods. The term also applies to the fibers themselves. Meanwhile, fabrics are made with weaving, sewing and stitching. A fabric is any woven, knitted, felted, braided or nonwoven material such as cloth, lace and hosiery. Unlike fabric, which is a more specific term, textiles cover a wide array of products and materials. Therefore, a fabric is a type of textile, but not all textiles are fabrics.

fibers vs fabrics

Fibers are the smallest components of fabrics with a fine, hair-like appearance. They can be natural, synthetic or both. Manufacturers spin the fibers into yarn, then use the yarn to create the fabric. Yarns are manipulated with different processes like knitting, weaving, braiding or crocheting. The fibers are laid out or twisted to create long, continuous strands of yarn. Methods like bonding and felting directly transform fibers into fabric.

The textile materials are then processed and finished to improve function and aesthetics. Manufacturers can apply various decorative techniques like printing, dyeing and embroidery to textiles to enhance the final product.

Types of Textile Fibers

There are two main classifications of textile fibers — natural plant-based and synthetic, human-made fibers. Below are some examples of each.

Natural Fibers

Here are some common natural fibers used in textile manufacturing:

  • Cotton: Cotton fibers come from cotton plant seedpods and are usually white in color. The cotton plant is soft and fluffy, so naturally, it produces some of the softest and most comfortable fibers. Cotton fibers are also strong and durable, serving many uses such as towels, bedding and clothing. Manufacturers can spin them into a variety of textile yarns.
  • Ramie: Ramie fibers come from the inner bark of the ramie plant’s stem. They’re among the most durable natural fibers that can maintain shape and resist wrinkling. They resemble linen fibers in terms of density and absorbency. Ramie fibers benefit many applications like home furnishings, clothing and automotive upholstery.
  • Coir: Coir fibers come from the outer husk of coconuts and are incredibly strong, durable and mildew-resistant. They’re ideal for outdoor and high-traffic applications like doormats and floor mats. They also help create brushes, ropes, mattresses and upholstery.
  • Hemp: Hemp fibers come from the stem of the hemp plant. They’re highly durable and ideal for numerous applications like clothing, bags, building materials and more. These fibers were traditionally used to make ship sails, rigging and ropes. Hemp is sometimes used to substitute wood in fiberboard and paper manufacturing.
  • Linen: Linen fibers come from the stems of the flax plant. They provide strength, absorbency and comfort, making them suitable for many purposes. Their common uses include clothing, towels, bedding, table linens and other home furnishings.
  • Wool: “Wool” typically refers to the fleece of sheep, but it can also apply to similar fibers from animals like angora goats, cashmere goats, and llamas. Wool has a natural felting ability. 

Human-Made Fibers

Next, here are some common artificial fibers for textile production:

  • Polypropylene: Polypropylene fibers are derived from the byproducts of natural gas and oil production. Propylene polymerizes into a resin, which is extruded with color pigments through a spinneret device. These long fibers are stiff, durable, abrasion-resistant and cost-effective to produce. Polypropylene fibers help produce medical fabrics, athletic apparel, upholstery fabric and geotextiles.
  • Polyester: Polyester fibers come from petroleum. They’re durable and abrasion-resistant yet lightweight, making them ideal for industrial textiles, upholstery and clothing. Polyester fibers are often blended with other fibers like wool or cotton to enhance the textile’s performance.
  • Nylon: Nylon fibers come from polyamide. Melt spinning is a common method used to produce these fibers. The polymer is melted and extruded through tiny spinneret holes to form long, thin fibers. Nylon fibers help manufacture clothing, swimwear, bags and bedding. They can also serve industrial applications like seat belts, nets and ropes.
  • Rayon: Rayon is a regenerated cellulosic fiber that comes from wood pulp in spruce, eucalyptus, pine and other trees. Cellulose is dissolved in a chemical solution, forced through a spinneret, then cooled and solidified to create rayon fibers. These fibers are used in towels, upholstery and clothing. They also serve medical applications like dressings and bandages. 
  • Acrylic: Manufacturers create acrylic fibers by spinning acrylonitrile copolymers. The polymers are dissolved in a solvent, extruded through a spinneret, then cooled and solidified. Acrylic fibers are lightweight, soft and durable, commonly used for clothing, carpeting, synthetic fur and artificial turf. They’re often blended with other fibers like wool to increase desired fabric properties.
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Browse Our Textile Selection

Swavelle Group is a leader in the textile industry, specializing in beautiful, durable fabrics to suit a range of markets. Those looking to provide their customers with weather-, UV- and microbe-resistant textiles can find their ideal solution from our quality and sustainable selection. Our team devotes extreme care and attention to every fabric we design, considering each client’s unique needs.

Whether you need fabrics for homes, corporate offices, RVs or health care facilities, you can find expertly customized and curated fabrics from SG. Browse our textile selection or contact us about our custom fabric services today.