Plant and animal fibers are the building blocks of clothing. They’re what yarns are spun from, and subsequently what fabrics and ultimately clothes are made out of. With certain yarns, we get certain properties. Cotton and linen tend to be lightweight and breathable, merino wool is warm and insulating, and cashmere is soft and luxurious.
But what about the other materials we see on our care tags, such as Egyptian cotton, Alpaca, and Tencel? Here we’ll review ten less popularly understood fibers and what they mean for clothes.
Alpaca: Fiber from the alpaca, a small, domesticated llama native to the high regions of South America. There are two types of alpaca hairs: huacaya and suri, the second being rarer, silkier, and more delicate. Alpaca yarns are often left undyed and used to give sweaters some natural brown coloring
Angora: Fiber from the hair of angora rabbits. Extremely soft, it’s usually added to wool or cashmere to give it a silkier touch.
Bamboo: A fiber derived from bamboo plants through a process similar to the one used to turn wood pulp into rayon or lyocell. Bamboo is prized for its natural anti-bacterial (and thus odor resistant) properties. It also has the advantage of being a “green” fiber, as it’s less environmentally taxing as a renewable resource.
Egyptian cotton: A word originally used to refer to a type of luxurious, long-staple cotton from Egypt. Unfortunately, the word is often misleadingly used today to market coarser varieties of cotton from Egypt, which leads to a lot of confusion over why (true) Egyptian cotton should be prized
Mohair: A lightweight, lustrous fiber taken from the fleece of Angora goats. When used in wovens, it imparts a slight shine; when used in knits, it gives a slightly hairier appearance.
Polyester: An umbrella term for a variety of man-made, petrochemical-based fibers. Although 100% polyester fabrics aren’t terribly great for clothing (witness the 1970s), a bit of polyester can be added to blends in order to give certain desirable qualities. In cotton, it can make the fabric easier to iron. In linen, it can add some resilience and “spring back,” giving the yarns a bit more “life.” Polyester is also routinely used to make performance clothing, as its valued for its wicking properties.
Rayon: Known as “artificial” silk, rayon is supple and silky, and derived from plant materials. It’s commonly used for linings and pajamas.
Tencel: A trademark name owned by Lenzing for a type of lyocell, a type of fiber primarily processed from wood pulp. The material is valued for its ability to absorb sweat and bring it to the surface easily, thus allowing the perspiration to evaporate and letting the wearer stay dry and odor free.
Viscose: A supple and silky fabric often used in linings, pajamas, and underwear. Also commonly used as a synonym for rayon.
Virgin wool: Any wool that hasn’t been recycled from a previous yarn. The term was more important in the 1930s, when the recycling and reuse of materials was more common, as it helped distinguish a “premium” yarn from recycled yarns. In the recycling process, wool fibers came out a bit shorter, which made the resulting yarns weaker. Virgin wool doesn't have any of those problems, but again, is less of an issue today now that fewer manufacturers recycle wool.