How to Care for Fabric

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How to Care for Fabric

Using woven or knitted fabric to make clothing, furniture, or other household items is a lot of fun and a great way to save money over buying hand- or mass-produced products, whether they be ready-made or custom pieces. There are multiple possible material types, structures, colours, and patterns, and combinations of these and other elements lead to more fabric choices than one could even imagine. Some textile lovers or "textophiles" are known to purchase fabric with no specific purpose in mind and may even hoard such pieces for future use.

As wonderful as beautiful materials are, they are susceptible to age, rot, infestation, and many other types of damage if not properly cared for. As with any investment, there is no point in buying fabric and creating something lovely from it, only to have that item become unusable. Anyone who sews, crafts, upholsters furniture, or otherwise purchases and uses textiles should learn how to properly care for those textiles. This requires understanding the special care that may be required by certain types of fibres as well as general care methods.

Fabric Weaves

Most textiles are classified as weaves or knits. A weave is created on a loom by crossing horizontal and vertical threads or yarns. Most woven materials are on the stiffer side and can even be somewhat crisp, meaning the fabric holds its shape and does not sway or droop. Weaves are prone to wrinkling and are often ironed. A knit is created in much the same way as hand knitting, only on a miniscule scale with fine threads instead of bulky yarns. Knits are soft and drapey and less likely to wrinkle. In garments, knits tend to cling to the body, whereas weaves have more structure.

Types of Fabric

There are many types of fabric, both natural and synthetic, each requiring different methods of care. Buyers should become acquainted with these different fabrics in order to understand what kind of care may be required.


Wool or fleece is harvested mainly from sheep but also from animals in the camel family, goats, and rabbits. Pure wool is warm, strong, absorbent, wrinkle-resistant, and lightweight, although it is terribly prone to shrinkage and felting if improperly handled. Examples of wool fabrics include pure wool, lambswool, cashmere, tweed, and wool blends, as well as some specific types of felt, flannel, jersey, crepe, and gabardine. The safest way to clean wool is to take it to a professional dry cleaner. Dry cleaning uses liquid chemical solvents to remove dirt instead of water. These solvents, oddly, are less likely to disturb the integrity of wool fibres than water. Hand washing is sometimes acceptable for woollen items if done gently with a minimal of swishing. Spot cleaning enables one to wait longer between actual cleanings or washings.


Cotton is a plant fibre that has been used for textiles even in prehistory. The invention of the cotton gin in 1793 by American Eli Whitney boosted the cotton industry. Cotton, which remains the world's most popular fibre, is lightweight, cool, soft, absorbent, versatile, and has good colour retention; however, it also is prone to wrinkling and shrinkage. Examples of cotton fabrics include pure cotton, cotton blends, flannel, twill, sateen, denim, and canvas as well as specific patterned cloths such as calico and gingham. Organic cotton is certified as being insecticide- and pesticide-free, a factor that is important to people who are environmentally conscious or health conscious. Cotton should be washed before it is sewn, because shrinkage may distort the shape of the item or reduce the overall size. Cotton is quite hardy and can withstand hot-water washes, bleach (if white), and high heat from tumble dryers and irons.


Linen is another plant fibre. Fine linen is wonderfully airy, light, and absorbent. On the downside, linen is notorious for creasing almost immediately when worn as a garment. Buyers can choose between pure linen and linen blends. Depending on the quality, linen can be smooth or rough. Linen does not wash well because it is prone to shrinkage, so one is better off dry cleaning it. Ironing must be performed at a very high heat.


Silk is a luxury fibre that is produced by a special species of worm. One can find both pure silk and silk blends. Silk is usually lightweight and feels good next to the skin; however, it wrinkles and sometimes can be ruined by water, depending on the type. Pure silk of high quality is quite costly, and dry cleaning expenses add to the cost of the fabric over time.


There are many fabrics made from fibres not found in nature. These include polyester, nylon, acrylic, and viscose or rayon, the last of which is a synthetic that is derived from a natural product, plant cellulose. Most synthetic materials are wrinkle-resistant, shrink-resistant, strong, and nonabsorbent. Synthetic fabrics last for a long time and are easily washed and dried by machine.

Washing Fabric

Cleaning fabric is essential to keeping it fresh, although over time, washing and drying lead to colour fading, gradual shrinking, and general deterioration. There are a few different options for cleaning materials.

Machine Washing

In past eras, when clothing was primarily worn for utilitarian purposes and a person might have owned only a few personal garments, hand washing may not have been as big of a chore, although large families certainly had a bigger job of doing laundry. Current lifestyles and the proliferation of fashion call for easy-care clothing and inexpensive, efficient cleaning methods. Today, most households have at least a washing machine in place and usually a tumble dryer as well. University students and flat dwellers may have to take their dirty clothing out to a commercial laundry. Most modern washers feature several settings for different types of fabric and are very effective at cleaning thoroughly and safely.

Laundry Detergents

Detergents come in liquid and powder form, and the choice mainly comes down to personal preference. Many detergents have added ingredients, such as bleaches, enzymes, stain removers, fabric softeners, and fragrances; other detergents boast that they have fewer ingredients, particularly dyes and perfumes that can irritate people who have allergies.


There are two general types of bleach: chlorine bleach and non-chlorine bleach. Chlorine bleach is a powerful disinfectant and whitener; therefore, it should only be used on white materials and natural fibres. Care should be taken not to drip, splash, or spill bleach when pouring it out; even a drop left on the surface of the washing machine or dryer can ruin a coloured garment should the two come in contact. Coloured fabrics that are bleached do not always become white but may turn unpredictable colours, and bleach "stains" are irreversible except for spot-dyeing, a tricky process at best.

Fabric Softeners

Fabric softeners usually come in liquids that are added to the rinse water or in dryer sheets that are placed in the dryer. Some people believe fabric softeners to be unnecessary, and environmentalists avoid adding extra chemicals to the water supply or adding waste to landfills. These folks either substitute earth-friendly ingredients, such as white vinegar, or skip the softener altogether. Other people find that static electricity and cling generated by tumble-drying in the winter are unbearable, and some users enjoy the fresh fragrances imparted by softeners. Whatever the decision, know that fabric softeners are in fact unnecessary when it comes to caring for most fibres.

Hand Washing

Hand washing in cool water is gentler on vintage and delicate fabrics, as well as items that may lose their shape (such as bras), and is a better choice for wool than machine washing. While hand washing in the past often meant vigorous scrubbing with a washboard, today the concept of hand washing is generally understood to mean soaking and very gentle movement of the fabric. Most people do not use laundry detergent but a special soap made especially for hand washing.

Dry Cleaning

Dry cleaning is not truly "dry", because it does involve a liquid; however, this liquid does not contain water. Some of the first dry-cleaning solutions were gasoline and kerosene, strong chemical solvents that dissolved dirt and stains without causing damage, shrinking or stretching of the fibres. Today's dry cleaning chemicals are just as toxic but safer in that they are not flammable. Dry cleaning is particularly useful for wool, linen, and silk that may not wash well.


It might seem odd to mention colour in relation to fabric care, but certain dyes can affect how a fabric must be washed. For example, lower-quality red fabric has a tendency to bleed when wet. Certain fibres hold dye better than others; moreover, certain dyes are more permanent than others. If red garments or items are washed with other lighter colours, the red dye may turn everything pink. Always test a red item by hand washing it separately the first time and checking the water to see if any dye secretes. If so, continue to hand wash it or be sure to only machine wash the item with other pink and red pieces.

Green material and blue fabric may also bleed, depending on the type of dye used and the type of fibre. The indigo dye used for denim blue jeans can run on the first washing, so new jeans should be washed separately the first time or with other jeans and blue clothing.


Stain removal is an important part of fabric care. Many substances cause permanent spots if not immediately removed from the fibre. Certain fabrics, such as wool, should be cleaned as little as possible; in this case, spot treatment is an effective way to extend the intervals between cleanings. Stains are generally treated on a "like removes like" basis; that is, water-based stains can be removed with a simple soap-and-water solution, whereas anything oil usually requires a petroleum- or solvent-based stain remover.

Drying Fabric

Once fabric is washed, it must be dried. There are a few different methods for drying textiles.

Drip Drying

Drip drying refers to suspending a piece of fabric and allowing gravity to pull out excess water. Material may be hung on a clothesline, a drying rack, or a hanger. While this method takes time and space and sometimes results in stiff-feeling garments, it is gentle on clothing and environmentally conscious. The stiffness can be resolved by using a bit of fabric softener in the rinse water.

Flat Drying

Certain fabrics are best dried flat to avoid stretching. This applies particularly to woolen garments and knit items that may become misshapen if hung. Any garment can be dried flat if there is enough room; however, the item must be placed on a towel and flipped regularly to get it thoroughly dry. Many people use specially designed mesh sweater stands, which allow for airflow through the garment and speed up drying time.

Tumble Drying

Tumble dryers are incredibly convenient, particularly in cold and damp climates; however, they are not without drawbacks. The high heat does break fabric down over time, particularly those that contain elasticised fibres such as spandex. The amount of lint left in the lint trap after one drying cycle illustrates just how much the clothing fibres are broken down from one cleaning and drying. Dryers are terrific for saving time and space; just remember to keep the heat setting as low as possible, even if it means a longer drying cycle. Some people also partially dry their clothes and then hang them when damp to save energy as well as preserving their clothes.

Pressing and Steaming Fabric

Most natural fibres, with the exception of wool, can become deeply wrinkled and require some type of wrinkle removal care. This is usually done either by ironing or steaming the fabric. Ironing requires a hot metal plate to be rubbed across the fibres to relax them and release the wrinkles. Steaming is gentler on clothes but may not be as effective; this involves applying hot steam to relax the fibres in a similar manner. Some people hang clothing in the bathroom while showering, although most showers are not hot enough and do not last long enough to have any significant effect on wrinkled fabrics.

Where to Find Fabric

One can find fabric at any number of arts and crafts shops, sewing shops, fabric shops, and even discount shops. Many shops sell fabric remnants (often less than 1 yard) from the bolt ends at a reduced price; these small pieces are useful for making pillows, bags, quilt squares, and many other projects. One might also find fabric at yard sales, through classified adverts, or at online auctions.

How to Buy Fabric on eBay

You can find every type of fabric imaginable on eBay, from upholstery textiles to clothing materials. eBay has a user-friendly site that allows shoppers to browse in different ways, depending on their goals. One way to shop eBay is to perform a search by keywords. You can get started by finding the Search field on the home page and entering a word or phrase into the box. After you click Search or press Enter, you can see the results in a number of different categories. You can either start looking at individual items from here, or you can further refine the search by clicking on a specific category.

Another way to shop for fabric on eBay is to navigate through those product categories from the beginning. Return to the home page and find the link that takes you to all categories. Read through the directory and click on an appropriate link to a category or subcategory. Continue to click your way through categories until you arrive at fabric.


Using fabric in sewing and crafts projects is fun and creative. Fabric must be cared for properly before, during, and after it is made into a garment or other item. Fabric care involves cleaning, drying, and removing wrinkles.

Cleaning methods vary depending on the type of fabric, which may call for machine washing, hand washing, or dry cleaning. In some cases, dry cleaning is called for not because of the fabric but to protect the shape and structure of a garment. Dry cleaning solvents evaporate quickly, but hand washing and machine washing require drying of fabrics. This can either be done in a tumble dryer or simply by leaving the fabric to dry naturally, and letting the moisture drip out or evaporate. Wrinkle removal is achieved with either an iron or a steamer. While fabric care may seem complex, remember that tags on clothing or instructions on fabric bolts usually indicate the correct cleaning, drying, and wrinkle-removal method. Simply follow the directions and the fabric should stay in good condition.

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