Friday, March 23, 2012

Textile Friday: Azlon's Brain-lock

                          "'Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material." Leviticus 19:19

           This Friday's post is for my new intern, Dejah, who asked me to explain textile fibers to her in terms of helping her buy better clothes that will last her longer. Before I get started, I am not an spinner, dyer, or weaver expert, and my cousin Jay can kick my butt any day of the week on this subject. This is brief summary of rules of thumb for the end consumer looking to buy clothing that lasts, not a how-to-create fabric for which one spends years mastering or how-to-buy for designers which possibly takes just as long. Making cloth is as difficult, complicated, and interesting as sewing it into clothing. There's a lot of science behind fabric. We are looking to buy good quality clothing today, not spend 10 years going to school for the privilege of taking extra chemistry classes.
            So, how does one wade through the sea of fabric changes since the 1940s when man-made fabrics came on the main market without going to school for it? Even the term man-made can be misleading for some people as rayon for example is sometimes made from cotton, just the overall plant and not the white stuff at the top. Worse, many spinners will create blends that have a specific hand feel, but fall apart quickly as they lack the desirable properties of the objects they are mimicking.
            First, after finding a piece of clothing you like, look at the label tag on the inside. You should find two pieces of information. First, the fiber content and second, the wash-care instructions. The fiber content will tell you the overall quality of the piece of material in your hand (it's strengths and weaknesses) and the wash-care instructions will tell you how the garment is actually to be treated in day to day use.
            What is fiber content? Fiber content is the materials that go into the make-up of your clothing. It generally comes in 3 major grades or categories which are sometimes sub-divided. The top grade or highest quality grade are 100% fabrics (generally natural) that are woven or felted. They are primarily natural fabrics: wools, cotton, silk, leather, fur, and linen. Natural fabrics breath easier and have certain natural resistances to mildew, moths, sunlight, wrinkling, static shock, etc. The best of these will often have additional finishes to give desirable qualities the wearer may want (water resistance, luster, etc). And interfacing to provide a foundation to help the pieces hold up over time. Whenever possible, I prefer to work with natural fabrics over anything else or suggest them to people to buy. Mostly because I like happy customers. Cotton and leather are particular favorites. Natural fabrics are made to last a minim of 15-20 years or 140 washes typically and I've seen numbers ranging in 700-50,000 before if people follow the wash care instructions.
            However, it is not always practical or possible to afford the best. Sometimes your desire for the best possible quality has to meet the reality that a $60 t-shirt is not an affordable t-shirt or $3000 for a dress for a 1 time event is not going to happen for most people. So what do fabric producers do? There are 3 major solutions I've seen, all with pluses and minuses. The most reasonable solution I've seen is for manufacturers to offer a cheaper version of the same shirt as a knit instead of a woven.  Knits have a tendency to sag over time, but this is my favorite thing to tell customers if they can't afford a top of the line woven shirt or dress, to look for the same thing as a knit. It will lack the build up and foundation of a better quality garment, but it will have many of the same positive wearing and wash qualities. Be aware that knits have a tendency to sag over time and lack the foundation of wovens so they won't hold up as long. When looking at knits vs. wovens, I generally drop the life of knits down to under 10 years.
           Next, you see manufacturers using lower quality goods for medium quality fabrics. For example, many secondary quality fabrics are made from cotton plant left-overs, wood pulp, cellulose, etc as a realistic offering by a manufacturer to offer a similar item at a less expensive price. The item will generally last a 4th to a 10th as long as a garment made of the higher quality natural fabrics and command a lower price. Many manufacturers speak of 30-60 washes as typical. You can think of this as the difference between 1st cold-press olive oil and normal olive oil.
            Lastly, my least favorite method...blended fabrics. Blended fabrics are an old trick that has been around for thousands of years in which sellers attempt to stretch their higher quality goods further by mixing it with cheaper quality stuff and hoping no one notices. The seller passes their medium quality goods off as top shelf or "as good as" at half the price. It's one of the oldest proscriptions in the Torah or Old Testament. Trust me, if old Jewish merchants don't like it enough to write about it repeatedly as both legal and otherwise...there's a very basic reason.
            In theory, blended fabrics would have the best properties of both fabrics. This is the sales pitch you get in the store when you go to buy the fabric, what you never get mentioned is that blended fabrics also combine the worst properties of both fabrics. Sometimes this is so bad that manufacturers will simply refuse to manufacturer the blend all together. One of the worst examples is Azlon which is blended milk fabrics that Italy popularized in the 1930s as feeling like the best of both silk and wool. In falling in love with the positive properties, the hand texture, everyone forgot to add that the stuff smells like spoiled milk, rots quickly, and is very weak. Azlons are no longer manufactured in the US since the 1970s. This is an obvious example, but if at all possible avoid blended fabrics and pick another of the middle of the road choice if you can't afford to buy top shelf for a particular item.
              At the very bottom are two types of fabrics. They are natural fabrics that are considered unsuitable for spinning such as jute or low/odd quality. At time of writing, hemp, ramie, kapok, angora, cashmere, mohair, vicuna, and rubber are examples of this bottom level natural fabrics. Some very desirable fabrics like cashmere don't wear well as it doesn't spin well. However, scientists are constantly experimenting and improving techniques. Since vulcanization, rubber has become much more popular and is now often used in shoes and latex. Rubber now has the weird distinction of being both a natural and man-made fabric. Of the 21 family classes of man-made fabrics, most are in this bottom category due to their weaknesses, particularly to heat, except for rayon and nylon. Some people also love glass as well for commercial applications. It's a pretty specialized fabric though. That's fiber content in a nutshell, buy the highest quality you can afford on your budget for your core wardrobe and you can break the rules a little in your fashion wardrobe. It doesn't necessarily make sense to spend the extra money to get something that lasts if you only plan to keep it a season or two.
              And now, the second half, wash care instructions. How you treat an object after you get it will determine how long you get to keep it. There are two basic types: dry clean only and machine washable. Dry clean only is for clothing that does not need to be regularly washed, but should be cleaned every season. It is often used for wool or leather garments. Wool is the most common example because it becomes much weaker when wet and so much be handled carefully during cleaning. It can also apply to some silk and linens. Be realistic about your actual budget, good clothes are useless if they aren't clean. Many men will spring to get their dress shirts done as they like the extra starch. This is a personal choice.
              Next, machine washable. Machine washable clothing makes up the bulk of most people's wardrobe in our modern society. Wash your clothing correctly. When in doubt follow these conservative rules. This will probably be on your tag if you buy clothing from the US. Most clothing will be a cold wash and pay attention to this. Man-made fabrics since the 1940s are heat sensitive and if your fabric has had permanent press technology applied, you will take out any extra help the manufacturer put in to help you with heat. The same commonsense point applies for your dryer.
               Acid warning: wools, silk, and dyes will be substantially weakened by BLEACH as it compromises the cell membranes. REPEAT, do not use bleach on natural animal fabrics EVER unless you want your favorite sweater turned into a pile of goo. This does not apply to plant fabrics such much to other things like cotton. Otherwise, you can follow the wash care instructions. My default is to separate lights and dark and wash everything in cold water then medium tumble dry for the dryer. That will pretty much take care of most fabric quirks. But read the directions and try to pick non-fussy clothing.

               Wow, that was a long post. Hopefully no one was too bored. Check in next week.          

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