Fibers, Part 2: Aesthetics

AESTHETICS has to do with your garment’s artistic qualities and beauty. But before starting your garment, however, you must determine whether a yarn’s aesthetics are appropriate for your garment’s anticipated use.  Choosing yarns should reflect that anticipated end use.  Understanding a fiber’s aesthetic properties comes into play here.

How much abrasion your project will be subjected to?  For instance, is your project for the outdoor garments or is it a delicate lacy dinner jacket.  A tightly spun wool yarn makes wonderful, well-wearing outdoor garments, while silk, though delicate to the touch, has great tensile strength!

Will some parts of your garment be subjected to more abrasion than other parts?  Besides fiber choice, your choice of stitch or weave, pattern and type of yarn will come into play.  Think, for instance, of the seed stitch panels commonly on the underarm portions of an Aran sweater: The smaller (and firmer) the surface of the stitch, the less likely much pilling will occur.  Consider also the type of yarn used in traditional Norwegian sweaters:  firm, thin, multi-stranded, tightly spun yarn, which also reduces stretching and makes the color patterns clear.

How much luster do you want in the final garment?  Mohair and some silks, for instance, put beautiful gleans into yarns and can be used in creating beautiful formal and elegant attire.  But perhaps you want a more informal look?  Then try wool or cotton, which are usually matte (dull).

What about the garment’s texture?  Do you want a smooth finish to your garment?  Natural yarns such as flax, wool and cotton tend to be more textured because they are, well, natural and thus affected by an array of variables (e.g., nutrition, weather, etc.).  For the ultimate smooth in “natural” fiber, try a manufactured cellulose fiber (e.g., rayon or bamboo).  They are first made into a pulp and then extruded into uniformly sized fibers.  Some silk fibers are also extruded from fibroin solutions.  Do you want a yarn that is heavily textured?  Try a boucle or a yarn that is made up of a multiple strands of different yarns.

How do you want the hand – that is, how the final garment will to feel to the wearer’s touch?  Remember, however, that what feels good to you might not feel good to another.  Years ago I knit an oversized sweater out of super bulky single ply Lopi (100g/3.5 oz, 60m/66y).  Thor calls it my “Yeti Sweater;” it is scratchy and I love its feel.  It is THE sweater I slip on when I am chilled and feeling sort of sick-miserable.  I admit I look a little like a bear in the sweater, but I love the HAND on that sweater – though no one in my family does.  (Fine with me; I don’t have to share it.)

What drape do you want your final garment to have?  What degree of flow do you want it to have?  Again, both the type of fiber you choose, how it is spun, the stitch or pattern you use, and the size garment will affect its flow.  I love knitting with lace weight mohair-silk … but I have had to repair beautiful lacy shawls and scarves because they seem to float out around me and snag onto various objects (e.g., bushes, children’s fingers, teeth of a house cat, etc.).

erase_absorbency.jpgHow absorbent do you want your garment to be?  This is always very important in socks; nothing worse than having wet or clammy socks on your feet!  Fiber manufacturers measure absorbency in “moisture regain” (MR:  the percentage of the moisture-free weight at 70F/21C and 65% relative humidity).  Wool is a hygroscopic fiber (one that absorbs moisture without feeling wet).  On the opposite end is cotton, a hydrophobic fiber (little or no absorbency ability).  (If you’re wondering what PBI stands for … it’s a manufactured fiber also called Arazole.  (Chart source:  Textiles, p. 26, table 3-6.)

What about heat or thermal retention?  Out of 12 fibers listed in Textiles (id.), wool is at the top of the chart; silk comes in 7th, flax 9th, cotton 10th and rayon 11th.  Synthetics place 2d through 6th, but every natural fiber rates higher in ability to absorb moisture without feeling wet.

During and after wear, do you want your finished garment to look like it did before it was worn?  Then you need to consider its resiliency – how the fabric returns to its original shape after bending or crushing.  In a list of 10 fibers, only 5 not completely manufactured, wool rates 2d (just under nylon), silk is 6th, flax 7th, cotton 8th and rayon 9th.

What does this mean for the designer?  Well, if you want to weave fabrics for a pair of slacks, know if you use flax or cotton you’ll be ironing a lot (unless you’re going for the wrinkled look).  If you knit a heavy cotton sweater, it will keep getting longer and wider (at least until you toss it in the washer and dryer).

What your garment’s elasticity – its ability to return to its original dimension or shape?   Fabrics with poor elastic recovery will stretch out of shape, while those with good elastic recover maintain their shape.  Fiber artists must not forget about this.  Not surprisingly, fiber manufacturers have a measurement for this too:  the fiber’s percentage recovery at 3% stretch (PR).  Wool’s PR is 99, rayon 95 (at 2% stretch), silk 90, cotton 75 and flax 65.

Lastly, think about the effort and attention to carrying for this garment.  What care properties are important for this garment?  If your garment is to be an easy-to-care for garment … well, consider that in choosing the fibers and finalizing your design!  If it’s a gift or for sale, be sure to include instructions.  The instructions should briefly explain how to care for this garment so it will last many years.

The next post in the Fibers series will look at why it is important for fiber artists to understand the differences between and among seed, bast and leaf fibers (aka natural cellulosic fibers).


About sweatyknitter

Fiber art devotee, author, and amateur artisan bread baker.
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3 Responses to Fibers, Part 2: Aesthetics

  1. Thank you – and thanks for reading! 🙂



  2. Wonderfully interesting. Thanks for part 2.


  3. sindhoooo says:

    Had refreshed my knowledge about the essential properties of the fibres 🙂 definitely this post would be useful for the beginners! TC! Keep smiling 🙂

    Warm Regards,
    The Arts & Me


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