faux fur example of synthetic fabric

Synthetic and special fabric types

This A-Z guide to synthetic and special fabrics – from clothes-press – covers fabric properties, main uses in sewing and washing care instructions.

Synthetic fabrics are made from fibres that are not grown naturally. Examples include polyester, nylon, acrylic and elastane. This kind of fibre is manufactured chemically from gas, petroleum, alcohol, water and air. Synthetic fabrics are very hardwearing and crease-resistant but, as they are not very absorbent, they can be unpleasant (read sweaty…) to wear. Rayon fabrics, such as viscose and acetate, are considered to be semi-synthetic as they are chemically manufactured from plant cellulose. Rayons are comfortable to wear but they crease easily and tend to shrink and fray. Special fabrics include all kinds of weird and wonderful textiles such as sequin fabric, leather and fur fabric.

Main types of synthetic and special fabrics

  • Acetate - a lightweight, soft synthetic fabric which drapes well and has a shiny, lustrous surface. Acetate is similar to viscose but has a different chemical composition. Its main uses include linings for garments, dresses and lingerie. Care: dry clean, cool iron on wrong side while damp.
  • Acrylic - this is a lightweight, woven or knitted synthetic fabric that was created as a cheaper substitute for wool. It’s hardwearing but can be full of static. Its main use is for sportswear. Care: 40°C machine wash or hand wash, warm iron.
  • Bouclé - loosely woven or knitted medium-weight fabric which has looped or curled threads giving it a bulky, nubbly-textured feel. It’s made from polyester, viscose or wool blends and is used mainly for suits. Care: gentle 40°C machine wash, hand wash or dry clean. Cool iron on wrong side using a damp cloth.
  • Crêpon - this is a lightweight synthetic fabric that’s soft and drapes well. It’s made from chemically crimped yarns. It’s often used for blouses and evening wear. Care: dry clean, warm iron on wrong side using a pressing cloth.
  • Crinkle fabric - a lightweight synthetic fabric which is finely pleated to give a crinkle finish. It’s stiff and semi-transparent, and is often used for evening wear. It’s a little tricky to sew. Care: dry clean, cool iron on wrong side.
  • Flock - this is a medium-weight synthetic or blended fabric which has short fibre tufts attached with adhesive to form a pattern (like flock wallpaper). Its main uses are for dresses, jackets and evening wear. Care: hand wash or dry clean, cool iron.
  • Fur fabric - also called faux fur. This is made from fur-like synthetic fibres (usually modacrylic) attached to a firm, woven backing. It’s a bulky heavy-weight fabric and is often used to make coats, jackets, hats and fancy dress costumes. Fur fabric can be a bit difficult to sew due to its thick pile. You’ll need to adjust your stitch length and tension – usually pressure is increased. Seams should be stitched in the direction of the pile, and to remove bulk you can trim pile from the seam allowances. Fur fabric doesn’t ease well. Care: gentle 40°C machine wash or dry clean, cool iron on wrong side on top of a towel.
  • Grosgrain – a heavy-weight, closely woven synthetic fabric which has a stiff texture and a strong crossways rib. Grosgrain is used for making ribbons as well as for hats, formal garments and evening wear. Faille is a finer cross-rib fabric similar to grosgrain which is used mainly for dresses. Care: dry clean, warm iron on wrong side using a pressing cloth.
  • Jacquard fabric - this medium- to heavy-weight fabric has a woven-in pattern that is reversed on the wrong side. It’s often used for suits, jackets, dresses and skirts. Care: dry clean, warm iron on wrong side using a pressing cloth.
  • Lace - this is a decorative fabric which is made from knotted, looped or twisted threads. These create a pattern combined with some sheer (see-through) areas. Some laces are crocheted and some are embroidered onto a net background. Lace fabric is mainly used to make posh dresses. Seams should be neatly finished and can be concealed by underlining the lace fabric. Care: dry clean, iron using a warm, dry iron and a pressing cloth.
  • Lamé - a lightweight synthetic fabric which can be either woven or knitted and is manufactured using a metallic fibre. It’s smooth and shiny, and is generally either silver or gold in colour though you can also get copper-coloured versions. Lamé is quite delicate and you can get slippage of seams so it’s used for clothes worn occasionally like evening wear. Knitted lamé drapes better than woven lamé. Care: dry clean, warm iron on wrong side using a pressing cloth.
  • Leather - the tanned and finished outside of an animal skin, generally sheepskin or cowhide. It’s durable and flexible and is available in a variety of thicknesses – from quite fine and soft to very thick and tough. As it’s not manufactured in lengths, leather is sold by the skin or hide rather than by the metre, though you can buy packs of offcuts. Leather’s main uses are for jackets, coats, trousers, skirts, gloves, shoes and belts. To stitch leather, you should use a wedge-point needle to minimise tearing. You can only stitch leather once as removed stitches will leave holes. If you find that your machine foot sticks during sewing, then rubbing chalk over the area to be stitched might help. Care: dry clean. Warm iron on wrong side using a pressing cloth – don’t use steam.
  • Liquid gold fabric - this is a lightweight, super-shiny, satin-weave synthetic fabric which is soft to handle and drapes well. As the name suggests it tends to be gold and is mainly used for evening wear. Care: dry clean and cool iron on wrong side.
  • Microfibre - this synthetic fabric, available in both lightweight and medium-weight versions, is made from very fine fibres, usually polyester and nylon. It’s densely woven and durable. Microfibre fabrics share the texture and drape quality of natural fabrics as well as generally being windproof and waterproof. Microfibre is used to make all kinds of clothing but specific uses include swimwear, undergarments, blouses, skirts, sportswear, jackets and waterproof clothing. It’s also used to make leather and suede substitutes (called faux suede or Ultrasuede). Care: 40°C machine wash and cool iron on wrong side.
  • Nylon - pure nylon is a strong, lightweight synthetic fabric. It’s non-absorbent, tends to build up static and pills. A night spent sleeping in nylon sheets is certainly one to remember. Nylon is mainly used for rainwear, underwear and skiwear. Care: gentle 40°C machine wash or hand wash, warm iron.
  • Polar fleece – a bulky but lightweight synthetic coating fabric with a soft brushed surface. Fleece is usually made from bulked acrylic fibres and is mostly used to make outdoor wear. Care: 40°C machine wash and cool iron.
  • Polycotton – this is a blend of polyester and cotton, sometimes 50-50 and but often 65% cotton and 35% polyester. Generally it’s a lightweight plain-weave fabric which is very durable and crease-resistant. The downside is that it’s less breathable than cotton so can be sweaty if worn next to the skin. Uses include aprons, children’s clothes and non-iron shirts and skirts. Care: 40°C machine wash and warm iron.
  • Polyester crêpe – a soft, lightweight synthetic fabric which drapes well but is hardwearing and crease-resistant. It’s mainly used for lingerie, blouses, dresses and evening wear. Care: 40°C machine wash or hand wash, cool iron.
  • Poly linen - this is medium-weight polyester fabric that is manufactured to look and handle like linen but has the crease resistance of polyester. It’s often used for dresses and suits. Care: 40°C machine wash or hand wash, warm iron.
  • PVC - this is a woven or knitted light- to medium-weight fabric that’s coated with PVC (polyvinyl chloride). It’s tough, waterproof and has a shiny surface. PVC’s main uses are for rainwear and aprons. Care: dry clean or wipe with a damp cloth, cool iron on wrong side.
  • Rubber - a flexible and waterproof fabric that is manufactured in a variety of weights. It’s produced from latex which is the sap of the rubber plant. Rubber is used for rainwear, work clothing and (ahem) ‘speciality’ garments. Care: wipe with a damp cloth and don’t wash or dry clean. Don’t iron.
  • Sequin fabric – this is a lightweight sheer fabric to which sequins are fixed – overall this tends to make it a medium-weight fabric. It is often used for party dresses and other evening wear. Care: dry clean and don’t iron.
  • Spandex – also called lycra or elastane. A stretchy, lightweight synthetic fabric. It’s frequently added to other materials such as cotton (you often get 95% cotton 5% elastane mixes) to give robustness and stretch. Main uses are casual clothes and sportswear. Care: gentle 40°C machine wash and cool iron.
  • Suede - this is a type of leather with a soft, napped finish. It’s made from the underside of the animal skin – generally lamb though goat, calf and deer are also used. Like leather, it’s sold by the skin or hide rather than by the metre. Suede’s often used to make jackets, heavy-duty shirts and shoes. Care: dry clean or use a suede brush to remove surface dust and dirt. Warm iron on wrong side on top of a towel and using a pressing cloth between the suede and the iron – don’t use steam.
  • Synthetic crêpe-backed satin – a light- to medium-weight fabric which is reversible as it has a satin face and a crêpe back. It’s made from rayon or polyester, and is sometimes also made from silk. This fabric drapes well and is often used for dresses, blouses and lingerie. Care: hand wash or dry clean, warm iron.
  • Tricot - a lightweight, delicate warp-knit fabric which is usually made from nylon. It has crosswise stretch but no vertical stretch. Tricot is soft, smooth and drapes well so is often used for lingerie. Care: hand wash and cool iron.
  • Tulle - also called petticoat net. This is a lightweight, stiff but fine netting which can be made from various fibres including nylon, cotton and silk. Generally it feels a bit scratchy so is not particularly pleasant to wear next to the skin. It’s often used to make full petticoats under gowns, and ballet tutus, costumes and veils. Care: hand wash and cool iron.
  • Vinyl - a heavy-weight non-woven synthetic fabric with a slightly shiny surface. Vinyl looks similar to leather but is not as breathable. It’s generally used for outerwear. Care: wipe with a damp cloth and don’t wash or dry clean. Don’t iron.
  • Viscose - this soft, light- to medium-weight synthetic fabric can be either knit or woven. It drapes well and is often used for dresses and skirts. Care: 40°C machine wash, hand wash or dry clean. Warm iron on wrong side while damp.

Note on washing instructions

I’ve included general care instructions for each fabric but please check any information that comes with the fabric you’re buying. Alternatively, test a sample to check that the general recommendations given here are right for your specific fabric. The temperatures given are the maximum suggested for each fabric – obviously you can do lower temperature washes if you prefer. Fabrics made from natural fibres can shrink quite a bit (sometimes 10%) when you first wash them, so do make sure you buy enough fabric to allow for this and pre-wash it before sewing.

Where to find more detailed information on fabric types

Online resources

  • Google images – I find this is the best place to get a quick idea of what any of the fabrics look like

Books for more in-depth information

  • The Sewing Book – of all the general sewing books I’ve read, I think this one has the best guide to fabric with excellent photos

Read more on clothes-press

Photo by Sherrie Thai

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