I've been in the fiber arts since I was knee high to a grasshopper. I went to summer camp at Old Salem as a kiddo (more on the good ole Moravs later) and learned all about what it took to turn flax into linen, oily & curly sheep fluff into wool, about carding & spinning, about the natural dying process (urine -who knew?!), about weaving, about patterning and hand sewing, about mending and about reusing. It takes about a year to throw seeds in the ground and grow flax into a shirt - and that's if you're a diligent worker bee.
Yep. The industrial revolution did some time-saving, job creating amazing things -BUT- it also removed us from the knowledge of what it takes to clothe ourselves. Have you seen those beautiful old houses with the shallowest of closets? That's because folks back in the day had 2 outfits - their work clothes & their Sunday best. The hung each outfit on hooks on the back wall of those shallow closets - flat - not sideways. Can you imagine? Nope? Me neither. We don't have to. We have so many options -to the point that we all consume and spit out so many clothes each year that one of the US' leading exports is actually bundled squares of used clothing that we ship to much poorer countries - clothes that Goodwill or the Salvation Army & thrift shops can't sell.
What's the point? I'd say 2 things - the first is: let's work on buying less but better items -the 2nd is: learning about how to care for our well loved and finely made garments so that they last and continue to look spiffy.
Which leads me to wanting to tell you a bit about fibers & about laundering with some tips and tricks that your great grandmother might have used, but have often been forgotton.
I prewash almost every piece of fabric before I iron & cut out the pieces of my pattern. I believe in being able to wear & launder clothing. I don't know about y'all but I spill things, I sweat, I sit on benches at the park, rocks while hiking, grass during summer concerts. I'm going to need to wash my clothes.
The garment industry is going to tell you to treat your item by the most conservative means possible. I'm going to tell you how I treat each natural fiber & why.
Originating from Egypt.
It's been found in a prehistoric cave - used as long ago as 30,000 BC - It's a pretty hardy fabric.
Linen is a plant fiber - derived from the small blue flowered flax plant.
How to Care for it:
Washing: Wash it. Wash it. Wash it. It will get softer with each washing. & It's stronger wet than dry.
*Shrinking: It will shrink during that first wash & dry - so wash & dry linen before you sew or look for info on the label of clothing -has it been preshrunk?
Drying: 1st Drying for raw fabric: During the first drying of yards of fabric I do dry it completely so that there will be no more shrinkage.
Subsequent Dryings: To help it last for generations -hang it up and let it air dry.
If Machine Drying: take linen it out of the dryer before it's solidly dry.
Ironing: It's easier to get a smooth finish if you iron linen it while it's damp (for those of you that want a crisp and smooth look to your linen). Medium to High Heat, Heavy Steam.
I love linen. Love it. It's gotten a bad rap & you've probably heard all about how it wrinkles from your momma and your grand-momma. Let me just jump up and down and say it was this frettin' over wrinkles that led to the non-breathing polyester and synthetic fabrics of the 60s & 70s that hold in sweat and odors.
Yes. It wrinkles. It has a natural rumple & roll, a natural texture, and unmistakable hand. It's a strong fiber.
It breathes - oh man does it -the natural fiber way to wick sweat, and stay cool in the toughest heat. It can absorb up to 20% its weight and not feel damp. In many ways it is nature's fibrous air conditioner. When I was wearing pounds and pounds of the stuff in historical costume during the hot piedmont NC summers, I promise you, I was cooler and comfier than the tourists in their shorts & tank tops. The way linen hangs away from the body as well as how it wicks moisture, makes it ideal for the hottest of days.
Little more history?
Handkerchief linen is the lightest weight and often is so airy it has a sheer quality.
Most well preserved heirloom christening gowns are made of handkerchief linen.
The term lingerie comes from the fact that undergarments used to be made from linen. I just love that.
One more thing: Flax seed oil is consumed for it's health benefits like its rich omega 3 fatty acids.
It's an amazing plant, and natural fiber. Wear your rumples, creases, and linen lines with pride - it's the real deal.
Oldest wool fabric found = 1500BC
Selecting wool for their finer fleeces looks like it began in Iran in 6000 BC
Wool is a protein fiber from animals that have 3 specific characteristics: it crimps, is elastic and grows in clusters aka staples.
This means that alpaca, angora rabbits, camels, cashmere goats etc. are all in the wool family.
Wool insulates, it absorbs water but is not a hollow fiber (unlike cotton), it is self extingushing if burnt, wool felted & treated with lanolin (a natural wax excreted by woolly animals) is water resistant, air permeable, and slightly antibacterial, resisting the buildup of odor.
Happy sheep make better wool: Damage or breaks in the wool can occur if the sheep is stressed while it is growing its fleece.
How to care for it:
Most natural wool items that have not been treated will say Dry Clean Only -on the labels. I don't do this
Woven Wash: I prewash & continue to wash most all of my woven wool fabrics. I do a test sample if I am unsure. Store bought pants, jackets, vests, etc. I either wash gently in cold water OR if I am unsure of the delicacy I hand wash in the sink with cold water
Woven Dry: For my woven wool fabrics & pieces I hang them to dry. You can dry garments in the dryer -on low heat, if the fabric has been pre-dried. If you don't know the safest bet is to: Gently wring out & hang to dry.
Woven Iron: Low steam and a high heat.
Knitted Wool items will absolutely shrink &/Or felt in the washer. This includes your favorite knitted sweater from Grams.
Knitted Wash: Hand wash cold water. Careful not to agitate the fabric too much. Gently squeezing the water out of the item.
Knitted Dry: Lay flat on an absorbent towel in the natural shape of the sweater/ item (this is called blocking).
Knitted Iron: If truly necessary: Low heat.
Now. For those of you who like a felted wool - by all means - buy untreated wool jersey - tons of it - it will shrink like no other! And wash that sucker in high agitation in warm water - poof! 3 yards of wool jersey that was 54" wide is now 1 wonky yard at 30" wide. It can truly be an awesome warm jacket, vest, etc. But be warned on those knit pieces you'd like to keep their original way!
Wool Enemy: The Moth
I hate a wool eating moth. There are only 2 kinds of wool moth eaters out of 1000s of different types of moths out there but man - when you get them - they are brutal. They've been known to make me cry. Here's how to fight them & I do mean fight - for your beloved wool treasures.
Cleanliness is the preventive. Wash your items before you put them away Particularly before you put them away for the long season.
Store your items in an airtight (read - no moth can get in) container.
Cedar: cedar does repel moths but only if it is highly concentrated. You'll have to sand your cedar blocks every year to have them continue to release their smell.
Mothballs: Not only do they smell horrid - they are a pesticide - you are bathing your cloths in a toxin.
Fighting an infestation: Folks say wash your items in hot hot water (but we know that can felt or misshape a wool item) or to dry clean it. I don't like either of those options so this is how I handle it:
I wash my items like I've explained above. Then when they are totally dry - totally! -I throw a few wool items into the dryer and bake those hoodlums for 45 mins. The key is high heat to kill the moths or the larvae. Also - note that if you are storing your wool items with other items that moths are firstly attracted to soiled pieces - so make sure that EVERY thing you store is clean!
If you think you have moths or their larvae in your beloved cashmere sweater or scarf for a surefire way to kill those suckers -put it in a plastic bag in the freezer for 2 weeks.
Washable/ Superwash wool: created in the 1970s it: has been specially treated so it is machine washable and machine dry able. It's produced using an acid bath that removes the "scales" from the fiber, or by coating the fiber with a polymer that prevents the scales from attaching to each other and causing shrinkage.
I like my wool as natural with as few chemical processes as possible so I'm not a huge fan of "Washable" wool. I find most natural wool is washable handled the right way. After all. Sheep get wet :)
Fragments of cotton have been found in Mexico from 5000 BC.
Cotton is almost all cellulose aka plant fiber.
It is the most used natural fiber fabric today.
Cotton breathes. And you've heard your granola friends - or maybe you are a granola friend -uttering the phrase "Cotton Kills" - referring to the slow drying speed of cotton & when cotton gets wet, it ceases to insulate because all of the air pockets in the fabric fill up with water; a problem on cold days or if you're hiking in a downpour, but otherwise fine.
Cotton is stronger wet than dry - so wash it! It does shrink. Prewash.
How to care for it:
Washing: Wash it. It's stronger wet than dry. Machine wash in cold water with like colors.
*Shrinking: It will shrink a bit during that first wash & dry - so wash & dry before you sew or look for info on the label of clothing -has it been preshrunk?
Drying Raw Fabric: Some folks say that cotton continues to shrink a little with continuing dryings. For yards of fabric for project: It should remain more stable if you dry the socks off of it the first time and then back off to a regular heat setting for all future dryings.
Drying for Garments & Fine Items: If it fits perfectly off the rack & you are unsure if it's been pre-shrunk OR if it is a delicate piece: Hang Dry. Hanging your items to dry ensures the best level of care and longevity for your beloved clothing. Otherwise Medium Heat w/ Like Colors.
Ironing: Iron medium heat with steam.
Cotton is a nice natural fiber - cheaper than the other natural fibers most times (not including Liberty of London in my thoughts here). It can have a different hand depending on the staple - for example - Sea Island Cotton was touted to have a long staple and be luxuriously soft & even silky. An interesting fiber - with such a heartbreaking & colorful history, technically it takes a lot of water to grow these bad billies -so whilst we're all into the organic side of cotton these days - the sustainable factor of maintaining the plant itself is still up for debate in my opine.
A protein fiber woven by Silk worms.
Originating in ancient China.
Some of the earliest examples found date back to 3500 BC.
How to care for it:
Silk is a protein fiber like hair. You should not do anything to silk you could not do to your hair.
Washing: Silk is weaker wet than dry for this reason many people chose to dry clean their silk. The bottom line is to be gentle. You certainly can wash many silks. Hand wash or gentle machine wash in cold water.
Silk you shouldn't wash: Some silk has been treated with a finish to give it crinkles, ironed or steamed in patterns, given a glossy finish or texture. Washing pieces like this can damage the effect of the finish. Loosely woven silks should also not be subjected to washing. Dry Cleaning these types of silks is best. Use your common sense.
So what silk is washable? The relatively simply woven & plain surfaced pieces: habotai, crepe de chine, charmeuse, even dupioni, I prewash them all.
Drying: Hang Dry.
Ironing: Light to Medium Heat. Test a piece with steam. Tread Lightly.
Silk is silk is silk - the different titles of silk such as: habotai, crepe de chine, charmeuse, shantung, georgette, chiffon and dupioni refer to the weight and type of weave or (in dupioni's case) the varigation in the filament of the silk fiber. Silk weight is described in mommes. Simplified, momme weight describes the weight of 100 yards of silk, 45 inches wide, in pounds. If a fabric is listed with a momme weight of 8mm, it means that 100 yards of the fabric weighs 8 pounds. When you use finer silk threads and weave them differently you can create a different surface texture and effect the appearance of the finished fabric.
To be clear I treat most of my silks fearlessly hard. I even wash my stiff silk organza. I like a bit of a sanded soft look to my items and my theory is to always prewash & treat my fabrics the way I plan to care for the garment. If you are an aspiring seamstress - I encourage you to experiment. Wash a swatch. If you just love the way silk wears and feels - read the care label & then proceed with brave caution. Garments that have not been prewashed CAN shrink. But dang - life's too short for me to not wear an item because I'm fretting over stains or wear.
The good, the bad, the ugly.
Rayon, Bamboo, Synthetics: Spandex, Polyester, etc.
My thoughts & care tips for these fibers (as well as why bamboo is not a natural fiber) will be added over the next few weeks:
Rayon: Scientists first started experimenting & creating rayon in the late 1890s, however, it was pretty flammable. It wasn't until the 1950s that rayon really because popular and widespread. Rayon was made originally to reproduce some qualities of expensive silk at a much cheaper price. Rayon is a manmade cellulose fabric - in short: Wood Pulp.
Now that seems nice - and I have loved a rayon fabric or two in my day, however - if you were to drive by a rayon fabric factory you would experience the smell of a paper mill combined with a bit of nail polish remover. My take home point: rayon is not a natural fabric because of the extensive chemical process in which it undergoes to make wood mush into a fabric.
How to Care for it: Because Rayon can be made by combining different chemicals with wood pulp, it often has different properties. Best to stick with the care labels on rayon piece of clothing and for seamstresses to always test of swatch of rayon before committing to washing and drying a whole piece.