The Difference Between Fabrics & Fibres | Ethical Made Easy

Knowing what type of flannel you wear to bed is key to understanding the sustainability of ALL fabrics.

Here at EME, we’ve realised that most of us actually don’t understand what a fabric even is. We think we do, until we’re told that flannel can be made from different fabrics, and then we realise we don’t. Read on to discover what we mean.

Knowing what type of flannel you wear to bed is key to understanding the sustainability of ALL fabrics.

Written by Gabi Goddard.

Image by Maggie Marilyn, a New Zealand based company leading the way in traceable, innovative fabrics and ethical supply chains.

The two types of flannel; is yours sustainable?

What do you mean, the two types of flannel?! There are different types of flannel?!! Is flannel not a fabric unto itself?!

Well, no. And here at EME, we’ve realised that most of us actually don’t understand what a fabric even is. We think we do, until we’re told that flannel can be made from different fabrics, and then we realise we don’t. But if we don’t know what a fabric is, how can we understand its sustainability implications? 

The difference between fabrics and finishes (and its relevance to sustainability)

So we’re going to go back to the beginning with you. There are fabrics (and the fibres that make them), and then there are weaves, knits and finishes of those fabrics. What we mean is there are only a certain amount of base fabrics, and their fibres are used to make any number of different textiles. There’s no point going into each textile, because it has no relevance to sustainability. Say you take cotton; cotton is a fibre and a fabric, but it can be adapted in many ways to create different textures. These textures have different names; denim, twill, flannel, etc.

Flannel is made by taking a fibre, which gets woven into a base fabric, and then gets brushed, which is why it feels soft and plush. That process of brushing is what creates the flannel…not the base fabric. This means you could also have a polyester flannel. But a polyester flannel is going to have different sustainability implications to a cotton flannel. The fact that it is flannel has nothing whatever to do with sustainability. It’s a very late-stage, single part of a long supply chain. Cotton or polyester, by comparison, exist at every point throughout the supply chain because the supply chain itself is created by the fibre’s very existence.  

What are these ‘base fabrics’?

Really, there are only about ten fabrics, created from their counterpart fibre. We’re coming up with these off the top of our heads so we’re sorry if we missed anything but these are like, seriously the main ones. Cotton, Polyester, Nylon, Acrylic, Spandex (AKA, Elastane and Lycra), Viscose (and other plant-chemical semi-synthetic fabrics like modal, bamboo, lyocell) Wool (and other animal hair fabrics like mohair, angora, cashmere, alpaca), Silk, Hemp, and Linen.

Any other fabrics you may have heard of; polar fleece, satin, georgette, velvet, corduroy, crepe, chiffon, canvas, organdy, organza, muslin, gingham, gauze, terry cloth, denim, flannelette, twill; they’re all finishes or weaves from a base fibre.

 A (very) brief history of fabric 

One of the interesting things to note is that two hundred years ago, there wouldn’t have been such important sustainability implications to understanding which fibre a textile was made of. Satin, chiffon, velvet and georgette would have always been made of silk. Terry, twill, gingham, muslin, corduroy and flannel would have been made of cotton. Denim wasn’t invented yet. Life was simpler. Sustainability wasn’t even a conversation, so definitely simpler. But TB, measles and polio were everywhere, so maybe not simpler. Hard to say. 

Everything changed about mid-way through the last century, with the invention of polyester. Polyester, a synthetic fibre, is highly versatile. This is essentially because it’s just melted plastic that can be spun multiple ways to achieve different finishes and purposes. And because it is plastic, it’s very durable. The same way you can drop your Tupperware and it won’t smash into a thousand pieces, your polyester is hardy. It can’t easily be stretched or shrunk, it doesn’t really crinkle or need ironing. It is easy to clean, it doesn’t get mildewy. It could be spun and finished in many ways, was cheap and accessible during wartime, and seemed like the answer to everyone’s fabric woes.

You can guess what happened next. They started to make everything from polyester. Satin, chiffon, corduroy, flannel. They started to blend other fabrics with polyester – cottons and silks and wools. It became more and more popular, and today it is the world’s most commonly used fibre (Common Objective 2018). 

We are also living in a world in which we are increasingly disconnected from the processes that are essential to life. We often don’t grow our own veggies and we rarely hunt our own meat. We don’t make our own fabrics or sew our own clothes. We divest these responsibilities because our society relies on the division of labour in order to continue our economy’s exponential growth pattern. 

So just to confirm, one fibre can be used to create different fabrics? 

Look, language is organic. When we get down to it, it’s totally acceptable to call flannel a fabric. Everyone understands what you mean. It’s like how we all call a banana a fruit even though technically it’s a… legume? And tomato might actually be a fruit, but realistically you’re a pedant if you insist it’s not a vegetable. So, for all intents and purposes, yes, one fibre can create different fabrics. 

It’s also worth noting that ‘fabric’ can probably be seen as having two definitions. In general, it’s just any cloth product; something that has been woven or knitted from fibres. This common definition is the reason we’ve used the term ‘base fabric’ throughout this article. We wanted to avoid confusion. 

However, if you go and look at the label of your satin shirt, it’s not going to say ‘satin’ in the fabric information. It will either say ‘100% polyester’ or ‘100% silk’. Your flannel shirt will either say ‘100% cotton’, or ‘100% polyester’. Maybe a combination of both. This is because by technical definition, polyester and cotton are fabrics, and satin and flannel are finishes.

Ultimately, fabric is used everyday in English to describe all manner of cloth products. So our slightly pedantic author of this article can firmly believe that flannel is not a fabric, and you can say it is, and we can all be right. 

Ultimately, the outcome is: we don’t actually know what the f*ck we’re putting on our backs.


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