Fabrics - Natural vs. Synthetic

How To Determine Which Fabric Type To Offer Different Clients

CottonThink of the well-known Cotton Incorporated jingle, “The touch, the feel of cotton... the fabric of our lives.” The tagline suggests a lot about the natural fiber: Its softness and durability, and, in particular, that being a plant-based fiber means it’s better for us all. There certainly is a high perceived value of a 100% ringspun cotton garment.

In truth, there are benefits to synthetic fibers as well. Man-made fibers are typically engineered to serve a specific purpose. They may imitate a natural fiber but be intended as a less expensive alternative. Or they may have properties that provide improved performance over natural fibers.

Today’s synthetic fibers have come a long way from the scratchy, leisure-suit polyester of the 1970s. “Many synthetic fabrics are as smooth and soft as natural,” says Mary Ellen Nichols, director of marketing for Bodek and Rhodes (asi/40788).

If your client wants features that a natural fabric can’t support, she advises that you recommend a synthetic alternative or blend. Spun polyester, for example, has a softer hand than its earlier counterpart. When combined with another fiber, man-made or natural, polyester really shines.

Fabrics engineered with performance technologies also inherently change the fiber to enhance how it wears and feels. Microfibers were one of the earliest performance fabrications and are typically made of polyester or nylon but sometimes acrylic or rayon. According to www.fabriclink.com, these extra-fine fibers are “two times finer than silk, three times finer than cotton, eight times finer than wool and 100 times finer than a human hair.” In fact, the strands that make up the fiber are so fine they can be referred to as microdeniers, meaning they weigh less than 1.0 denier.

So how do you steer a client in the right fiber direction? Is there a case to be made for one type of fiber over another? Nichols suggests a few key questions: What sort of conditions must the fabric withstand? How must it perform? Will it be worn as a uniform? What kind of laundry conditions will it be subject to withstanding?

Sometimes the answer just comes down to a personal preference. “It’s whatever the client prefers or whatever the need for the garment dictates,” Nichols says. “If she or he is a cotton or organic diehard… then show cotton or organic pieces. If the prospect wants features that a natural garment can’t support, then move to synthetic. Many synthetic garments are as smooth and soft as natural.”