Select the fabrics

Colours alone can create visual interest in your wardrobe but the right fabric can also add zest to your outfit.

Like colours and cuts, fabrics are an integral part of a garment. The fabric plays part in the style of the item, it determines how comfortable you will feel in it, how much wear you will get out of it, and how you have to care for the garment.

Think of the differences between a silk and a linen blouse, for example. The silk blouse arguably looks and feels more elegant and luxurious than the linen blouse which gives off a more casual and airier vibe.

Fabric fibres

All fabrics are made from fibre which is either natural, synthetic or semi-synthetic.

Natural fabrics - such as cotton, silk and wool - are made of animal or plant-based fibres, while synthetics are man-made and produced entirely through chemical processes to produce fabrics like polyester, nylon, and acrylic, among others. Semi-synthetic fibres - such as viscose - are also created through chemical processes but from natural raw materials.

With the rise of fast fashion, synthetic fibres have increasingly grown in popularity. The demand for polyester fibres has increased by over half since the 1980s, making polyester the single most used textile followed by cotton. This begs the question:

Which is better - natural or synthetic fibre?

The common view is that synthetic fibres are the cheaper and inferior option, used by high-street retailers to sell mass-produced clothes at a lower price.

Often this is true, and it is also true that a lot of synthetic fibres were born out of the desire of producing them for the mass market. What isn’t true, however, is that synthetic fabrics are inferior to natural fibres; they are just different.

Synthetic fabrics have many qualities, some of which are not achievable with natural fibres.

They can be made to be waterproof for outer protection, elastic for swimwear or sweat-wicking for sportswear. Added chemicals can make them softer, wrinkle free, stain resistant or even flame resistant.

Selecting the fabrics - the concept wardrobe

The other typical area of concern is that synthetic fibres are less environmentally friendly in their production and less sustainable. The truth is that all fibre production can have a negative impact on the environment unless it is managed effectively.

Natural fibres are typically a large consumer of water and land in their production (especially true for cotton) and synthetic fibres can be a large consumer of limited raw materials such as oil and other chemicals (not to mention that they are not biodegradable).

The most sustainable option in the use of both natural and synthetic fabrics is to buy fewer but higher-quality garments that will last longer. The lesson is not to choose one type of fibre over the other just because, but to choose the most suitable fabric for the garment.

Fibre blends

Blending fibres is a great way to combine desirable properties of different fibres. Blends are mainly either natural-synthetic, or synthetic-synthetic. Blending can be done for any of the following reasons:

  • Better performance
    By blending, poor characteristics of one fibre can be improved by blending it with a fibre that excels at this characteristic. E.g., when polyester is blended with cotton, the resultant fabric achieves moderate absorbency, whereas polyester on its does not absorb moisture at all.
  • To improve texture
    Blending can improve the feel and appearance of a fabric. Eg., blending wool fibres with polyester produces the desired texture required for making suits. Viscose, when blended with cotton, improves its lustre and softness and thereby enhances its feel and appearance.
  • To reduce cost
    Often an important reason for blending fibres is to bring the cost of a very expensive fibre down by blending it with a cheaper one. E.g., expensive wool is often blended with cheaper polyester to make it less expensive.
  • To produce cross-dyed effects
    Fibres with unlike dye affinity are combined and dyed together so that they produce interesting cross dyes effects as one fibre takes up the colour and the other retains its original colour.

How to select fabrics

I. Choose comfort over appearance

All other considerations aside, the most important factor when choosing a fabric is to make sure it is comfortable. There is nothing worse than a clingy blouse or an itchy jumper against your skin, regardless of how great the garment may look.

Look into your wardrobe and select the items whose fabric you like the most and which feel most comfortable on your skin, and check the labels to see what they are made of. This will give you an idea of what to look for.

Another thing to look at is to make sure that the fabrics you choose go well with your personal style category. For example, elegant outfits usually have some sort of silk incorporated, but denim is nowhere to be seen. Go back to your vision boards and analyse the outfits in terms of fabric.

II. Choose high-quality fabrics

Selecting the fabrics 1 - the concept wardrobe

Clothes which are long-lasting will give you a better investment return over the long run. Low quality items that you wear once or twice are not good investments. Not even if they are dirt cheap. The most important factor that determines how long a garment will last is its fabric.

And the thing with fabric is that the equation higher price = higher quality does not hold true. Sometimes what you pay for is not quality but branding. On the flip side, you can also find good quality items from fast fashion brands for a very reasonable price. That's why it is so important to be able to tell what constitutes good quality that will last for years and years and not fall apart after one wash.

Luckily, when you are out shopping, there are a few quick quality checks you can carry out on a garment:

Check the label

The two biggest costs of making a garment are labour and fabric. A quick look at the label may tell you if a manufacturer has cut costs on the latter.

If you are looking at a very expensive item and it has a high content of synthetic fibres, you can be sure the item isn't as high quality as you would expect it to be. On the other hand, if you are shopping on the high street, it is highly likely that garments will be made mostly or entirely out of synthetic fibres, as they tend to be cheaper than natural ones.

But even if an item is made out of natural fibres, this does not necessarily translate into higher quality. Fabrics can be made cheaply by using weak low-grade fibres, or by using less fibre in the fabric. So how do you tell the difference?

Feel the fabric

The best way to judge a fabric is by touching it. Does it feel thin, brittle, and rough? Or does it feel smooth, soft, and substantial?

Thin fabric (not equal to lightweight) is always a dead giveaway that an item won't last very long. The higher the fibre content, the longer the garment is going to last. This doesn't mean that the fabric needs to feel heavy. If the garment is supposed to be lightweight, look for tightly packed or dense fibres. The more tightly spun the yarns appear, the better.

Stretch the fabric

For knits in particular, there is another way to test them. Try stretching a small part of the fabric in an inconspicuous spot. Ideally, it should bounce back to its original shape. If it doesn’t, the garment will probably quickly start to look stretched out and misshapen after wearing it a few times.

III. Choose the right fabric for your body shape(s)

Since fabric is just as important as the colour and cut of a garment, the right type of fabric can help balance out your silhouette.

Rectangle body shape

To make the rectangle body shape appear less column-like and create some curves, choose soft and draping fabrics. Flowy and soft fabrics look elegant and soften the angled frame.

To break up the rectangle you can also play with more stiff and textured fabrics. These work especially well for tops.

Pear body shape

To balance out the wider hips of the pear body shape, avoid bottoms or dresses in thick fabrics that will add volume. Instead opt for lightweight fabrics.

For tops, you can choose heavier and textured fabrics to add dimension to your bust and shoulders.

Inverted triangle body shape

The inverted triangle body shape is wider on the upper body. To balance out the lower body, opt for thick fabrics - such as cord, tweed, mohair, melton, canvas, boucle, brocade, gabardine, lace, velvet and thick knits.For your wider top half, choose soft, lightweight, and draping fabrics as well as fine knits. Thick fabrics or knits would add unwanted volume to your shoulders.

Hourglass triangle body shape

Fabrics for the hourglass body shape should be able to follow the shape's natural silhouette. Avoid therefore textured, stiff, and thick fabrics.Instead, opt for soft fabrics on top and bottom - such as denim with elastane (stretchy denim), fine jersey, very fine cotton, or cotton mixed with elastane or polyester, fine knits and fine silk.

Apple body shape

To conceal the bigger midriff of the apple body shape, choose well-structured fabrics for your tops and shirts. They conceal the tummy and create a rigid shape that creates balance with your slim legs.

Good fabrics for the apple body shape are among others: cord, linen, silk, tweed, canvas, brocade, and gabardine. Jersey is great if it is weighty jersey. Avoid fine jersey and stay away from dresses made of delicate fabrics as they might make you unshapely.


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