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From fibre to garment: the technical 'make-up' of your clothing

By Esmee Blaazer


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Background |LONG READ

Image to illustrate this background article about the technical structure of your garment. Photo: ByBorre Textiles of Amsterdam-based textile innovation company ByBorre.

In this background piece, we tell you all about the 'technical construction' of your garment. From fibre to garment. We start with the final product, your garment, and go back one step at a time. To the fabrics, the yarns and the fibres/raw materials. We also cover finishing processes.


  1. Fabrics (+ finishing processes)
  2. Yarns
  3. Fibres

Click on the arrows in the text for more information.

1. Fabrics

1.1. Constructions of the canvas

There are different ways in which fabrics are produced. The way a fabric is made from a yarn is also called the construction.

You have woven fabrics, knitted fabrics and so-called non-wovens.

Weaving is the braiding of yarns over and under each other. There are different weaves, ways in which the warp and weft yarns cross. In a plain weave, the simplest weave, the yarns always cross one up and one down. Garments that are generally woven include shirts, jackets and trousers. While jeans are almost always woven in a twill weave: that is a weave in which the warp and weft yarns cross at least one up, two down or vice versa. You can recognise the binding by the oblique lines that run through the fabric, just look at your jeans.

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Here you can see woven garments on the catwalk. A grey woven trench coat by the brand Rokh from the autumn/winter 2023 collection (left) and a woven jacket and matching trousers by the brand Late for Work from the autumn/winter 2023 collection (right). Credit: Launchmetrics Spotlight.
Here you see a woven fabric. Credit: Engin Akyurt via Pexels.
Here you can see a close-up of a woven fabric. Credit: via Pexels/Pixabay.

Knitting is often done with one long yarn. Loops are made in a yarn and those loops are interconnected. Those loops are stretchable. Just as there are different ways of weaving, there are also different ways of knitting. What kind of garments are knitted? Many. Sweaters and cardigans are well-known knitwear, but many T-shirts, underwear ('tricot') and socks and tights are also knitted. A knitted fabric can usually be recognised by the rows of v's on the front of the fabric.

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Here you see knitted jumpers from the Victoria Beckham autumn/winter 2023 ready-to-wear collection on the catwalk. Credit: image via Launchmetrics Spotlight.
In this image, you can clearly see rows of v's at the front of the knitted fabric. Credit: image of Sa Su Phi, autumn/winter 2023 ready-to-wear collection, via Launchmetrics Spotlight.
Here you see coarser and finer knits. Credit: image by Madison Inouye via Pexels.

Non-woven is the name for a fabric that is not made of yarn but of fibres. An example is felt, where loose fibres are firmly joined together under the influence of heat and pressure. A non-woven can also be made by using glue and loose fibres. By heating the glue, it melts together.

The way the fabric is made also affects the properties and appearance of a garment. "To make a garment more elastic, you don't necessarily need elastane (the textile fibre to give a garment 'stretch', ed.). You can also turn it into a knit, as each loop gives room for movement," fashion professional Monique Wertheym explained to FashionUnited.

Wertheym has 30 years of experience in the apparel industry and is a lecturer at TMO Fashion Business School, teaching Fashion Products and Production and International Business Communication and Senior Trainer for Detex. Wertheym has been nominated by Detex Training as a textile goods knowledge specialist. Detex is a training agency for fashion and retail.

"That way, you can give stiffer raw materials, such as linen, the property of elasticity." And the reverse works the same way. "Take viscose, a very supple raw material. If I then make a woven fabric out of that, it's less supple than knit linen. Because, a woven fabric is always tighter than a knit."

Finishing processes also have an impact.

1.2 Finishing processes

Fabrics are often ‘processed’ or ‘treated’. The technical term is finishing processes. The purpose of finishing processes is to improve the garment's properties and/or make it more beautiful. Which finishing processes are used depends on the raw material and the desired use.

You can make fabrics for instance shiny, iron-proof or water-repellent. But note that finishing processes can be done at different stages of production, Wertheym emphasises. "Processing can be done at four levels: at fibre, yarn, fabric or garment level.”

Dyeing is the most common finishing process. And so [dyeing] also happens at different stages in production. But, most of the time, according to the expert, fabrics are pre-treated, then dyed and then post-treated.

Dyeing is the most common finishing.

Garments are almost always coloured. Colouring can be done by dyeing and printing. "Garments will be dyed with dyestuff in 95% of all cases," Wertheym estimates when asked

Pre- and post-finishing

"There are many pre-finishing processes that allow the colour (read: dye) to be better absorbed by fabrics," Wertheym explains. "Cheap clothing brands often skip pre-finishing processes. This is why a cheap T-shirt often remains black for only a short time. If pre-finishing processes are skipped, the fabric is actually not suitable to absorb dyes properly."

"Post-finishing processes are also often skipped by cheaper brands," she continues. "An example of a post-finishing process is rinsing. This removes the loose pigments from the dyes, so it does not happen in the consumer's washing machine." A second example is pre-shrinking the fabric. Pre-shrinking causes the garment to shrink less when washed after purchase.

Pre- and post-finishing processes can cause price differences of garments. "That is why one black T-shirt has a price tag of 9 euros, another 19 euros and the third T-shirt costs 29 euros in the shop." Wertheym: "And I'm not talking about branding (paying for a brand name, ed.) but really just what pre- and post-finishing processes have been done."

The more finishing processes, the more expensive a garment, but therefore the better the final product remains. "Better in colour and better in fit, for example," she says. So what is expensive, Wertheym wonders aloud. "The cheapest black T-shirt from a discounter probably has to be replaced after three months because it has shrunk and is no longer black, and the one from a slightly more expensive fashion brand probably lasts for three years."

2. Yarns

Fabrics of clothing are made of yarns (the threads).

Yarns are numbered by thickness in the fashion industry. If you weave or knit with a thin yarn, you get a thin garment, if you do it with a thick yarn, you get a thicker garment as a result.

Usually, one weaves or knits with a single yarn. But it's also done with a multi-yarn. "Twisting yarns around each other (twisting as that process is called)," Wertheym explains, "creates a thicker yarn, and therefore a thicker fabric."

In other words, how the garment ultimately looks depends also on the yarn used.

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Image illustrating yarns. Photo by Cottonbro via Pexels.

2.1 What are yarns actually made of - and how?

There are two types of yarns: fibre yarns and filament yarns.

Fibre yarns

The bulk of yarns are made of fibres. A fibre yarn is made by twisting fibres together. This is called spinning.

“In (fibre) yarns, fibres can be kept coarse - that's called carded yarn - or made smooth - that's called worsted yarn," explains Wertheym. Combed yarn is finer and softer than carded yarn. “Carded and combed is for cellulose fibres, woolen and worsted is for protein fibres,” she adds.

So what then is a filament?

Artificial fibres are all made via a synthetic process (more in section 3) by squeezing a viscous liquid through tiny holes and allowing it to solidify immediately. The 'yarn' that comes out is called a filament. The yarn is smooth and - unlike fibre yarn - no 'ends' stick out. Filaments can be used directly as yarn in a fabric. Filaments can also be cut into smaller pieces - fibres! - can be cut to mix them with other materials.

The bulk of clothing is not made up of one raw material but several - just look at the label. A blending or blend, as they say in the industry, is the term for a yarn composed of fibres from different materials.

(There is also one natural filament, by the way, and that is silk).


Effects are added to some yarns. For example, there are yarns with multiple colours of fibres. There are also yarns that are intentionally made irregular or fluffy.

Wertheym: "If you want to make a fluffy jumper from the synthetic raw material acrylic, you have to add texture. That happens at the yarn level." In other words, this is an example of a yarn finishing process.

3. Fibres

What is a fibre?

When you break apart a yarn, small particles remain: the fibres. Examples of textile fibres are cotton and wool.

3.1 Natural and artificial fibres

There are natural fibres and artificial fibres. Natural fibres occur in nature, artificial fibres do not. These are man-made in factories.

Cotton, for example, belongs to natural fibres and polyester to man-made fibres.

Within natural and artificial fibres, different fibres are also distinguished. We explain this in sections 3.2 and 3.3.

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Image illustrating the raw materials cotton (left) and wool (right). Photos. via Pexels.

3.2 Natural fibres (in-depth)

Within natural fibres we distinguish: plant-based fibres and animal fibres.

3.2.1 Plant-based fibres

As the name suggests, these are fibres that come from plants. Plants are mainly composed of cellulose.

Cotton for example, is a fibre from the seed pod of the cotton plant: those white little balls. After picking, the lint is cleaned in the factory. "Because there are black pits in the cotton lint," Wertheym explains. Then yarns are spun.
This is an example of a fibre finishing process.

Cotton fibres are quite strong, and cotton has the remarkable property of absorbing a lot of moisture quickly. "Cotton absorbs up to 60 percent water in woven fabrics, and up to 90 percent in knits," explains Wertheym. "That's a property of the raw material, you don't have to do anything for that at all.”
Cotton is comfortable to wear, soft and breathable and cool to the touch. Cotton clothing is also easy to maintain: it can be washed and ironed hot. Cotton is a popular raw material for clothing (how popular you will read in section 3.4). Cotton is used for casual garments that many of us have in our closets, think T-shirts, jeans, pants and camisoles.

Linen Linen comes from a flax or linen plant. "To grow linen and process it into a yarn is more difficult because it is a very hard bast fibre, which has to be broken open. With cotton, you just have that soft fluff that you can grab," Wertheym explains. "Linen is a more expensive raw material than cotton, but linen is also stronger. Clothes made of linen last longer." Other characteristics of the raw material are that it is a coarse fibre and has a recognisably irregular appearance. Linen absorbs moisture quickly and also wrinkles quickly. Linen is mainly used for summer garments.

Other plant-based fibres include hemp or bamboo.

3.2.2 Animal fibres

Animal fibres include wool, other hair and silk. In animals, the main building material is protein.

Wool is the hair of the sheep. The quality of wool depends on the breed of sheep, the part of the fleece and how it was obtained. Wool is resilient due to natural crimping (curling in the hair). As a result, woollen clothes hardly crease at all. Wool is heat-insulating and naturally dirt-repellent. You undoubtedly know wool from its use in warm winter items. Less well known, perhaps, are fine wools used for fabrics with a classic look for a suit, for example. "Think Cool Wool, a beautiful combed yarn," says Wertheym.

Other hair types include cashmere, which comes from the cashmere goat, mohair from the angora goat, or alpaca from the domestic llama. These raw materials are more precious. The hair types are used, for example, for high-quality warm jumpers and vests and coats and jackets.

Silk usually comes from the cocoon of the caterpillar of a mulberry butterfly. The raw material is relatively expensive because its production requires many operations: from breeding and caring for caterpillars to reeling off the cocoons. Silk is a more luxurious fabric, which is soft, smooth and falls nicely. Silk is used, for instance, in blouses, evening wear, ties, scarves and lingerie.

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Image: a silk garment by Boss from the spring/summer 2023 ready-to-wear collection (left) and a linen suit by Emporio Armani from the spring/summer 2023 collection (right). Images via Spotlight Launchmetrics.

3.3 Artificial fibres (in-depth)

In artificial fibres, we distinguish between synthetic fibres and artificial natural fibres.

3.3.1 Synthetic fibres

Synthetic fibres are artificially manufactured by chemical means. "Polyester and polyamide is made from a polymer, from petroleum," explains Wertheym.

Most man-made fibres are made to imitate natural raw materials. In general, synthetic fibres are stronger than natural fibres. As in: they last a long time. The fibres are lightweight and reasonably dimensionally stable. Clothing made of synthetic fibres hardly creases or shrinks at all. In addition, most synthetic fibres are less expensive.

Polyester, for example, is relatively inexpensive. Polyester has a nice appearance, it is smooth and shiny and easy to maintain. It is used for almost all types of garments. The raw material finds eager demand in the industry (see section 3.4).

Polyamide is very strong, wear- and tear-resistant, shiny and is used for swimwear and tights, among other things. Polyamide is also called 'nylon’.

Polyacrylic - or acrylic for short - is warm, and has a wool-like character. It is soft and voluminous. Acrylic is used for jumpers, cardigans and socks.

3.3.2 Artificial natural fibres

And then there are man-made natural fibres. These fibres are also called semi-synthetic fibres or semi-artificial fibres. These fibres are also made through a synthetic process, but at the base is cellulose, derived from plant material. "So fibres from a bark, from a birch or from a plant," Wertheym explains. "From the sap or pulp, a yarn is made in the factory."

Because the base material is plant-based, its properties are similar to those of natural plant-based fabrics. With viscose, the properties are similar to cotton and linen, only it is less strong. As viscose falls smoothly and is relatively cheap and comfortable to wear is widely used for thinner clothes, such as tops, blouses and dresses. In America, viscose is called 'rayon'.

Other semi-artificial fibres include modal and lyocell.

Overview of natural fibres and man-made fibres. Note: This list of fibres is not exhaustive. Source: TMO/Fashion consultant Detex. Visual created by FashionUnited.

3.4 How much are these different types of fibres actually used?

What are the most commonly used raw materials in the fashion industry?

"Of all the raw materials used by the clothing industry, more than half are polyester/polyamide," explains Wertheym. "This is followed by cotton, about 30 percent of the fibres used in the industry. And this is followed by artificial natural raw materials, including viscose."

"But, if you add polyester/polyamide and cotton together, you are already above 80 percent," Wertheym underlines. "For all other raw materials, only about 15 to 20 percent remains." According to the expert, wool has a 4 percent share, linen 3 percent and silk 1 percent.

Source: fashion professional Monique Wertheym. TMO/Detex. Visual created by FashionUnited.

Global fibre production and alternative raw materials

Global fibre production is huge. By 2021, global fibre production was 113 million tonnes per year.

Source: Textile Exchange in its report 'Preferred Fibre and Materials Market Report 2022'. Textile Exchange's mission is 'to promote positive action in the fashion, textile and apparel industry against climate change'. Every year, the non-profit organisation releases a report on the global fibre market. Global fibre production is expected to rise to 149 million tonnes by 2030, according to Textile Exchange.

This is a huge amount, but then huge amounts of clothes are produced and consumed.

"Because the average person now has five times as many clothes as say 70 years ago, resources are running out," says Wertheym. "For example, there is less and less cotton. That is why alternative raw materials are being sought," she says. Which preferably are also more sustainable. After all, fibre production places a heavy burden on the environment.

So what is more sustainable? That's another whole (background) story in itself, but you can think, for example, of reusing materials, drawing on fibres that are in circulation. This currently happens only on a small scale and, moreover, not always from old, discarded clothes.

Recycled fibres accounted for 8.9 per cent of all raw materials for textile production in 2021. This is a slight increase compared to 2020 when the share came to 8.4 per cent. The increase is mainly due to 'bottle-based polyester,' explains Textile Exchange in its report 'Preferred Fibre and Materials Market Report 2022'. So what do they mean by that? Recycled polyester is almost always made from old plastic bottles (from the soft drink industry) and almost never from discarded and recycled clothes. Old clothes are rarely made into new clothes: they were made in less than 1 percent (!) of cases in the year 2021, according to Textile Exchange.

You can also think of very innovative raw materials, such as MuSkin, an alternative to leather from mushrooms, says Wertheym. But these raw materials are still used very little, she quickly adds. "Maybe only in 0.0001 percent of cases."

How do fashion brands actually choose which textile fibres to use for their clothes?

“That depends,” says Wertheym. "Most fashion brands are design-driven. Then styling decides what a fashion collection will look like. Then the sourcing manager or product developer says 'if you want the collection to look like this I need these raw materials'," she explains. Because the look and properties of the garments partly (read: first) depend on the raw material used. "Linen will always look coarser than cotton. A polyester will always be smoother and shinier than a viscose," she illustrates.

When fashion companies are procurement- or price-driven, and then it goes the other way round, Wertheym says. "Then people say 'I need something warm for winter'. A lower-end clothing brand then chooses acrylic, and in the higher price segment they go for mohair or cashmere."

  • Fibre: the smallest part of your garment. If you take a yarn completely apart, what remains is a fibre.
  • Raw material: a cotton or linen. Raw materials and fibres are often used as synonyms, and we do so in this article text. But note: in fact, the terms raw materials and fibres are not interchangeable. For a filament (see section 2.1) and a mineral such as glass are also raw materials. And they are not fibres.
  • Yarn:a thread. A yarn is used to make a fabric.
  • Blend: a yarn composed of different fibres.
  • Fabric: is the fabric of clothing. A fabric is a weave, knit or non-woven .
  • Materials: materials is not used in the industry as a synonym for fabrics. "Materials can be a fabric, but also a zip or a button."
  • Finish: there are pre- or post-finishing processes.
Yarns and fabrics from Dutch textile innovation company Byborre. Ownership: ByBorre


  • Interview with Monique Wertheym, lecturer of Fashion Products and Production and International Business Communication at TMO Fashion Business School, and Senior Trainer at Detex Training, on February 9, 2023.
  • Detex Opleidingen, a training agency for fashion and retail, which specialises in textile goods knowledge.
  • TMO Fashion Business School study undertaken by the author of this piece, and specifically the book ' Fashion Advisor' by Mirjam van den Bosch, Astrid Hanou and Hans van Otegem, publisher Stichting Detex Opleidingen, 2003, second edition.
  • Fashion Styling.co.uk 'From raw material to yarn', 2019
  • Textile Exchange report 'Preferred Fibre and Materials Market', October 2022
  • NRC special on the fashion industry and specifically the article 'Shoes from mango leather and t-shirts from straw' by Juliët Boogaard and Joost Pijpker, from January 6, 2023.
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