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Basic Care Instructions #16: Why We Wash Different Clothes Differently

  

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BASIC CARE INSTRUCTIONS  #16: Why We Wash Different Clothes Differently (A Primer On Thread, Fabric, and Fabric Weaves)

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This is the 16th in a series of articles on common care instructions for domestic items, and materials most often seen in antiques and vintage textiles, including but not limited to housewares and clothing. I hope this care information is helpful to you.

You may well know a lot more about the care of domestic items than I can tell you here, but it's nice to have all this information in one place. At the risk of trying your patience, I go into considerable detail in suggesting how to care for your things. I've also added some general suggestions here, and if you follow them, they can add a lot to the life expectancy of your favorite things. 

See our issue BASIC CARE INSTRUCTIONS #1 for information on how to read care labels you may find on vintage fabrics (and you should follow them if you do find them!). All previous articles in the series can be found in our library and in the magazine archives.  

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Rideaux De Fenêtre À La Cave.

 

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WHY WE WASH DIFFERENT CLOTHES DIFFERENTLY

A Primer On Thread, Fabric, and Fabric Weaves

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Harry Whittier Frees Photograph: Puppy Washing Day.

 

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Why do we need to wash different clothes in different ways?

 Various fibers, natural or synthetic, are dyed and twisted into thread, and then woven into fabric, or used to sew fabric, and to age well, they all require different care. Today, most fabrics are made from blends of synthetic and natural fibers, or are entirely synthetic. Most tee shirts, shirts, blouses, skirts, dresses, sheets, towels, socks, underwear, gloves, hats, upholstery, and luggage are all made from synthetic blends of some kind.

Clothes are made from fabrics created by weaving threads together, and those threads can be made from multiple fibers dyed multiple colors. Just as there's no 'one size fits all' with clothing, each fiber used in a fabric will likewise need a different washing technique to age well. This is one reason washing machines and dryers allow different settings.

Here's a (very basic!) primer on thread, fabric, and fabric weaves, so you can protect your favorite things.

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FABRIC

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What is 'fabric' ? Fabric is created by weaving threads of various thicknesses together, so that the threads stay together.

Crocheting, knitting, cording, and knotting are examples of other, different methods for joining threads so the threads stay together.

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World War II Coat Made From A Recycled Chenille Bedspread.

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2-PLY & SINGLE PLY

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Mercerie Des Grands Magasins; Ancien Publicité. 

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What do two-ply and single ply mean?

When buying clothes, you may see the term "ply", referring to the fabric.  The term "ply" is defined as how many yarns are twisted together to make a single thread. 

Two ply means that two yarns are twisted together to make a single joined thread; that thread is then woven into fabric and/or used to sew fabric into patterns. Two-ply fabrics are much more durable than single-ply fabrics. Three-ply fabrics exist, but they're rare.  Please note that "two-ply" toilet paper is NOT made this same way!

Threads can be made from multiple fibers; synthetics are often combined with natural fibers to make thread.  Today, almost all "100% Cotton" garments are sewn with thread made with synthetics.
 

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Mercerie à L’atelier de tissage Michel Gander, situé à Muttersholtz dans le Bas-Rhin.

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WEAVE

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Tissus à L’atelier de tissage Michel Gander, situé à Muttersholtz dans le Bas-Rhin.

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What is 'weaving' ? Threads, made from fibers such as wool, are woven together to produce a variety of different textures; the texture emerges as a result of weaving the various fibers over and over in different directions. 
 

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Tissage métiers, laine et coton, détails.

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Thread is generally woven in two directions to join the threads together: vertically and horizontally, so at right angles. Thread running vertically is called the "warp". Warp threads run vertically. Thread running horizontally is called the "weft". Weft yarns run horizontally. A fabric often uses different thread types and thicknesses for the two directions; the result creates various fabrics with inherent different textures and patterns, and these are referred to as the 'weave' of the fabric. 

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Marchand de fileuse, Vielle Metiers Parisien

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Fabrics come in an endless variety of weaves and patterns, an endless variety of color combinations and fiber combinations. It would take dictionaries to list them all.  Some fabric weaves catch on more than others however, and remain popular for decades. Some of the most popular are Gingham, Seersucker, Herringbone, Stripe, Tartan, and Twill.

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Tartan weave.

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WRINKLE RESISTANT & NO IRON  

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Wikimedia Commons public domain photograph of Burt Ward (Robin) and Adam West (Batman) in the TV Series Batman and Robin 1966.

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What's the difference between 'Wrinkle Resistant' fabric and 'No Iron'?

Read on if you bought an expensive blouse or shirt especially for hot weather, only to wear it and perspire like crazy. 
Just so you know, the basic difference between "Wrinkle Resistant" and "No Iron" is how and when the thread used for the fabric is treated to resist wrinkles.

"Wrinkle Resistant" refers to treating the thread and fabric at the fabric mill, before the shirt is made. "No Iron" refers to treating the shirt after the shirt is assembled. "No Iron" garments are cut, sewn, and assembled, and then they're given a chemical resin bath containing formaldehyde. This bonds the thread fibers at a molecular level, making the fabric much more difficult to crease, and allows the garments to emerge wrinkle-free from the dryer. 

There is a trade-off to formaldehyde processing. The bonded fibers produce a time saving wrinkle-free finish, at the cost of making the fabric slightly abrasive and significantly less breathable. Wearing fabrics made this way is rather like encasing the body in scratchy plastic wrap. Around 5% of the population are allergic to formaldehyde, and another 15% percentage develop skin reactions such as rashes when wearing fabrics that don't "breath". Wrinkle resistant fabrics need to be ironed after they're washed, however the treatment is ammonia based,  it does improve the fabric's performance when worn, and without the toxic downsides of the formaldehyde residue associated with mass produced no-iron clothes. 

Wrinkle resistant fabrics breath, and will stay looking more crisp throughout the day than untreated fabrics. Whether or not a fabric is prone to wrinkling is determined by the  fabric's weave, weight, care over time, and if a cotton or cotton blend, cotton staple-length. Some 100% cotton fabric weaves are very prone to wrinkling.  Usually, a thin fabric made with a single ply construction wrinkles more easily than a 2-ply fabric with a bit more body. Broadcloth (also known as poplin) wrinkles most easily of the fabric weaves. Easy maintenance weaves include twill, pinpoint, and royal oxford fabrics. Fabrics with a high thread count (120’s-170’s) tend to be a bit less robust; they're more fragile and prone to wrinkling. The best natural wrinkle resistance seems to be from fabrics woven with thread counts in the 80’s or 100’s with 2-ply construction.

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THREAD COUNT

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Harry Whittier Frees Photograph: Kitties Tangled In Thread.

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So what's 'thread count'?

The silkier, more expensive fabrics are achieved by, and their quality influenced by, a blend of many factors, including but not limited to fiber quality, ply, mill equipment and experience, fiber treatments, and weave.  All else being equal (weave, ply, mill, and type of fiber), a higher thread count usually, but not always, indicates smoother, silkier, and thus more expensive fabric. 

Thread count actually refers to yarn size, not threads per inch. Thread count is often referred to by yarn size numbers like 50s, 80s, 100s, 120s, 140s, 170s, etc. up to 330s. A thread count above 100 will typically, not not always, imply a 2-ply fabric. There are exceptions when extremely fine single ply yarns are used as these higher number thread counts will be two yarns twisted together. For example, 120’s thread count means that two 60’s yarns are twisted together, and this fabric will usually be more durable than a 60’s single ply, but it won’t necessarily be smoother. That's one of the trade offs.

Another example: 140’s thread counts are typically two 70’s yarns twisted together. 140's fabric has a higher thread count than 120's, and 160's fabric has a higher thread count than 140s, etc. etc. etc. There is nothing "cheap" or "shabby" about lower thread count fabrics, even though cheap fabrics often have low thread counts. Thread count is only part of the picture and the various trade offs need to be considered, along with the fibers, weave, ply, and mill.

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QED

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On trouve élastique en lingerie.

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Various fibers, natural or synthetic, are dyed and twisted into thread, and then woven into fabric, or used to sew fabric, and to age well, they all require different care. Today, most fabrics are made from blends of synthetic and natural fibers, or are entirely synthetic. Most tee shirts, shirts, blouses, skirts, dresses, sheets, towels, socks, underwear, gloves, hats, upholstery, and luggage are all made from synthetic blends of some kind.

So how do you keep from ruining your favorite whatever?  If there is a label containing basic care instructions, then you should follow, to the letter, the basic care instructions stated on these labels. Clothing manufacturers like to move labels around, and sometimes, they eschew them altogether and just print the information directly onto the fabric. When looking for labels, turn the garment inside out, and check inside along all the seams, especially along the side seams and at hems and cuff seams. Often, manufactures will also sew on an extra button in these locations as well. 

In any fabric that is a blend of materials, the material with the highest percentage wins. By this I mean that the material with the largest percentage in any blend is what determines the care, and the durability. 

For example, when the label states the fabric is "80% Cotton / 10% Lycra", then care for the garment / fabric as if it were entirely composed of cotton, because 80% is the highest, or largest percentage of the total. 

Another example: if the label reads "Exterior: 80% Cotton / 10% Lycra.  Lining: 100% Acetate", then Acetate wins, and the garment must be dry cleaned. 

 Anything with a high percentage of nylon should be gently hand washed and air dried, and never heated to any temperature much above body temperature. Unless specifically stated as "washable rayon" on the care label, rayon should be professionally dry cleaned for best results. Tailored skirts and dresses in any fabric should be professionally dry cleaned for best results. And men's dress shirts are covered under another article, because they're a topic all their own.
 

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In short, have fun with your clothes and take care of them. After all, you're a "picture worth a thousand words"!

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Robot Halloween Costumes from 1950.

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I sign our magazine articles "See Into The Invisible". Thanks for reading.

Best Wishes, 
Debra Spencer

All Content is © Debra Spencer, Suit Yourself™ International. Technical Library FAQ Index ISSN 2474-820X. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce in part or in whole without express written consent. Thank you.
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All Content is ©2019 Debra Spencer, Appanage™at www.suityourself.international Suit Yourself ™ International, 120 Pendleton Point, Islesboro Island, Maine, 04848, USA 44n31 68w91 Technical Library FAQ Index ISSN 2474-820X. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce in part or in whole without express written consent. Thank you.

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All Content is ©2019 Debra Spencer, Appanage™at www.suityourself.international Suit Yourself ™ International, 120 Pendleton Point, Islesboro Island, Maine, 04848, USA 44n31 68w91 Technical Library FAQ Index ISSN 2474-820X. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce in part or in whole without express written consent. Thank you.
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