FABRIC: Are Natural or Synthetic Fibers Better?
Frequently Asked Questions About Fabrics Made With Natural vs Synthetic Fibers
We are often asked by our interior decorating clients and on-line customers about the differences between natural and synthetic fibers in home decorating fabrics. Are natural fiber fabrics, like cotton, linen, wool, and silk, always more expensive and high-maintenance than synthetic fabrics?
Are synthetic fiber fabrics, like acrylic, nylon, and the newest microfibers, always stronger and more cost-effective? Is rayon a natural or synthetic? Does one resist wrinkles more than the other?
We will attempt to answer the most frequently asked questions about natural and synthetic fibers used in home décor fabrics in this guide. If you have a question about natural versus synthetic fibers that is not answered here, or want additional information about these and other fibers, types of fabrics, and fabric treatments, please check our Upholstery Fabric Guide. If you still don't find an answer to your question, scroll down to the bottom of the page and send us a question. We will do our best to answer it.
Frequently Asked Questions
About Synthetic vs. Natural Home Décor Fabrics
This lens features answers to the most Frequently Asked Questions we have encountered about types of fibers in home decorating fabrics. Hopefully this will dispel some myths about both types of fabrics. For additional information, see Benefits and Drawbacks of Natural vs Synthetic Fabrics.
Q. What is the difference between 'natural' and 'synthetic' fabrics?
A. Natural fabric refers to fabrics made from fibers found in nature. Natural fibers come from animal and vegetable sources. Synthetic fabric refers to fabric made from manufactured fibers and fibers created by scientists including some manufactured from natural materials like cellulose and wood pulp.
Remember, though, that although natural fibers may be a renewable resource, those that are not certified as organic may have pesticide residues and may be processed or treated with chemicals during the manufacturing process and are not necessarily ecologically sound in that regard.
Q. Which is better for home decorating, natural or synthetic fabrics?
A. Both types of fabric have their advantages and disadvantages in home décor. Synthetics can be durable, easy-care, and fade-resistant, but that does not mean that natural fibers are weaker, less durable, prone to fading, and higher-maintenance. These characteristics often depend on more than the type of fiber being used.
Durability, for instance, often depends on the weave and finish of a fabric. Cotton fabric can be delicate and sheer, like a batiste, or heavy and durable like a denim or tapestry. Unlike the synthetics of the 70s and 80s, today's manufactured fibers, especially the ones made in Europe, are often indistinguishable from the finest natural fibers in fabrics.
Some fibers generally considered "synthetic," since they are manufactured, are actually made from renewable natural resources and, depending on manufacturing processess, can even be quite eco-friendly!
Q. But aren't synthetic fabrics for home décor less expensive than natural drapery and upholstery fabrics?
A. Not necessarily. Cost is not determined by fiber content alone. Some synthetics are very expensive and so are some natural fabrics, and vice versa. Other factors such as fabric design, quality of fiber, manufacturing processes, exclusivity and type of fabric contribute to the cost of a fabric.
Q. Fiber. Fabric. It gets confusing? Is cotton or nylon a fabric or a fiber?
A. The answer is both. I'm afraid that isn't much help, and at the risk of making things even more confusing, let me say that a FIBER is the material a FABRIC is made from. 100% Cotton fabric refers to any fabric made exclusively from cotton fibers. Cotton fabrics, like many others, come in different TYPES of fabrics, such as chintz , denim, damask , etc. But these types of fabric also come in other fibers, both natural and synthetic. Our Upholstery Fabric Guide provides more information that may be helpful to you.
More FAQs About Natural vs Synthetic Fiber Fabrics
Q. Aren't synthetics easier to maintain?
A. Not always. Acrylic and polyester fabrics, for example, are harder to clean than wool, and acrylic and other synthetics can pill. Stick to the manufacturer's instructions for the care of any fabric. If you want to wash a fabric and are not sure what the recommended cleaning method is, test wash a small piece first. Do not assume that just because a fabric contains, for example, cotton and polyester, that it is machine washable and dryable. There are other factors as well, such as type of fabric, type of dyes used, etc. And dry cleaning may use chemicals that are not safe for the environment or for people and pets.
Dyes are another aspect to consider, as some chemical dyes are also not the best ecological and health savvy choice. Unfortunately, most manufacturers do not indicate the dyes used to color their fabrics or to render them stain and soil resistant, fire resistant etc. On the other hand, many manufacturers of home décor fabrics are adding more and more "green" fabrics to their interior decorating lines that are guaranteed to be made from renewable resources and processed in ecologically sound ways.
Q. Don't synthetics eliminate problems with shrinkage and wrinkles?
A. Again, it depends. Rayon, for example, can absorb humidity and shrink under hot, humid conditions (and it is not washable). Windows hung with rayon curtains will have shorter curtains in the hot, humid summer and the same curtains will hang longer in dryer, cooler winters. Some synthetics, like acetate, do resist wrinkles, but so do some fabrics made from natural fibers, like wool and silk. There is a vast difference among synthetic fibers, just as in the naturals. Wool is a very different fiber than silk. So, too, rayon is very different from acrylic and olefin.
Q. So how do I choose?
A. Our page, The Green Truth About Fabrics provides a more in-depth summary about the advantages and disadvantages of different fibers and their characteristics and may help.
Sometimes you will decide in favor of the fabric that has the right look at for your home dcor regardless of other factors. Sometimes your primary concern will be how "green" a fabric is. Other times your primary concern may be cost or durability and practicality.
And remember -- you do not always have to choose one type of fiber over another. For some applications, the "best" solution is a drapery or upholstery fabric that blends the best characteristics of one or more natural and/or synthetic fibers. For example, in upholstery fabrics, the breathability of natural fibers, or how well they allow air to circulate, enhances the comfort of the furniture. To add durability, one or more natural fibers are often blended with at least one synthetic, which, as you will see, does not necessarily mean it is not "green." If you choose wisely, you can have the best of both worlds.
Natural Fiber Fabrics For Period Home Decorating
Until the turn of the twentieth century, the only fabrics available for home décor, clothing, utility, or any other purpose were made from natural fibres. If you are decorating in a period style of décor that pre-dates the early 1900s, you may want to stick to reproductions of historic fabrics in natural fibers for authenticity as well as eco-friendly reasons.
Fortunately, many reproduction historic fabrics are available from the top design houses. In addition to the continued production of fabrics in their own lines from earlier centuries, older interior decorating fabric manufacturers often custom reproduce fabrics for museum restorations from antique fabric remnants.
Area Rugs Are Also Available in Natural Fibers & Dyes
You can also find natural fabrics in historically appropriate area rugs, usually in wool and often in colors from vegetable dyes that are the same as they would have been a century or two (or more) ago.
In addition to wool, you can find woven rugs of cotton, sisal, hemp, linen and similar fabrics in styles ranging from flat weaves to braided ovals.
Natural and Synthetic Blend Fabrics For Home Décor
If you are decorating a period home with historic fabrics or shopping for a trend-setting loft or eclectic apartment and choose to use a sythetic or blended home decorating fabric, you do not have to sacrifice authenticity and quality.
These fabrics not only blend fibers; they blend traditional and historic designs and quality with contemporary technology and manufacturing.
Fabrics shown here range from blends of natural and synthetic fiber velvets and damasks to faux silks. Designs are from the eighteenth through the mid-twentieth century.
They include (left to right, top to bottom) a heavy velvety chenille victorian upholstery fabric, an arts and crafts style embroidered faux silk, a printed retro faux silk, a jacquard woven neoclassical stripe, a washed rose velvet, and a jacobean floral pocket weave.
© 2010 Chazz