Fabric 101 – Natural Fibers

Fabric 101 – Natural Fibers

As the classification suggests, natural fibers are found in nature, produced by plants and animals. These fabrics are not as opulent or fussy, but instead true to the origins from which they come from.

Natural fibers are generally a healthier and more sustainable choice. They have good mechanical strength, but weigh less than synthetic fibers, and are lower in cost to produce. Natural fibers, such as cotton and wool provide natural ventilation and insulation in both hot and cold weather.

One of the beauties of natural fibers is how they absorb dye. Because there is an innate variation within the yarn, the fibers will absorb dye differently throughout the coloring process, creating a truly unique and one-of-kind design. The variation will be subtle when looking at the overall finished goods, but it is something I am personally drawn to.

It is important to keep in mind that natural fibers are susceptible to UV fading faster than synthetic fibers. However, fading does not happen overnight, and there are various causes that lead to fading. If your sofa is in front of a window that receives harsh, direct sunlight all year, it is inevitable, no matter the material, fading will occur over time.

There are two main causes of fading, chemical and physical wear and tear. Chemical fading happens when a chemical reaction takes place on the fabric, causing it to lose its pigment. Fade-resistant fabrics, typically found in those rated for outdoor-use, are treated with a chemical solution that protects the dyed-fibers from fading due to chemical changes or physical pressure.

Before you run out and change out all your cushions and draperies to fade-resistant fabrics, please just know that fading does not occur overnight, it will take years, even in the most direct sunlight, and no one wants to snuggle up in their living room with a book and cup of coffee on a scratchy couch, covered in a fabric meant for outdoor use.

Over time, physical wear and tear may also cause fabrics to fade. Shade variation, which can sometimes be confused for fading, is caused by pressure marking, or fabric crushing. Crushing is a common occurrence in high-pile velvets made from non-synthetic fabrics. Read more about crushing in the regenerated fibers post.



The most popular and common natural fiber type, cotton is a soft, single-cell fiber, which grows from the epidermis of the seeds of the cotton plant. The quality of the cotton fabric is strongly dependent on the length of the fiber; the longer the length, the stronger and more expensive the fabric.

  • Soft
  • Breathable
  • Durable
  • Easy to clean
  • Resistant to fading

Cotton at Home: Cotton is great for upholstery. It has distinct advantages, especially given that it is a breathable fabric, which can enhance the comfort of your furniture. Cotton fabrics make great slipcovers, perfect for the casually elegant style. Light-weight, brushed cottons are used a lot for less formal space window treatments.



Linen is spun from the fibers of flax stems. The production process is similar to that of cotton, but the flax fibers are longer and rougher, so it takes a few extra steps to create a flexible wire. Linen’s slubby texture is its main allure.

  • Strong and durable, about three times as strong as cotton
  • Breathable
  • Abrasion-resistant, won’t pill
  • Resistant to mildew
  • Drapes beautifully

There is something so enticing about the casual look and feel of linen when used in our homes. We see the tasteful trend throughout mainstream stores like Crate & Barrel, Pottery Barn, and West Elm. It is important to understand the innate qualities of the fabric, both positive and negative.

Linen is a wrinkly fabric. Flax fibers have very low elasticity and resilience, meaning they don’t spring back to their original shape after being compressed. If you grab a linen drapery panel and squeeze the side of it, you will be left with a wrinkle.

Growing and shrinking is also a common problem with linen depending on what climate you live in. Here in the midwest, linen is known as a very temperamental fabric to use, especially for drapery. The growing and shrinking of linen drapes are caused by drastic changes in temperature and humidity variation.

Linen at Home: Linen makes great bedding, especially for duvet covers and pillow shams. Keep in mind, the fabric will get progressively softer with washings. Linen is definitely a favorite for use in window drapery, it allows light to filter subtly through the weave of the fabric and also has a supple drape. Similarly, linen makes a wonderful lampshade. Heavyweight linens or blends are usually suitable for upholstery.



Probably my favorite natural fiber, wool is derived from animals. The wool fiber has scales that stick together, making it easy to spin. It comes in various types, depending on the source of the raw material. Common types of wool include Merino, Mohair, Angora, and Alpaca. While not technically considered a type of wool, cashmere, which is generally lumped into the category, is derived from goats.

  • Soft
  • Warm
  • Dirt & water resistant
  • Inherently fire retardant

It is common to see wool fibers blended with others to improve overall strength and endurance. The most frequent issue I see come up is allergies. Wool fabrics can sometimes be itchy and prone to pilling.

Wool at Home: Hands down, wool has the most supple and beautiful drape. If I had my way with every project, I would install wool drapery throughout every single one of my client’s homes. The wool used on upholstery will last through the next ice age. As a textile, it is very warm and breaths well. Wool woven area rugs are also very common.




Silk comes from the cocoon of the silkworm, a very delicate and luxurious material. The process of cultivating the raw fiber can be a bit troublesome and not always considered animal friendly. To extract the raw silk, you must first cultivate the silkworms on mulberry leaves and wait for the worms to start pupating in their cocoons.

Silk has a very soft luster, which is due to the fibers themselves being a prism-like shape, allowing the material to shine and reflect light at various angles. The weave will ultimately determine the wearability of silk.

  • Screams luxury
  • Smooth
  • Warm

Silk is a very delicate fabric and extremely difficult to clean. Natural slubbing will occur across silk fabrics, which some truly love the look of, and added texture, while others view it as flaws. It is very common for a designer to order a silk fabric and their workroom to flag the slubs as defects within the fabrics, which they are not.

Silk at Home: Lined silk makes gorgeous window treatments.

About the Author