Continental Thrift: Let’s Talk Fibers

The fastest way to get me to “Well, actually” you is to say something like “oh, my dress is satin, not silk.” (Literally, ignorance about fiber vs fabric is the fastest way to make me unbearably pedantic. Faster even than starting a sentence with “The Founding Fathers believed …” or stating something ignorant about Star Wars.) I once took a whole class on fibers and fabrics — I wanted to be a costume designer, a dream I’m excited to say one of my high school friends is living to an award-winning degree — and learned a lot of stuff that’s been useful beyond the “okay but is this AN HISTORICALLY ACCURATE COSTUME” application. One of these applications is thrift shopping — fiber content labels can tell you a lot about how the product will wash, wear, breathe, and (sometimes) endure.


I’m so glad you asked! “Silk” is a fiber — a building block of fabric. Fabric is what you get when you weave or knit or felt (etc) fibers together. While there are innumerable categories of fabric — poplin! satin! seersucker! chiffon! velvet! brocade! — all those brocades and poplins and satins can be made from just three basic categories of fibers:

Proteins (animal fibers): wool, silk, cashmere, angora — the actual threads are made up of proteins extruded by animals (as body fuzz or cocoon). Pros: fabrics made from these fibers are often luxurious and durable. Cons: They’re usually expensive and often require special handling. Fun fact: if you tried to light these on fire, they’d burn slowly and would stop burning once you removed the flame.

Cellulose (plant fibers): cotton, linen, bamboo, hemp, rayon* — the actual threads are made up of plant cell fibers. MOST of these come directly from plants, but rayon/viscose is semi-man-made — wood pulp is treated to a chemical bath, then extruded into threads in the same way synthetic fibers are. Cellulose fibers have a LOT going for them — they’re generally comfortable, breathable, and versatile … but they also tend to wrinkle, stain, and lose their shape over time. If you lit these on fire, they’d burn quickly.

Synthetic (plastic fibers): polyester, nylon, acrylic, acetate. Synthetic fibers are plastics extruded into threads. Though synthetic fibers get a bad rap, they’re actually pretty great — for the most part, they’re stain-resistant, wrinkle-resistant, fade-resistant, retain their shape, and wash up easily. That said, they do ‘breathe’ poorly and can sometimes look a little plasticky. If you light these on fire, they’d catch fire quickly and melt.


Not sure if an article of clothing is high-quality or low-quality? Check the content label. If it’s a protein fiber, it’s PROBABLY a high-quality item — H&M isn’t going to sink a fortune into 100% wool for a $12 blazer or silk-blend for an $8 blouse. That doesn’t mean that a polyester item is always a cheap item — if it looks nice, the stitching is solid, and it fits you well, no need to be hoity-toity about polyester (or cotton, or … etc).

Not sure if it’ll be comfortable in the long-run? Check the content label. If it’s cellulose, it’ll probably be pleasant to wear.

Not sure if it’ll hold up to daily abuse? Check the content label. If it’s synthetic — especially if it’s polyester or a polyester blend — you’re probably fine. It’ll look just as good in a year as it does today. (That said, if it looks CHEAP today, leave it on the rack!)


Yes. Fiber content also gives you clues to whether or not you can skirt the pesky “Dry Clean Only” label. I don’t have the money for dry-cleaning, and I’ve noticed that brands — especially high-end brands — have started slapping “Dry Clean Only” on clothes for no good reason; if it’s a well-constructed item, with washable fibers, it should be able to go through the wash. Some general rules of thumb (just err on the side of caution, and don’t sue me if it goes poorly for you):

-I maintain that ANYTHING polyester or acrylic can go through the wash — if the fabric itself seems delicate, you might need to throw it in a lingerie bag, you might need to run it on the delicate cycle, but polyester is fine in the washing machine.

-ALMOST anything cotton and linen can go through the wash — again, if the fabric seems particularly delicate, treat it like a delicate. Cellulose fibers are prone to shrinking, though — if it’s a perfectly-tailored item and you’re not sure whether it’s been washed before, keep that in mind. (Many cotton/poly blends have the appropriate combo of both to prevent this from happening.) Cellulose fibers can also leak dye and fade (unlike synthetics, which usually have the colorant mixed right into the plastic).

-MANY silk fabrics can go through the wash — if the FABRIC itself is sturdy (say, a crisp taffeta or tightly-woven chiffon) you’re probably fine running it through the washer. If it’s a delicate fabric — a satin so persnickety that brushing it with rough hands pulls up fibers, for example, or a loosely-woven georgette — trust the care label. Again, silk may leak dye or fade, though it’s not as prone to shrinkage as cotton. I’ve only ever had one silk item go wonky when washed — and I’ve washed a lot of ‘dry clean only’ silk clothes over the years.

-WOOL (and its fuzzier protein brethren) should usually be handwashed with a wool detergent like Woolite, reshaped, and laid flat to dry, EVEN if it says “Dry Clean Only” — for reals, dry cleaning can degrade wool fibers over time. Wool DEFINITELY shrinks (and often felts up) when washed at high temperature — which means if you happen across a cheap, way-too-big wool sweater, it could make for a fun laundry experiment.

-NEVER, EVER, EVER, IGNORE CARE LABELS FOR RAYON/VISCOSE. This is the most touchy, reactive, unpredictable fiber I have ever come across. If it’s 100% Viscose and says “Machine wash only,” DON’T send it to the cleaners. If it says “Dry Clean Only,” DON’T handwash. Just do what the label demands.