Fabric Specs - Part 1, Content
To be as transparent as possible, we list as many fabric specs as possible on our product pages. We want you to know exactly what you’re buying. But what do all these fabric specs mean? Unless you’re in the fashion industry, we wouldn’t expect you to know – and honestly, it’s pretty technical stuff even within the industry. So, we’re starting an in-depth series to explain fabric specs, so you can make educated shopping decisions wherever you go.
This week, we’re starting with the most basic spec of a garment – it’s content.
You probably have a general idea what content means, but we’re going to get into the nitty-gritty here. In this case, content refers to the percentage of a fiber (by weight) that composes a garment. For example, a basic t-shirt might be made of 60% cotton and 40% polyester. Let’s say the t-shirt was made of only one type of fabric, and a half-yard of this fabric was used to make the t-shirt. If the half-yard of fabric weighed 50 grams in total, then 30 grams of that weight are from cotton fibers (60%) and 20 grams are from polyester fibers (40%).
Note that we aren’t talking about garment weight here. That’s because garments can be made of a lot of different stuff than just fabric – there’s thread and content labels at a minimum, all the way up to garments decked out with zippers and buttons and embroidery. When we talk about a garment’s content, we are only talking about its fiber content. By U.S. law, only fibers must be listed on content tags; non-fibrous materials (wood, plastic, metal, etc.) may be omitted.
As with most things, though, there are exceptions. Fibrous garment trimmings that are less than 15% of the garment’s surface area; ornamentation that is less than 5% of the product’s fiber weight; and structural linings/interlinings/padding that are not used for warmth - can all be excluded from a garment’s content. A manufacturer can choose to include trimming or ornamentation fiber content, but they don’t have to as long as they are within these limits. It can get pretty complicated, but the main point is that generally, only a garment’s fabric is used to determine the garment’s fiber content. If you want to go even deeper, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has a guide to the specifics of textile product labeling.
Now, what if a garment is made of two different fabrics? Let’s say you have a recycled cotton blouse with sheer long sleeves. Even though the sheer fabric might compose less than 15% of the garment’s total surface area, and less than 5% of the total fiber weight, the FTC advises that products using different fibers in distinct sections should use sectional disclosure. Basically, if you’re “colorblocking” with different fabrics, the content of each needs to be listed on the content tag. So, the content label for this blouse might be: “Body: 94% cotton, 6% other fibers. Sleeves: 100% silk.”
Hold on – what’s that “6% other fibers”? The FTC requires that all fibers that account for 5% or more of a products fiber weight must be listed. So how is this allowed? Sometimes, especially for fabrics made of recycled fibers, you may not always be able to tell the full fiber content. Or, if you can, maybe the fabric is 94% cotton, 1% acrylic, 1% nylon, 1% polyester, 1% rayon, 1% acetate, and 1% silk (this is an unlikely combo, but it’s not unusual for recycled fabrics to have a little bit of other fiber “contamination”). Luckily, as long as each fiber that makes up the “other fibers” is less than 5% and not functional to the garment, the FTC lets you group them all together – so you don’t have to write out a super long list of random fibers.
One last important note – if a company mentions a fiber in relation to a product, it must include that fiber on that product’s content tag. Period. Let’s say the product description of a dress goes something like “a delicate silk trim elevates the neckline of this LBD.” Since silk was mentioned, even though it’s a trim, the retailer must include silk in the product’s content label. This is to protect the consumer from false advertising claims. The FTC even goes so far to define certain specialty fibers like pima cotton and cashmere, so that there can be no confusion (note, the FTC does not differentiate wools that come from different sheep breeds, such as merino wool).
So what does all this mean? For retailers, it basically means we pay different import duty and customs rates depending on the fiber content of a product. “Is it cotton-duty?” is a common question in the industry, because there are reduced rates for textiles with contents over 50%. Why do you care? Because if you’re wondering why one t-shirt that is 45% cotton, 55% poly is more expensive than a nearly identical t-shirt that’s 60% cotton, 40% poly – it might simply be because a retailer is passing on that increased duty cost to you. Now, the cotton-duty savings might not always balance out the higher cost of cotton fiber compared to polyester fiber in general. But duties are definitely a big cost-balancing act for retailers.
More important than cost, though, is that consumers have a right to know what they’re buying. The FTC’s regulations hold retailers accountable for what they say on content labels. This protects consumers for being up-charged on a “silk” dress that’s actually polyester, and it lets consumers choose which fibers they want to wear (for reasons religious, health/allergy, sustainability, etc.). And if you’re really into textiles and know your fibers, knowing the fiber content can tell you how to dye a garment; what it’s hand feel is like; how the fiber was produced; and the “special properties” of the product – all without seeing or feeling the garment itself.
I leave you with some homework: Go into your closet and look at the content labels of your clothes. Out of curiosity, notice if your wardrobe gravitates towards certain fibers. Pay attention to how your clothes feel in your hands and relate this back to the fiber content. With practice, you’ll start to notice a general pattern – cool linens, warm wools, dry cottons, buttery Tencels, plastic-y acrylics, super-dry acetates, soft rayons. And next week, we’ll layer on the effects of fabric construction.