What are the Differences between Knit, Woven and Nonwoven Fabrics?

July 2, 2020

This week I am letting a good friend of mine take over the blog. Here is Julia who (whom? I’m not great with the grammar, pick the one you would like to read…) I have known for a really long time. She is energetic, supportive and just full of fabric/textile ideas. I asked her to come up with a quick but vital post idea and she came up with this: What are the Differences between Knit, Woven, and Nonwoven Fabrics?


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Images of different fabric types

Difference Between Knit, Woven and Nonwoven Fabrics

Hello there; Julia here! I’m a textile designer and enthusiast and good friend of Marissa’s. We trade textile fun facts, ask each other about our areas of expertise (she’s always the one I ask about my sewing machine hiccups!), and keep each other accountable with our creative endeavors. I’m so lucky to have a creativity buddy who supports me and speaks my language! As a result, I was thrilled when she asked me to write this article on fabric types for Stitch Clinic. In this article, I will be covering the most common fabric structures (knit and woven fabric) as well as briefly discussing nonwovens.

To put it simply:

● Knits are made of loops of continuous yarn
● Wovens are made of interlacements of warp and weft yarns
● Nonwovens are made of tangled or bonded fibers


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Time for some details.

KNITS

A knitted fabric is a series of interconnected loops of yarn. Knitted fabrics are naturally stretchy because of this looped structure, even if the yarn used is not stretchy on its own. Knitted fabrics can be handknitted (check out Marissa’s post about the Knit Stitch to learn how!) or knitted on a machine. Either way, they are created using tools called needles, although handknitting needles and industry knitting needles are quite different.

The loops that are the “building blocks” of knitted fabrics are called “stitches.” On a basic level, a knitted fabric can be viewed as though it is a grid made up of stitches: the horizontal rows of stitches are called rows (handknitting) or courses (industry knitting), and the vertical columns of stitches are called wales. Knits can be reversible, but they usually have a technical face and back (right and wrong sides).

Illustration showing the basic structure of knit fabric

Knitted fabrics are usually used for products that take advantage of their natural stretch. Places to find knitted fabrics include sweaters, socks, your favorite T-shirt, bathing suits, athleisure clothing, stuffed animals, office chairs, and the fabric on the ceiling of your car.

Be a fabric detective: Not sure if a fabric is a knit? These characteristics indicate that your fabric might be a knit:

● Stretches easily in one or more directions
● Looks like it is made of flat “Vs” or bumps
● Has continuous, connected loops of yarn

Examples:


WOVENS

A woven fabric is created when two sets of yarns at right angles to one another are interlaced together. Woven fabrics have natural stability due to these interlacements, and are not stretchy unless they are made with elastomeric yarns. Woven fabrics can be handwoven on table or floor looms or woven on larger industrial looms.

The “building blocks” of wovens are the interlacements I just mentioned. The vertical set of yarns is called the warp, and the horizontal set of yarns is called the weft. The warp and weft yarns go over and under one another to form the fabric. Wovens can be reversible or can have a technical face and back (right and wrong sides).

Illustration showing the warp and weft of a woven fabric

The grainline of a woven fabric follows the warp direction, meaning that it is the up-and-down direction of the fabric. Sewing patterns for clothing must be cut “on the grain” so that they hang properly and don’t end up stretching along the diagonal (the bias) and having an awkward fit.

Let’s talk about selvages. Selvages are the edges on the left and right sides of a fabric, running up the edges vertically. (They are also spelled selvedges—totally your preference.) Selvages can be as simple as the last stitch or interlacing on the edge of a fabric, or they can be a narrow strip of tightly-constructed fabric that gives the main, usable part of the fabric stability. When using a fabric, it’s a good idea to be mindful of your selvages and keep a piece that has both selvages still attached.

Having a selvage is a huge asset when doing “detective work” on a fabric, since it can help you figure out the grain of the fabric or the correct direction of a print. The width between selvages is often the limiting factor in how large a piece of fabric can be; length can be increased relatively easily, but the size of the machine that knitted or wove your fabric limits how wide the fabric can be.

Illustration showing the directionality of woven fabric

Woven fabrics are often used to make things that utilize their stability, such as jeans, button-down shirts, quilts, couches, curtains, rugs, and tarps.

Be a fabric detective: Not sure if a fabric is a woven? These characteristics indicate that your fabric might be a woven:

● Unravels easily along a cut edge
● Does not stretch easily
● Has distinguishable sets of yarns at right angles

Examples:


NONWOVENS

Nonwoven fabrics are made of individual fibers (rather than yarns) that have been tangled, felted, or bonded together. They are often less stable and pull apart more easily than wovens and knits.

Nonwovens are used in applications such as felt crafts, wet wipes, weed barrier fabrics, and other landscaping textiles.

Be a fabric detective: Not sure if a fabric is a nonwoven? These characteristics indicate that your fabric might be a nonwoven:

● Has no distinguishable right or wrong side
● Has no distinguishable direction
● Pulls apart easily

Examples:

That about sums it up! I hope that you’re even more excited about fabric and that this overview will be helpful the next time you’re buying fabric for a project or when you are doing some textile detective work. If you’d like to check out some of my design work, feel free to follow the following links. Thanks again for having me on Stitch Clinic, Marissa!

Website: juliaableson.com

Instagram: @juliacatherinecreates

Etsy: https://www.etsy.com/shop/juliaccreates

A huge thanks to Julia and her great illustrations. Now that you have learned a little more about knit, woven and nonwoven fabrics, hopefully you will be able to narrow down project fabrics more quickly. This post is full of great information and useful to get to know the terminology used in textile design and production.

To see more about finding beautiful fabrics, see this post about buying fabrics while on travel.

We can dream about traveling even though it’s not a good idea right now… can’t we?

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