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Visual & Tactile Qualities of Fabric

Updated: Jun 22, 2023

NCFE Level 2 Certificate in Creative Craft (601/3232/2) Textiles (TEX)

As a child, Nina grew up observing her mom sewing fabulous stuff on her sewing machine. Nina’s mom was a talented seamstress who was passionate about sewing. She had an amazing collection of sewing machine presser feet and other sewing equipment. Whenever mom started a new sewing project, Nina would shadow her right from the stage of concept to finishing.

Her favourite part was fabric selection and sourcing, when Nina and her mom would go shopping together, looking for a suitable fabric for the next sewing project. Back in those days market was not a chain of mannequin lined showcases, displaying ready-to-wear. Rather, markets had fabric stores where hundreds of rolls and bundles of open-width fabric lay stacked next to each other. The fabric stores always felt something like a house of puzzles where the task was to find your perfect piece of treasure. It would start with Nina’s mom explaining the intended end-product to the shopkeeper and he/she would nudge you towards the most suitable selection of fabrics.

Next, the vetting process started where Nina’s mom would look and feel every fabric and reject them or shortlist them for consideration. Nina was often impressed by a certain colour and print, but her selection would be rejected by her mom as she got the look and feel. Howsoever hard she tried, Nina could not make out a pattern about her mother’s selection. A fabric she strongly rejected for one sewing project would be her favourite for some other project!

There were instances in these fabric selection trips that are still engraved in Nina’s memory. Once, she wanted a new skirt to wear in school and they went to their favourite fabric store for sourcing the fabric. They required a navy-blue plain fabric for a box-pleated school skirt. The moment Nina entered the shop, her eyes were fixed on a shiny navy-blue roll of silk fabric that was just the right colour. However, one look at the roll and her mom rejected the option. Not suitable for school uniform….maybe! Next, they were given an option of a medium weight cambric, again of just the right colour. Nina’s mom was so infuriated by the store help’s suggestion that she almost suggested her to get some extra training. This time, Nina’s mom marched to the corner of the store where fabric for men’s wear was stored. There she could find the perfect fabric for a box-pleat skirt, with the right texture and weight.

Few weeks later, Nina and her mom were back in the store. This time they were looking for some fabrics for ethnic wear for a family wedding. Nina planned to wear an ethnic long skirt (Lehanga) with bodice and scarf. The skirt was to be gathered at waist and decorated with an embroidered lace border at the hem. This time, mom was happy to pick the shiny blue silk fabric (the one she had strongly rejected last time) which she coordinated with some printed fabric for bodice and light weight lace scarf.

On her way back home, Nina asked her mom why she happily selected the fabric she had vehemently rejected last time. Touch, feel and fall Nina….mom replied! ‘Always remember, there are never bad designs or bad fabrics….what spoils a sewing project is inappropriate selection of fabric’. The formal school skirt required a heavy weight fabric, which would be able to do justice to broad box pleats and stand creaseless through the day, without help of a border at lower hem to provide weight. On the other hand, the ethnic long skirt demanded a shiny fabric (suited to the occasion), that was thin enough to take gathers at waist and still not balloon out. We can still make it fall gracefully lengthwise by adding a decorative border at hem that will further beautify the skirt and also add weight to the hem, helping the light weight fabric fall straight.

Oh…thought Nina, so that is what mom is silently evaluating when she is rubbing every fabric between her fingers at the store! The look, touch and feel of the fabric makes her decide it’s suitability for sewing projects!

What are the Visual and Tactile Qualities of a fabric?

What is look & Feel of a Fabric?

Why is look and feel of a fabric important?

While there is enough academic literature available about the functional and decorative characteristics of textiles, for generations creative fraternity has been weighing the suitability of fabrics for their projects on the basis of their visual and tactile characteristics. Visual and tactile qualities go a long way in deciding the aesthetic as well as the functional details of the end-product. Sewing decisions like selection of design, right kind of seam, right kind of presser foot , selection of lining fabric etc. would depend on the visual and tactile qualities of fabrics in many projects.

The terms ‘visual’ & ‘tactile’ can be loosely translated into ‘look’ & ‘feel’ of the fabric!

What are Visual Qualities of a fabric?

The visual characteristics include colour, lustre/shine & surface design. Fall/Drapeability can also be defined as a visual quality of the fabric in a certain way.

Of the 4 visual qualities, colour is easier to explain however difficult to understand! (Nina’s mom would often request the shopkeeper to take the shortlisted rolls of fabric outside in natural light for her final selection. The wise seamstress was mindful of the fact that same colour appears differently in different artificial light sources and natural light was the most widely acceptable standard).

Lustre can be defined as the sheen or glow on the fabric. Fabrics like silk and satin are more lustrous than cotton and wool. Fabrics with high lustre are generally preferred for embellished wear like for parties and performances. Fabrics with low lustre are worn for more sombre occasions like work and casuals.

Surface design of fabrics is an all-inclusive category which can be explained in different ways. While fabric surface could be plain, printed or shaded. It could also be covered with visible texture like pile in towels and ribs in corduroy (true these are ‘touch’ features, but they also convey certain visual cues). Additionally, there could be fabrics like velvet which provide the impression of softness, depth and sheen simultaneously. It is interesting to note here that ‘texture’ can find place in both visual and tactile qualities. This is due to the reason that with modern technology, fabric textures & prints are capable of producing texture perception (example 3D prints), which do not actually exist. However, this texture perception can go a long way in deciding the aesthetics of the finished product.

Fall or drapeability of the fabric is another characteristic that can be categorised under visual as well as functional characteristics. If fall or drapeability was not an important visual characteristic, creative enthusiasts would have been free to choose between an organdie or fish-net fabric for a particular outcome. The fact that one cannot be substituted for the other proves that there is also a visual element to fall/drape in addition to functional aspects.

What are Tactile qualities of a fabric?

Tactile qualities of fabric can be described as all the qualities that respond to touch in a distinct way. A pile in towel fabric can be pressed down with gentle pressure. A 3-D texture pattern can be felt by the skin. Velvet & corduroy reflects light differently when the pile is brushed in opposite direction. An experienced person can differentiate between the touch of a satin and silk, though both would be slippery to touch. Weaves with extra yarn in the warp / weft or both create fabrics with premium textures that add to both visual and tactile appeal.

The relevance of tactile qualities of fabric are not just limited to aesthetic appeal. Tactile qualities have a role to play in deciding the functionality of a fabric. Towels are always made of pile fabrics because the extra yarn loops in the pile provide softness and extra surface area of thread that can quickly absorb moisture. This is typically why a towel fabric dries wet skin quicker than the plain fabric.

Nina’s mom is not trained to be a textile scientist or academician! She is a talented, intelligent woman, trained in the laboratory of life and her wisdom has been continuously sharpened by experience and practice. She understands that by evaluating the individual visual and tactile qualities of fabric, she can select the right material that could help her design and develop a perfect piece of textile craft.

‘Look and feel’ as they said in those days….

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Jun 22, 2023
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Nostalgia and much needed information, all in a package.

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