USU Extension: Caring for Natural Fibers

Each fiber, whether manmade or natural has its own set of properties that have their own advantages and disadvantages. When cleaning and caring for any fiber it is important to know what those properties are. They are not all created equal.

Teresa Hunsaker shows how to make these fibers last long and well.


Markets are stocked with the latest cotton clothes. Cupboards are filled with different shades of cotton suits. It is an undeniable fact that cotton clothes seem to essential to any wardrobe. There is something in this fabric that seems to have addicted the masses. One main reason for its popularity is the cool and crisp effect it produces. Even on the hottest of days a cotton shirt and slacks help you stay cool.
Cotton is the world’s most used fiber. Cotton is also the number one fiber used for apparel in the United States. The durability and versatility of cotton make it a prime choice for many garments as well as other fabric items found in the house. Special properties and advantages of cotton are it is:

– strong

– absorbent—including perspiration—keeping you cool and comfortable

– resistant to insects

– able to withstand repeated washing at high temperatures

– inexpensive

– cool and comfortable to wear

– firm to handle

– long lasting

-easy to care for

There is one drawback, cotton wrinkles very easily. However, there are many cotton garments on the market that have been treated with wrinkle resistant finishes. These finishes reduce the need to iron cotton clothes.

Washing Instructions:

Most cotton clothes can be laundered. However, unless your cotton clothing has been pre-shrunk or pre-washed it will probably shrink. It is advisable to wash color fast ones in hot water and others in cold water. Always iron while damp, or mist with water. It is advisable to get your fancy cottons dry cleaned. Some of the colors like turquoise blue, shocking pink and black always bleed and require special precautions when washed at home. Though starch kills longevity of cotton clothes the beauty of cotton lies in crisp look!

Storage Suggestions:

Cotton is susceptible to mildew and damage from bacteria and prolonged exposure to direct sunlight causes the fabric to weaken and can cause dyes to fade prematurely. The best way to store cotton is properly folded in a clean, dry linen closet or covered basket. It isn’t necessary to store cotton in any special covering, as fresh ambient air is harmless to cotton, but it also doesn’t damage them if you prefer to store them in plastic to keep dust from settling and to prevent damage from moths. If you live in an older home, be aware that silverfish love nothing better than to feast on the high cellulose content of natural cotton, so if you suspect their presence, plastic storage bags or tubs could be a wise investment.


Wool is a wonderful fabric to keep you warm in the winter and provide a lightweight natural fabric for spring and fall. A fine, lightweight wool is also a great fabric for cool summer evenings near the ocean or lake in the mountains. Wool is an expensive fabric and you will want to wear favorite items more than one season. The natural resiliency of wool fabric will allow wrinkles to fall out and the original shape to bounce back.

Washing Instructions:

The key to keeping wool in good shape year after year is to take the items to a quality dry cleaner. The majority of our wool garments are probably “dry clean only”, as wool will shrink considerably and change properties with regular washing. A quality cleaner is one that changes the cleaning fluid frequently and steams the items without heating the item to an extreme degree. When clothing is returned from a quality cleaner it will not have any odor. Many times cleaners will delay in changing cleaning fluid and this creates a chemical smell on wool garments. It is best to avoid these establishments.
Some wool is designed to be washable. Clean wool fabric using a mild detergent in lukewarm water. Never use hot water! Do NOT use bleach. Bleach dissolves wool fabric.
Completely cover the garment in water and soak for 3 to 5 minutes. Gently squeeze to allow water to penetrate the fabric. Do NOT wring the garment. Rinse thoroughly with cool water to remove all traces of soap. Squeeze gently to remove excess water. Do NOT wring the garment.

To dry, lay the garment on a flat surface, reshaping if necessary and allow to dry away from direct sunlight and heat. Do NOT hang to dry. This will cause the wool fabric to stretch from the weight of the water that has soaked into the fibers.

Special mesh screens can be laid out so that the wool garment can be laid flat to dry, exposing both the back and front to air circulation.

For pressing wool, here are some basics: Set iron for WOOL setting. Add water to the iron. Always use steam heat when pressing. Never iron wool fabric dry. Squeeze gently to remove excess water. Do NOT wring the garment. Press garment on the inside of the garment to avoid surface shine. Use a pressing cloth when top pressing. A clean white handkerchief or cotton cloth may also be used.

When pressing napped fabrics, place a piece of the same fabric or a thick terry cloth towel on the ironing board to prevent crushing.

If napped wool fabric is slightly scorched when pressing, rub lightly with an emery board. A diluted solution of hydrogen peroxide may be used for a more severe scorch. Be sure to test on a hidden area first.
Shine created by pressing may be reduced by sponging white vinegar on surface of wool garment. Rinse thoroughly.

Storage Suggestions:

Wool experiences the most damage from pests during the spring and summer months. Larva or insects damage wool when exposed to air. Bag wool sweaters in light, cloth storage bags. Cedar chests are an excellent place to store wool clothing. If you do not have space for a cedar chest, consider a cedar-sided clothing bag for the closet, or fold wool clothing and place a mesh bag of cedar chips in the closed container. Some hangers are designed for wool storage with a padded section filled with cedar chips.

Never place wool clothing in a damp place without ventilation when putting clothing away for the summer. This is the perfect climate for mildew and insect damage.
Some people place mothballs in storage with wool garments.

If you add this insect product, make sure it does not directly touch the wool clothing or it could cause discoloring and weaken the fibers.

It is a good idea to air items before they are put into storage for the summer. Placing the items in sunlight will quickly destroy any odors or insect larva. It is also important to air wool clothing when it taken from storage.

This suggestion is true whether the garments were stored in mothballs or simply put into an airtight storage place.


Silk is a durable and beautiful fabric, yet some people shy away from purchasing silk clothing because they assume that the fabric is too difficult to care for. When it comes to caring for and washing silk clothing, nothing could be further from the truth.

While silk clothes need more attention than most of the items in your closet, taking proper care of them begins before you even put them on. Sunlight can weaken silk, and so can perspiration and even the chemicals in some detergents. If you use hair products such as hairspray, cover your silk clothing with a towel or other linen when you are applying it. Hairspray can cause spots on silk clothing.

Washing Instructions:

It used to be that the only option for cleaning silk was to dry clean, now, with new technologies and dyes for silk clothing it is possible to find some that are hand washable and even machine washable—read the label for each piece. If it is able to be hand washed use cool water and a mild detergent—something like Woollite or even baby shampoo.

Any machine washable silks are washed at a warm temperature, n a delicate setting with mild detergents that you can find at any store. Be aware, though, that when dry cleaning silk clothes, too many trips to the cleaners can cause a dingy look and colors to fade. Dry cleaning should be used sparingly.

When it comes to drying, don’t be tempted to throw your silk clothes in the dryer with the rest of your delicates. The heat from your dryer will actually break down the fibers in silk. It is always best to lay your silks flat to dry or to damp dry on a padded hanger to avoid lines and wrinkles. Even after your silk clothes are completely dry from washing, hanging them is best. If you do encounter lines or wrinkles in silk clothes, you can iron them, but silk is not always easy to iron. A dry setting without the mist option on the iron should be used. Accidentally misting silk clothes with water while you iron will create noticeable water spots.
Never, ever use chlorine bleach on silk. It will cause the fabric to yellow and the fibers to breakdown more quickly.

Storage Suggestions:

Moths will attack and eat silk the same as they do for wool so you must always protect your silk garments when you plan to store them for periods of time. Use cedar blocks to repel moths and other insects during storage. Do not store silk clothing in plastic, as the plastic can trap moisture and lead to yellowing and mildew in the natural fibers. Furthermore, store silks away from light, especially direct sunlight, to prevent fading of colors and breakdown of the fibers. The best choice for storing silk in inside a cotton pillowcase with a couple of cedar blocks in a dark closet. Be sure the garments have been cleaned before storing to prevent the damage caused by body soils left on the garments over a long storage period.


Linen is a textile made from the fibers of the flax plant, Linum usitatissimum. Linen is labor intensive to manufacture, but when it is made into garments, it is valued for its exceptional coolness and freshness in hot weather. It is even superior to cotton in this regard. Linen is the strongest natural fiber known to man, and of all textile fibers is the one which washes best. Linen often becomes a family heirloom as it wears extremely well and is able to maintain its special qualities throughout its long life. The more linen is washed the softer and more luminous it becomes.

Mildew, perspiration, and bleach can also damage the fabric, but it is resistant to moths and carpet beetles. Linen is relatively easy to take care of, since it resists dirt and stains, has no lint or pilling tendency, and can be dry cleaned, machine washed or steamed. It can withstand high temperatures, and has only moderate initial shrinkage

Provided a few simple rules are followed, linen will remain in pristine condition for years, through normal use. Linen has poor elasticity and does not spring back readily, explaining why it wrinkles so easily–one of the drawbacks to linen.

Washing Instructions:

Many people prefer to launder linen—rather than dry clean, especially table linens, handkerchiefs and bed linen, because the more linen is washed, the softer and more luminous it becomes. Its luminous quality is caused by nodes on the flax fibers, which reflect light. These same people often choose to wash linen articles because they know linen, as a natural fiber, launders beautifully.
Shirts and other garments worn close to the body are easily washed. Freshly washed linen has a naturally clean fragrance. In the case of hand or machine washing use a sufficient amount of water since linen is very absorbent.

Use pure soap—if using soft water, or gentle detergent when laundering linens in hard water. An oxygen bleach can be used with white linens—to keep white and bright. Water temperature can be warm or hot, depending on the care instructions. Whether hand or machine washing, be sure to rinse the linen item completely in lots of water to remove all soap, detergent and residual soil.

A variety of drying methods is recommended for linen: line drying, machine drying or rolling in terry towels, or lay them flat, and never wring out linen—it holds wrinkles terribly. Whatever method you use, remember to remove the linen from the line, the dryer or the towels while it is still damp. If linen dries thoroughly, it becomes brittle and takes several hours to recover its natural moisture and full flexibility. (The natural moisture content of linen is between 6-8%. Linen dried beyond this point will re-absorb moisture from the air.) Never tumble dry linen as this can over dry the fibers and make ironing much more difficult.

Storage Suggestions:

As with all natural fibers ,always launder or dry clean before storing. Soiled linen encourages mildew. Ventilation, light and lack of available food discourage mildew growth. If mildew does attack your linens, brush the mold off outdoors to avoid scattering spores in your house. Then soak the linen item in a solution of oxygen bleach and water before laundering. If possible, dry in the sun.

Be sure to rinse thoroughly all soap and detergent from linen items to avoid formation of “age spots,” caused by the oxidation of cellulose, linen’s primary component. Store in a cool, dry, well-ventilated area.
Use pure linen, cotton or muslin, not synthetics or plastic, as covers or garment bags. Use acid-free tissue paper, not regular tissue paper. The acids in regular tissue paper can yellow linen.

Do not store linens in plastic bags, cedar chests and cardboard boxes. Fumes from petroleum-based polyurethane can rot and streak the fabric. Cedar fumes and the acids in unvarnished wood yellow linen, as does the acid in cardboard. When storing for a long time, refold the linen occasionally, as fibers tend to break when folded, because linen fibers have a very low elasticity, the fabric will eventually break if it is folded and ironed at the same place repeatedly.

For more information, check out the USU Extension website at www.extension.usu.utah or call (801) 399-8203

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