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ELI5: Why do some fabrics get softer when they're washed a lot, while others get rougher?

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2.4k points · 6 months ago · edited 6 months ago

It depends on the textile. With wearing and use, some materials relax and become softer and looser because the thread is bent, pulled, and twisted through mechanical motion, much the way that crumpling a sheet of notebook paper over and over makes it very soft. Wearing the clothes often contributes more to this than the washing by itself.

However other materials may contain oils, waxes, and other materials naturally present in the fiber such as lanolin. Washing, and especially bleaching, removes these soft, greasy, fatty substances which can make the fibers dry, scratchy, or cause them to begin to fray or lose their water proofness. The primary purpose of fabric softeners, is to help replenish these substances, but it's always a downhill battle short of soaking the clothing in lard or oil.

Lastly, some synthetic cloth can become brittle with use, similar to the way that bending a plastic spoon back and forth in the same spot will cause it to snap. The fabric begins to get creases and folds in it that don't come out with ironing. They don't exactly get scratchy, but they become stiff like folded paper, and don't bend and take the shape of the body as well.

As fibers wear and break and tear, it has an effect of reducing thread count. Thread count is the number one thing for comfort up close to the skin, with higher thread count cloth feeling softer and silky versus lower but thicker thread count like a knitted sweater which can feel rough.

1.3k points · 6 months agoGilded1

Professional costumer and textiles worker here. This is a fairly thorough and accurate explanation. I would also add that the motion that fabrics experience in the process of machine washing and drying also stretches, pulls, and contracts the fibers, and The tensile strength of the fiber as well as its flexibility determines how it reacts to those processes as well. The other factor in how a garment reacts to washing is what it’s made of and how it’s produced.

TL/DR: RTFM. If your clothes say machine wash, dry flat on the tag, follow those directions if you like your clothes.

In-depth explanation:

Natural fibers like cotton, linen, and silk tend to be more resilient. This is partly because they have already evolved to survive the elements like heat, cold, and water, and partly because they are fibrous in their natural state.

Synthetic fibers, like nylon, rayon, and spandex tend to have more give because of the elasticity of their chemical makeup, however as they are manufactured from plastic, their natural state is one of a solid or liquid, and heat tends to break down the artificial bonds which have made them into a fiber. That’s why your rayon or spandex garments will often recommend an air dry or low heat.

The method of production also has an effect on a garment’s resilience.

Woven fabric, which is made on a loom in the way we tend to think of fabric being made (right? I’m not the only one who thinks about this stuff? I am? Okay, moving on), tends to be much stronger, and have a lot less give. It is many fibers laid flat and woven across each other to produce a number of different patterns and textures, and tends to be very strong and not very flexible. Your dress shirts, suits, formal dresses, and curtains are all (probably) woven. This means it has very little give in the fit, and if the fibers move too much, they tend to break rather than stretch. This is why these garments often say Dry Clean Only, because the act of subjecting the fibers to the motion of the washing machine will eventually destroy the garment.

Knit fabric, which is manufactured in a number of ways, from complicated knitting machines all the way down to grandmas with needles, takes a single, impossibly long fiber and wraps it in and around itself to create a much more flexible texture. Most modern casual clothing, from your sweaters and leggings, all the way down to your t-shirts and sweatpants, is produced in this way, making it stretchy and comfortable. The directions on these garments have a wide range, but most are machine washable, with instructions on temperature and drying method being variable.

This is where the material comes in. The more synthetic fiber in your garment’s content, the lower its tolerance for heat will be.

The exception to this rule is garments made from yarn, like sweaters, hats, and scarves. Yarn is many fibers spun together to make one thick fiber that is used to make the garment. Now matter how natural the wool used to make the yarn, it still won’t tolerate heat and twisting well. Think of a fiber optics cable, where the individual filaments are soft and flexible, but you really don’t want to twist and bend the cable too much or you’ll damage its fidelity.

If you’re still with me, thanks for reading. This is one of my areas of expertise and I’m glad someone on the Internet needed it today.

Thanks for taking the time to type such a detailed explanation. I'm very particular about taking care of my clothes because if you do, they will last so much longer. If you buy quality fabrics with classic cuts and styles, pay attention to washing instructions and flat dry or hang dry, most garments will last years before becoming faded and/or misshapen.

Now I know more about the how and why. Thanks!

Honestly I pretty much air dry anything I care about/like. Best case scenario putting it in the drier still wears it out faster than hanging it up. Of course some really hefty items will mildew if you don't dry them out fast enough. There's probably other exceptions too but I haven't found them yet.

This is absolutely true, putting fabric in the dryer does put stress on the fibers no matter what they’re made of. Even hefty items survive better if you use medium or low heat and a dampness sensor instead of a timer. Air drying is always going to be the best for pretty much anything, if you have the space for it. Just don’t hang your clothes outside if it’s below freezing!

Comment deleted6 months ago(7 children)

Cotton and linen both dry stiffer being hung to dry because they are plant based, and the process of turning the fibers in cloth removes most of the natural oils from the fiber. Wool and silk are both made from animal proteins, so their chemical makeup retains moisture better.

In functional application, I just put cotton and linen in the dryer because it’s not going to hurt them much and I don’t have the space for a laundry line. If you want to air dry these fibers, you can soften them up again by either beating them with a broom handle on the line or crinkling them in your hands before wearing or storing them.

Or you can steam them, maybe with a stranger or a steam iron or hanging up in the bathroom while you take a shower!

The shower trick is my favorite for wrinkled skirts!

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Because it would in the machine as well, assuming you weren't constantly moving it and bending it with the machine drum.

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But who needs starch when you can just freeze your clothes?

I have to choose between maybe wearing them out in the dryer vs maybe they get moldy air drying. I go with the dryer.

If they get moldy when air drying your washer is not spinning them enough, or you live in the rainforest.

I basically live in a temperate rainforest. Most days are cold, high humidity, with lots of fog and rain. Dehumidifiers help, but I don't have one right now so clothes dryer it is!

Heck, even cheap stuff lasts a lot longer if you wash it gently (by hand, or in a lingerie bag in the washing machine on gentle cycle) and air dry it. I hang most of my stuff because I live in a smallish apartment, but drying flat is ideal because stuff is heavier when it's wet so the bottom of the garment pulls on the top if it's hanging.

Source: worked at a fast fashion store for 5 years (most of those as a manager) and left 5 years ago, and I still have some of the clothes I bought with my discount.

However, rayon is a BIG exception to this. Old Navy's favorite fabric seems to be rayon, for an example. I saw so many rayon items get returned at my store (not O.N.) because they shrunk even after following the washing instructions, and I had it happen to me a couple times. So now I don't buy rayon clothes unless I find something I like marked WAY down and I'm okay with only getting to wear it once before it goes to Goodwill.

Rayon is the costumer’s bane. It never stops stretching because the process used to turn the wood pulp into fibers breaks down the bonds between the molecules. Never store rayon hanging, it’s best folded. Or, you know, on the floor.

Have you ever noticed that air dryed clothing feels stiff compared to machine drying? The minerals in the water get left behind when it evaporates, and in hung clothing, it's undisturbed and hardens, making them stiff, just like if you let muddy clothing dry.

But machine drying tumbles the clothes, continuously flaking the minerals off where it, and hair, and bits of fiber, form the lint in the trap.

I have noticed that but I never knew why it happens, so TIL! Thanks :)

3 points · 6 months ago

Our resident specialist /u/seebeedubs had a different explanation:

Cotton and linen both dry stiffer being hung to dry because they are plant based, and the process of turning the fibers in cloth removes most of the natural oils from the fiber. Wool and silk are both made from animal proteins, so their chemical makeup retains moisture better.

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I learned more than I expected. And now want to read about this more.

Oh fuck. I learned. Dammit.

That is how curiosity works ;)

81 points · 6 months ago · edited 6 months ago

Back in middle school I had to do a research paper on dyes. This was before the ubiquitous internet access. (There was internet already but you’re limited to 30min at the library, school and public.) I picked up encyclopedia and books on dyes - which of course also talked a lot about fabrics since they work together.

I was in 6th/7th grade and had only come to the States when I was halfway through 3rd grade. My English was decent by then but definitely not good enough to understand all the textural lingo. So in doing my research I also had to have a dictionary nearby as well.

Fabrics and dyes and how they react to and with each other is fascinating! I was blown away by the basic fact that fabrics are dyed with every color except the one we see! All the other colors are absorbed and the one that bounces back is the visible color. And how we are able to achieve white and black is also amazing!

I tried to share my newfound knowledge and fascination with my friends and classmates but they all just laughed at me and it only further confirmed my nerd status. I didn’t care because I was still amazed that schools would let me read their precious books that contain so much knowledge! FOR FREE!

I have forgotten much of it by now - but that sense of wonder when I put on an article of clothing and feel its softness or roughness against my skin is still there. Even more fascinating when I have two of the same top/pants but in different colors and one would feel softer than the other.

Btw, I grew up with wooden weaving looms in my house and so did my entire neighborhood in Saigon - I’m always amazed at how fabrics are made! So you’re not the only one that thinks about fabrics on weaving looms!

I miss the rhythmic sounds of weaving looms that soundtracked my childhood. It was a constant that was loud and soothing all at once.

Thank you for that bit of nostalgia!

Edit: word

This put such a smile on my face. Thanks for sharing, from one nerdy kid to another :)

6 points · 6 months ago · edited 6 months ago

Aww thank you! I’m certain nerds are kindred spirits - no matter age, gender, distance, or socioeconomic status!

Edit: word Mobile is hard to catch all the autocorrect

thank you, this was a gift to read

2 points · 6 months ago

Thank you!

6:30 Sunday morning, and I'm laying here learning about textiles.

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Rayon and nylon are super popular for women’s clothes right now but I avoid those fabrics like the plague. They don’t age well even when following washing instructions.

Hand wash in the sink is about the only way to make them last.

2 points · 6 months ago

My wife likes synthetic clothing because she likes soft things... trouble is, things that start out feeling stiff become softer, while the opposite is true of plush pillows and fleece sweaters. I'm trying to find more cotton things for her, but man, everything is polyester and acrylic.

Rayon is actually made from woodpulp. So it's cellulose, like cotton, although it has a very different feel.

You are correct, although it’s still a manmade fiber, so it behaves more like synthetic than natural fiber. My brain lumps it in that category because the care is the same for as for synthetics. And much like knits and nylon, it stretches until it falls apart, because the molecules have been chemically separated and then reattached.

Rayon is pulped and extruded, if Im remembering correctly. Cotton and linen are just the fibers of the plant combed and spun

I ruined a few wool sweaters using euro style washers thinking it wouldn't be a problem since I was using cold water.. wrong! Those things spin like crazy if you don't choose some other setting

The best way to wash wool sweaters is in the sink with Downey, then roll them in a towel to squeeze the water out and lay them flat on another towel.

I have a few t-shirts from the same manufacturer that say they are 100% cotton. They only differ in colour but the softness is dramatically different. Is there something about different dyes that can make my black T-shirt super soft but the red and blue ones more rough/stiff?

The dying of the fabric will typically not affect the feel in anyway unless it is made incorrectly, and with mass producing being so common, that is very unlikely.

However, clothing manufacturers do not typically create the fabric that they create garments from. They will purchase the fabric from a Weaver, knitter, or other textile manufacture. Sometimes they will buy fabric from new producer, sometimes the producer will have an off day, or sometimes they will change where they purchase the cotton from without letting the clothing manufacturer know. Even something as simple as a dry year where the cotton grows can affect the final feel of the fabric.

Thanks for the information.

Not pertinent to this thread, but I’m telling you this because it’s tangentially related to your purview: I got fancy and splurged on linen sheets in 2016. I love them so much.

Original Poster3 points · 6 months ago

Thank you! This is actually really interesting!

I suddenly understand why I have clothes from 10 years ago that still look pretty good, whereas I know people who have to buy new pants every other year...

There are dozens of us! Well done fellow clothing smith.

Thank you!

You win, have reddit aluminum.

Fascinating. I thought "dry clean only" was primarily indicated by dye/colorfastness of the garment in water.

That can have some part of why it’s labeled, but it’s typically for the health of the garment, not the rest of your laundry. Although do pay attention to colorfast warnings. I learned that the hard way.

Most adults who ever washed their own clothes have one of those stories :) Unless yours was a professional lesson?

Kind of. I washed a costume piece that I had washed several times on a hotter setting than usual and it overdyed some white shirts blue. Fortunately it was my personal costume and I had additional shirts I could wear.

This is great! Never really put a whole lot of effort into learning about textiles.

I know so much more now. Thanks.

I work as a production manager in the fashion industry (for 10 years) and thought I knew all there was about fabric but you taught me a few new things! Thank you :]

That was fascinating. Can you explain to me how woven babywraps work? Cause I swear they're magic. I know the ones I use are labeled as either cotton, tencel, eco2 or wool, but I don't understand how they're strong enough to carry around my toddlers on my back and just softer and softer with use. Is it because they're all natural fibers woven on a look? Except I'm not sure what eco2 is, but I can tell you it has a lot of texture!

Eco2 is a branded name of environmentally friendly fabric, usually cotton but could also be synthetic. Growing cotton can leave a big carbon footprint if it’s grown out of its natural climate, so Eco2 probably means cotton from the Southeastern US.

The weave of your wraps is probably looser, meaning that when they were made, the Weaver didn’t pull the threads as tight as usual, giving the fabric more give.

If your fabric goods get softer each time you wash them, it does mean that they are shedding fibers, so just be sure to check for wear spots, especially on support garments like a baby wrap.

Wow - thank you! Can you also explain how wrinkle resistent shirts that can be machine washed are different?

The fabric in these garments is treated with a chemical (a pretty nasty one, frankly) that essentially freezes the fibers into the shape they’re in once the garment is created and heated. This is also what the “permanent press” settings on your washer and dryer refer to. They use slightly lower heat so as not to initiate a new chemical reaction when the garment is not in the right shape.

The fabric of these garments is treated with a chemical that, when heated, starts a chemical reaction with the molecules in the fibers that freezes the fibers in place. This is also what the “permanent press” setting on your washer and dryer refers to. It uses a lower heat so as not to cause a new chemical reaction when the garment is in the wrong shape.

2 points · 6 months ago

This was awesome. I feel educated enough about why certain clothes have certain instructions and could figure it out just from knowing how it's made, without even paying too much attention to the label.

Once you understand the Why, the application becomes easier. I still check the labels in case I’m wrong about the fiber content, but if you follow the general rules you’re usually okay. And that’s on costumes. If they’re my clothes and I ruin them, that’s less of a headache.

2 points · 6 months ago

Are plastic fibers not already solid?

Yes, but they’re typically melted first in order to be spun, so the bonds between the molecules are weakened, having already changed state in order to become fibrous. If you google macro images of fabric molecules you’ll see what I mean. Natural fiber’s molecules lay in tough lines while synthetic fiber’s molecules are still mainly crystalline.

1 point · 6 months ago

Thank you.

1 point · 6 months ago

Can you please help me figure out how to revive my minkie and fleece? My daughter's favorite blanket is so damn stiff from having to be washed every week for 2 years. We've tried fabric softeners and vinegar so far with no luck.

Fabric softeners especially the softener sheets can put a waxy film on clothing and especially the clothes dryer screen. BTW, you should always check your dryer screens at least once every 6 months to see if water will go through them and they don't have a waxy build up. It will save on drying costs, as a clogged screen will take longer to dry your clothes. A wipe down with soap and water will usually clean up the screen.
If you have hard water, the soap and mineral build up could also stiffen the fabric. This is what I would try, use the hottest water that you can for the fabric, put Oxyclean in your washer and your blanket, agitate for about 30 seconds or so, just until everything is mixed up and the blanket is fully wet. Let sit in the washer for at least 30 minutes and then complete the load, until the rinse. If you can find Calgon use that in your rinse water, if not, use 1/2 cup vinegar. Your second rinse in your machine should look almost clear, if not repeat the process. Oh, and if you have hard water, liquid detergent is better to use than powder, they have a surfactant that is resistant to water hardness.
All in all, dryer balls are better than fabric softeners.

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Can you post a picture of the blanket and any tags attached to it?

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What is meant by dry flat? on a table?

What it means is that the garment should not be hung to dry because the fibers will stretch too much and the fabric will loose some of its elasticity. The easiest way to dry flat is either on the carpet of an unused room or on a towel on the floor. But make sure to get all the folds out of the garment by smoothing it with your hand.

Are jeans from woven or knitted fabric?

Jeans, as in straight up Levi’s, are woven from cotton fabric in a weave called Twill, which has an interesting historical backstory I won’t get into unless someone asks.

Stretchy jeans are typically also woven, but have a bit of spandex content to give them stretch and, well, give.

Jeggings are typically knit and printed to look like denim, but don’t have much in common with true Jeans.

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As a follow up, does dye color affect this at all?

I have three pairs of cotton cargo pants that I relax in around the house. They're all the same make, but the lighter tan pair got soft and comfortable really quickly, followed by the dark gray pair, and the black pair still feel tight, especially after washing. Is this an effect of the dye, or have I simply been avoiding wearing in the darker pair because they're less comfortable?

It depends on they dying process, although typically the darker the color of the garment, the more times it has to be dyed to achieve colorfastness. That’s not typically something you’d notice once it’s washed, though. It’s more likely that the fabric they used to stand up to the multiple dips in dye was either made from thicker fibers or more tightly woven, giving it a stiffer feel and not allowing the fibers to stretch with wearing.

Cool. So not the dye itself, but possibly related to it. Thanks for the info.

Great reply, cheers for the explanation!

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38 points · 6 months ago

There is also starching. Which can make fabric artificially stiff and eventually exacerbates the fiber breakdown.

I worked in a dry cleaner for many years.

What's the deal with elastic getting crunchy and then never working again?

26 points · 6 months ago

The rubber in the elastic gets old and stiff then breaks. Same thing as a dried out rubber band.

No hot tumble drying, ahg, dont put in dryer at all. Cold wash for anything elastic, lycra, spandex, elastic waust babds etc.

The polymer that makes up the elastic can break down over time - especially when exposed to UV.

So after a specific shirt gets stiff like paper even with softeners, there’s nothing I can do to it?

18 points · 6 months ago

Soak it in lard and get back to me lol

do you have hard water? you could try hand washing it with some filtered or distilled water so mineral deposits don't build up.

Use vinegar to help strip the mineral deposits as well

i was thinking the internet would say to use vinegar. everyone says the smell doesn't stay, it'll wash out or evaporate. fuck that. my vinegar clothes smelled like vinegar for at least several washes. several! i even had to use scented soap! i hate scents! ugh.

That sounds like your washing machine has a poor rinse cycle, or you are adding WAY too much vinegar. I just know that acetic acid should help soften the water by converting the harder minerals to more Water soluble salts that should be stripped by the rinsing process

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line dry it outside in the wind. one of the best fabric softeners possible is the constant movement while drying.

Sometimes stiffness is caused by residue buildup, try a pre-wash soak with a cup of vinegar, that might help loosen it up.

I have only one shirt like this. The washing process is the same used on others. I’ll check what material it is.

Thread count actually refers to the weave structure and doesn't always indicate softness, nor does it change after production or wear and tear. The warp sett of a weave is referred to as the "epi" (or "ends per inch") meaning there are so many threads in an inch of the material. (The warp is the portion that is stretched into a loom, where the weft is what is woven back and forth through it). So a material with an 80 thread count has 80 warp threads per inch. You could be using the same cotton thread at one thread count, that could feel totally different than another thread count. The higher the thread count, the denser the weave - the lower the count, the looser the weave (which says more to how it will stand up to time as opposed to how to feels). Then there's the territory of weft sett depending on the pattern and/or finished material. Things like tapestries/some rugs have a very high weft count and low warp sett, where most(not all) cloth/fabric for garment construction is a balanced weave (equal part/sett warp and weft) or done in a specific pattern weave (denim/canvas = twill, houndstooth, waffle etc).

My response to OP's question however is that there are manyyyyy many factors at play. Material, structure, detergents, softeners, water temperature, water hardness, drying temperature, and many more all have an effect on the life of a fabric. When a fabric is first washed after construction, it's referred to as blocking - the threads/material settle into their "resting place" so to speak. Though continued washing has different effects on different materials and varies greatly on a number of factors.

Lanolin? Like sheeps’ wool?

However other materials may contain oils, waxes, and other materials naturally present in the fiber such as lanolin.

yeah. Lanolin is one of the oils that is present in the fibre, sheeps' wool. I think you may have read it as "oils... naturally present in the fibre, lanolin."

relevant story - my aunt who owns a sheep property washes the clothes worn by the shearers in flat coca cola. The acid in the coke is the only thing that will get the lanolin out of the clothes properly.

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It depends on the textile. With wearing and use, some materials relax and become softer and looser because the thread is bent, pulled, and twisted through mechanical motion, much the way that crumpling a sheet of notebook paper over and over makes it very soft. Wearing the clothes often contributes more to this than the washing by itself.

I'm curious, which fabrics are like that? I have a weird oversensitivity to fabrics, so it would be useful to know if I can expect one to get better for my skin with time.

Supposedly bamboo fabric gets softer with each wash! I just bought some bamboo sheets from Cariloha, so I’m currently testing it out. They have clothes as well.

Most "bamboo fabric" is just falsely labeled rayon that uses bamboo as the cellulose feedstock.

But it looks like genuine bamboo fiber would get softer.

Oh wow. Nice to know!

Linen is one of these, but I think in your case you might find it too stiff unless you acquire it secondhand.

Same here. My wife has finally given up on clothes shopping for me due to my sensitivity. Very rarely do I find a shirt or dress pant I consider comfortable and soft. Most of the time I feel like I'm wearing sandpaper. The goal when clothes shopping is to find what can be best explained as "1000 grit cloth" instead of the usual "80 grit" I find in most stores...

lol i was in my "clothes brain" and not my "hardware brain" when first reading your comment. first thought was 1000 thread sheets then realised we were talking sandpaper.

LL Bean Pima cotton is soooo soft. It starts soft and stays soft until you are done with it basically.

What I'd like to know, too!

I had a pair of lacross shorts that were 100% poly. They started out rough as F. but for the last 10 years they were soft as silk. I actually slept in them.

You mean uphill battle but yup you covered it

Original Poster3 points · 6 months ago

Thanks for the very in depth answer, makes a lot of sense!

Does this have anything to do with MFG's of high quality jeans telling you to never wash the jeans?

I've heard that fabric softeners damage clothes. Is that true?

They can, long term. What they essentially do is encourage the fibers to release and that breaks them down over time. If it’s something you want to keep long term, like a quilt or a keepsake, you should probably skip the fabric softeners and let time do the work for you. It’s good to weigh the benefits of softer clothing against how long you want to keep it when deciding on whether to use fabric softener. Dryer sheets are typically better for the fabric long-term and less caustic.

I would like to add one more (minor) factor that can cause clothing to lose some softness: my parents always had very hard water and my mother hated detergents that were very potent or strong. All of the mineral buildup over time and the lack of a detergent strong enough to pull it from the fibers can make clothes a little stiff, rough, and discolored (a sort of white tint) so if you know you have hard water, consider the ways you wash your clothes. It may improve their longevity and comfort.

Your explanation covers pretty much the primary reasons and is very well written. Thanks. :)

Adding vinegar to the wash REALLY helps with hard water.

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It's funny, but hard water on clothing makes dust worse. :) the minerals flake off as the fabric moves, creating mineral dust.

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What branch of science deals with this kind of knowledge? Materials science? Or chemical engineering for the detergents?

Materials science.

My people ! We are the unicorns of engineering at my school.

I know this is kind of absurd but I'm gonna ask anyway: is there a softness scale or something for materials?? Like, cashmere has a level 8.5 out of max softness score of 10, or something.

I feel like having an objective number would change my online shopping habits massively.

There is a hardness scale not sure if there is a specific one for softness or just the inverse of hardness.

Instead of Mohs we use... Wohs?

Wumbo scale

How about Ahhs?

C'mon engineers - whatever you call it, just make it happen!

Well the reciprocal of ohms (electrical resistance) used to be called mhos so its possible ?

They eventually gave the unit for conductance (the opposite of resistance) the name "Siemens" but with all due respect to Mr Siemens I thought Mho's was a much cooler name.

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Wow I had no idea that the leap of absolute hardness from 9 to 10 on the scale was so large. 400 with Corundum to 1500 for Diamond!!

17 points · 6 months ago · edited 6 months ago

Its a logarithmic scale like decibels and wotnot

Non-scientific folks struggle to understand that 80dB is not "twice as loud" as 40dB

Care to explain the decibel thing to an imbecile like me?

4 points · 6 months ago · edited 6 months ago

logarithmic scales are based on multiplication whereas linear scales (the ones everyone is more familiar with) are based on addition

In a linear scale 10 + 10 =20 (i.e. 20 is twice as much as 10)

In a logarithmic scale 10 + 10 = "just over" 13 (13.0103)

10 x 10 (10 squared) is 20

10 x 10 x 10 (10 cubed) is 30

and so on..............

It may seem weird (it is a bit) but its used widely in science and mathematics for things such as:

Measuring sound and some types of electrical signals (bels and decibels)

Measuring earthquakes (richter scale)

Photographic "F" (exposure) settings

The PH (Acid/Alkaline) Scales

Lots of other stuff

And you'd be surprised how many seasoned engineers routinely work with Logarithmic units without fully understanding them and can successfully muddle through only occasionally tripping up

Care to explain the decibel thing to an 5 year old like me?

Oh I guess I could've looked that up, whoops. Couldn't be bothered to read about absolute hardness...

7 points · 6 months ago

Certain Fabrics use a gauging scale so a heavy-gauge duck cotton for instance might be used for denim or bags.

Otherwise I believe it's based on thread count or the thickness of the yarn in the weave.

I've seen high thread count fabrics which are stiff and low thread count fabrics which are soft and supple. It must have to do with how soft and supple the threads themselves are, too. I wonder if there is an indicator of that in the industry.

2 points · 6 months ago

Yeah the tightness of the thread's twist itself, I dunno what it's called. If you go to a fabric store and find someone with some experience they can probably inform you a lot. knowledge like that is kind of picked up in nibbles along the way.

found this:

but as others say, it's mostly thread count. microfiber is soft. cashmere is thinner and finer than regular wool, which gives you more fibers per inch.

check out the US wool people's definition of cashmere, most of the requirements have to do with thickness of the fibers:

such wool product is the fine (dehaired) undercoat fibers produced by a cashmere goat (Capra hircus laniger);

the average diameter of the fiber of such wool product does not exceed 19 microns; and

such wool product does not contain more than 3 percent (by weight) of cashmere fibers with average diameters that exceed 30 microns.

The average fiber diameter may be subject to a coefficient of variation around the mean that shall not exceed 24 percent.

Hmm - interesting. Except anyone who's ever shopped for sheets knows that thread count (or even type) is not a reliable predictor of softness. I myself was just at Bloomingdale's touching all the sheets to find a nice, new, soft set and the thread counts touted by the super luxury (and absurdly expensive) sheets just do not correlate with softness.

It's exactly why I can only pick out new bed linens or bath towels in person.

Please bring forth an objective softness scale of Ahhs and save us from the madness!

That's right. But then there is the experience of thinking that a material feels soft, then, you get it home and carefully wash it and it is immediately stiff and inclined to wrinkles that resist smoothing. I call it cheap fabric. It must have to do wuth the fabric finishes that wash out. Maybe they should have to include a swatch of the material with a garment, material that has no finishes that would wash out.

Yarn and animal fibers are measured by microns to indicate softness. So you'll see baby alpaca compared to cashmere if it's micron count is n number. I don't remember the details but... Yes and no ;)


I was a lot more dumber when I was younger. I didn't know Chemical Engineering was a degree and a friend was studying it. I said it sounds like a "crock of shit" and "true engineers are civil engineers".

I am still recovering from the ass-beating. Sorry Chemical Engineers :(

You think you were dumb then, at least you had youth and inexperience in your side. Wait until you get a little older. It can be hard to live with myself, knowing how persistently clueless i was.

Textile science, polymer and color chemistry, textile engineering, textile technology.


It really depends. Textiles would require some basic biology and chemistry, but it's not generally known for being pure research in the way something like physics or chemistry might.

However ballistics researchers would need to know physics and math when designing bullet proof vests and designing ballistic armor out of materials like kevlar.

Companies like Dupont and 3M also have active research departments always coming up with new products; many of which are textiles.

I'm just a person who fabricates useful items with my sewing machine like medical compression garments for family members to help them with swelling. The off the shelf ones were uncomfortable and very expensive, so I taught myself how to make them myself. People who survive breast cancer for instance may find swelling in their arms unbearable, and I wanted to help.


can you soak a towel in lard to make it soft?

Yes, but which ones get soft and which get rough?

What about stretchy fabrics?

Stretch fabrics usually have latex rubber woven into them and they are even worse because rubber really doesn't like being dry and having it's oils leeched out by washing. The first thing to go is always the latex threads where they start hardening, losing their stretch, and they will start breaking and poking up out of the weave. Eventually the garment looses all stretch and the latex hardens further becoming scratchy.

Not just thread count, satin is like four over one under, weft and werf?. Cotton is stronger when wet. Acrylic and other synth fibres are prone to pilling which could make them scratchy. Just like your hair. If you wash all the oils out with just soap or detergent its not nice to the touch. Same with some fibres. Till you have worn them for a while and they resorb a certain amt of moisture, oils from air and body. Thinking denom jeans. I dont think much lanolin left in wool garments after production, maybe in wool floor skins or car seat covers. If wool is not 'pure new wool' which has been pre treated to avoid felting? (I think i remember the correct term), shrinkage. Also, synth fibres are monofilament extruded to length. The get i nice smooth rounded end but when it snaps ie seams and creases it may leave jagged scrathy end. Arpits on business shirts are a diff kettle of fish. Dudes and gals the shit mix of alumin deoderant and your sweat just sometimes is never coming out causing a crusty buildup which really has not much to do with fabric, soak that shit, us dry cleaners really cant be fagged for 2 bucks a wash and press. As for soaking in lard or oil, oil yes esp leather skin garments but i suggest you never get them stained and always where under farments. Great lether cleaners are few and far between. Alot of the time regardless of fabric used for garment, seams are sown with nylon or polyester thread this can be scratchy.
Re u/seebeedubs below.. "This is why these garments often say Dry Clean Only, because the act of subjecting the fibers to the motion of the washing machine will eventually destroy the garment."
Not exactly true. Dry cleaning uses just as much mechanical action if not more than wet washing. Its the holy trio, water, mech action, temp that are your guiding principals. DC perc (solvent) does not permeate the totallity of the fibre, more a surface cleaner, where as water soaks the whole fibre (natural fibres, not so much synthetic). A tissue left in a DC machine will reach the end of the cycle whole, we all know what happens in the wash. Dry cleaning also uses detergent, soap leaving a small residule that imparts feel, smell and anti static. Forget the soap in a load and it will be static af and to some this may be scratchy. If your talking just normal fabrics like sheets and towels it all realy depends on the blend of fibres.
100% Cotton, new, is gonna be scrathy af if not fabric softened nicely. As the fibres wear and age they will feel better. Blends with poly cotton tend to feel softer at purchase but the wear of the poly part over time can make them itchy/ scratchy.
As others have mentioned water hardness (mineralisation, or lack there of) can greatly effect washing outcomes.

My knowledge of the Dry Cleaning process is limited, it’s the one part of the industry I’ve never worked in. Thank you for teaching me something today.

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This is one of the things I love about Reddit. A lot of people tried to write a good explanation, but this one was curated to the top because it was accurate and clear.

Lan....lanolin? Like sheep’s wool?

but it's always a downhill battle short of soaking the clothing in lard or oil.

Would that work?

No. Oils and fats polymerize in the presence of light and heat. Think of an old bottle of cooking oil where there are dark, crusty, bits on it, that used to be oil. This is also how oil paints cure, they don't dry out, the oil becomes a solid as it forms long polymer chains. There is probably a product for that though but not one I've used or heard of. sheep's wool?

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121 points · 6 months ago


Moderator of r/explainlikeimfive, speaking officially13 points · 6 months ago

We don't allow guesses, I'm afraid, so I had to remove your comment.

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Is that a guess

14 points · 6 months ago


We don’t allow guesses, I’m afraid, so I had to remove your comment

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I guess you are the mod here.

This is one of those extrinsic/intrinsic things. Extrinsic to cloth fibres as fibres, is how they are spun, and woven or knitted. Intrinsic to most fibres is the 'staple' or length and strength of the individual strands which makes up the thread. How hairy it is under a microscope. Along with staple, how much innate strength it has, how hydroscopic or oleophilic it is. Natural fibres tend to be somewhat shorter, and have innate oil or water or other content. Except silk which is much more like unnatural fibre and is strictly speaking a filament. But still has intrinsic water and other things in it.

When you wash something, you alter this balance. Dry cleaning before perchlorate used to mean rolling clothes in fullers earth (diatomaceous .. well.. basically soil. Special soil.) to absorb oily dirt, and judicious brushing. Why did people do that? Because dyes were not colour fast, but also because mechanically agitating natural fibres in water does exactly what you describe: makes some stiff stuff loose (mechanically alters it's weave tension, it's fibre rigidity, it's intrinsic balance of water or oil) and makes other loose stuff stiff (for the same reason, but in reverse. Absorb water? You swell up.)

Those balls of fluff which you clean out of your lint filter? Where do you think they came from? They broke off the fibres of the fabric. It's one definition of microplastics, most people obsess about the gritty stuff in facial scrub. Apparently the fibre trash is really heinously bad too. All that artificial fibre we live in is adding to the mess.

Original Poster3 points · 6 months ago

That makes sense! I never thought about the impact on the environment before. That's really crazy, and sad.

Just thinking this the other day. The wear of the synth clothing in domestic washing machines probably added more plastic to the oceans than 5 years of fasion microbeads. But then sewage treatment probably filters it. So it ends up in the soil in your lical market garden then over time washed away back to the ocean.

15 points · 6 months ago · edited 6 months ago

TL;DR: Different materials behave differently when washed and dried. Even things made from the same thing (cotton fabric and denim) will behave differently because of how they are made. In that case, it's caused by the threads being pulled taut by wear, and then relaxing from having water introduced.

Fabrics cone I'm all shapes and sizes and can be made from things 'simple' as cotton, intense as silk, or complicated as plastics. Each have their own uses, but are also going to get tired in different ways. Some don't do well when they get really hot, some don't do well when they get wet, some really like to stay wet and not dry. It all depends on what they are meant to do and how their materials interact.

For some things that like to shrink, it's basically caused by the fibres being able to absorb a ton of water and being able to relax. This causes them to contract/curl up back into their resting position.. Shorter fibres, means shorter threads, and a shrunk shirt. This is much more a problem with organic materials that are pulled/stretched very tight during processesing into a usable thread.

Similar processes can cause materials to be really uncomfortable after a wash, or just when wet, while it can make others really soft. There are a ton of different ways materials interact, even things made from the same thread (cotton fabric and denim) can behave very, very differently just from how they are woven.

Think of the fabric like different types of hair, say your friend has really oily hair and you don't. You wash your hair about every other day, if not 2 days, while your friend has to wash her hair every day. If you guys switched routines, your hair would become dry and brittle from over washing, because you've stripped the oils out of your hair that keep it soft and elastic. Same thing applies to richly colored fabrics/dyed hair. Hope this helps!

Original Poster1 point · 6 months ago

That definitely makes sense! Thanks!

5 points · 6 months ago(0 children)

Depends on the fabric, some materials, some weaves etc, get softer because the threads of that material fray and loosen, other threads are prone to becoming threadbare, just losing all the fluff and flexibility out of them.

Some of it is the type of fabric as others have said, but a lot of processed cloths are pre-distressed to achieve softness. This can have the effect of being soft when you get it, because the broken fibers are on the outside and make for a fuzzy feel when you buy it, but the broken fibers wear away quickly if the cloth isn't super thick and high quality before it is distressed. As the broken fibers wear away, all that's left is a rough fabric underneath.

That's why cheap wools and cashmeres will feel softer than expensive stuff when you start, but the cheap stuff will never achieve the thick luxurious feel of the nicer, thicker stuff. As the distressed fibers on your $10 mall scarf wear away, what's left underneath is thin and somewhat rough. Whereas the thick, rough nap of a shetland wool will break down with wear until it is soft and thick.

Original Poster2 points · 6 months ago

Ahh, ok, makes sense!

2 points · 6 months ago(0 children)

I presume you are talking about wear over multiple washes and not why air drying clothes are stiff, scratchy initially but soften up.

That's caused by mineral deposits left behind causing the fibers to be stiff.

Tumbler dried clothes remain softer as they as always in motion.

Doesn't using the dryer help clothes, get back there original shape?

2 points · 6 months ago(1 child)

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