Fabric Fails—What they are and how you can prevent them

Fabric Fails happen when you find yourself in clothes made of mystery fabric. They may be cheaper for manufactures, but can be a disaster for you. The problem is, it’s easy to mistake a mystery fabric for cotton. They can look like cotton and even feel like cotton—but only at first.

Select a fabric fail below to see what awaits if you don’t check the label.


Pilling

79% of people say they are bothered by pilling.1

Here's what they're saying

What is modal? I just realized that what I thought was a cotton shirt is really something called modal. No wonder there are pills all over it after just a few wears. It already looks like it's 10 years old. Bring back the cotton, please.

I have this shirt which is a mix of cotton and rayon. Overtime, it started to pill and it drove me crazy. I started to remove the pills by hand and I ended up ruining the shirt!

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About Pilling

Pills are those pesky little round balls of entangled fibers that appear on the surface of your clothes. They are essentially small tangles of fiber on a fabric’s surface, formed when the fabric rubs against itself or another material.

100% Cotton
35% Cotton, 65% Polyester 2

Causes

There are many causes of pilling, but the main ones are fabric content and rubbing.

General wear can cause pilling, as the fabric rubs against itself, and activities like running or walking long distances can make pilling even more likely.

Laundering certain fabrics can also cause pilling, given the rubbing that occurs during washing, especially if the machine is overloaded. Suggestion—washing your clothes inside out can help protect their surfaces.

Types of fabric to watch out for

Blends. For example, a cotton/modal blend is more likely to pill than 100% cotton.3 Pills are also more likely to be visible in blends vs. 100% fibers.4 This is because the blended fibers are never exactly the same length/strength, making them more likely to become entangled, causing pilling.

Wool. If you were to look at wool under a microscope you’d notice that there are actually scales on the fiber. Those scales can cause the fiber to lock together, which creates pills.

Synthetics. With many synthetic fabrics like nylon and polyester, pills remain visible once they are formed, whereas with natural fabrics like cotton and wool, any pilling will fall off in the wash.5

What can you do

In addition to choosing 100% natural fibers, like cotton, you can help prevent or delay pilling with these laundering tips:

Bottom Line

To avoid pilling, look for clothing made of 100% natural fibers, like 100% cotton.

Check the label

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1Cotton Incorporated Lifestyle Monitor.

2Comparison of 100% Cotton and Cotton/Polyester Blends on Ring, Rotor, and MVS Spinning Systems.

3Internal Textile Research; TSL 16275.

4Azimi, et al. "Application of Resins and Crosslinking Agents on Fiber Blend Fabric To Reduce Pilling Performance, Optimized by Response Surface Methodology."

5Azimi, et al. "Application of Resins and Crosslinking Agents on Fiber Blend Fabric To Reduce Pilling Performance, Optimized by Response Surface Methodology."

Odor

71% of people say they are bothered by odor issues in their clothing.1

Here's what they're saying

I am a victim of smelly pants! When I bought them, I thought they were cotton...that's what they felt like. I later learned that they were a mix of synthetic fabrics. Plus, they were dry clean only...the worst! Just after a few wears, they started to smell. I dry cleaned them multiple times and the smell just wouldn't go away. I even went against the care instructions and washed them...and still...the odor remained. Major fabric fail.

I can hardly stand the smell of myself when I'm biking in my cycling jersey. It's some kind of spandex, lycra material. The worst part is that it still smells after I wash it.

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About Odor

Clothes shouldn’t smell like anything. Some fabrics are more prone to absorbing and retaining odors than others.

Causes

Odor can be caused by you or your environment. Body odor is caused by perspiration coming into contact with the bacteria on your skin. If that perspiration is absorbed into your clothes, they can retain the odor.

Once absorbed, odor in clothing can become more permanent with exposure to heat and time, meaning the odor is likely to resurface with repeated wears and laundering. Some fabrics wash more cleanly than others.

Some fabrics will also retain the smell of the environment they’re in—for example, the smell of garlic after cooking with the ingredient, or the smell of cigarette smoke.

Types of fabrics to watch out for

All fibers absorb odors, but how much they absorb depends on the fiber’s surface and inner structure.

Generally, natural fibers are better than others at ridding themselves of unpleasant odors. Cotton, for example, releases the odorous substances during washing more easily than other fabrics. 2

Polyester, an oil-based fiber, has become notorious for odors because it holds odors even after washing.3 Both unwashed and washed polyester fabrics have higher odor intensity than unwashed and washed cotton fabrics.4

That's why odor is a common consumer complaint about active wear, as athletic apparel is still primarily made of 100% synthetic fabric. The good news is cotton-rich active wear is available.

Bottom Line

To avoid persistent odor in your clothing, choose natural fibers like cotton over synthetics like polyester.

Check the label

Join the movement

1Cotton Incorporated Lifestyle Monitor.

2Cotton Incorporated Consumer Textile Research on Negative Textile Issues.

3Munk, et al. "Microbial Survival and Odor in Laundry."

4McQueen, et al. "The Retention and Build-up of Body Odor in Cotton Fabrics: A Field Trial," University of Alberta.

5Cotton Incorporated Customer Comments Project.

Fading

71% of people say they are bothered by fading.1

Here's what they're saying

I pulled an old favorite out of my closet this morning and decided to wear it to work. Never again. All day I had to endure my coworker pointing out how much the shirt had faded (she must have remembered the top from a few years back) and how it was covered in pills. Farewell, favorite tank. Rayon #FabricFail!

I bought a dark purple top from [brand] and was so upset that it faded so quickly. I only washed it 4 or 5 times and the color turned lavender! If I wanted a lavender colored shirt, I would have bought that! Won't be going back anytime soon.

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About Fading

Fading is the loss or changing of colors and is generally caused by multiple washings.

Color comparision: before (left) and after (right) 100 washes.2

Causes

Fading is not actually the fault of any particular fiber. Whether or not a garment fades depends on the quality of the dyes and the manufacturing process.

All fabrics absorb dye differently, though the difference is often not visible to the naked eye. Dye does wash out of some fabrics more easily than others, depending upon a host of factors.

Dye selection is the most significant factor in preventing color fading. Most dyes are designed to remain in the fiber when applied properly.

What you can do

Though cotton often takes the blame for fading, it isn’t a cotton problem—it’s a clothing problem. Garments made of non-cotton fabrics are just as likely to fade.

Fading is more commonly found in darker color clothing (black, blue, red, and purple), so be careful when washing your darks.

You can preserve and maintain the color of your cotton clothing with these laundering tips:

Bottom Line

Fading is a manufacturing issue. To preserve the color of your clothing, make sure to follow the care instructions and avoid certain types of detergents.

Check the label

Join the movement

1Cotton Incorporated Lifestyle Monitor.

2Sustainability Working Group 100 Launderings Study, September 2012.

Static Cling

57% of people say they are bothered by static cling.1

Here's what they're saying

After my daughter was born, I started to order clothes for both of us online. It's harder to determine fabric that way (though I now know you can check the item details!) and I ended up ordering a 100% polyester dress for work. I don't have time for returns these days, so I decided to wear the dress for an important meeting. Big mistake. 20 minutes before my meeting, my colleague was spraying me down with anti-static spray because the dress was clinging to me in all the wrong places. I ended up walking more ... to my meeting damp and wrinkly, and still tugging my skirt off my legs. What a disaster!

I bought a long, flowy polyester dress for an outdoor wedding last summer. We had to walk quite a ways to get to the ceremony, and the dress kept clinging and wrapping around my legs. I almost wiped out a hundred times.

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About Static Cling

We've all experienced static cling. It's when a piece of clothing sticks to another piece of clothing, or your body. It occurs most often with synthetic fabrics.

Causes

The basic concept behind static cling is that of static electricity. As negative and positive charges attract each other, the two materials will stick to one another, causing static cling. Static cling occurs only when two different materials are rubbed together because they will have different electrical charges and thus attract each other.

Types of fabric to watch out for

Cotton and rayon do not have static charges and therefore are less likely to cling.

Polyesters and nylons hold static charges and therefore are more likely to cling. They’re also less likely to be breathable.2

Bottom Line

Look for cotton on the label.

Check the label

Join the movement

1Cotton Incorporated Lifestyle Monitor.

2Marjory Joseph. Introductory Textile Science, 5th Edition, 1984.

Discomfort

76% of consumers say they are not willing to sacrifice comfort.1

Here's what they're saying

I bought a "professional" looking sweater to wear to client meetings. It was made of some fabric I'd never heard of. It looked good, but it felt awful. It was so itchy I had to wear a long sleeve shirt under it (which of course, made it too hot). Then I accidentally washed it and now it's probably a child's size small. Fabric fail on so many levels.

After catching an Avett Brothers show last spring I was so blown away by the show I decided I had to get a concert shirt. It took me forever to get through the line. I managed to snag the last medium (which was a tad large and I hoped would shrink). Turns out this was the worst purchase ever. Not only did the shirt not shrink to fit me, it also is so uncomfortable that I can't wear it without another shirt below it. Concert success! Shirt fail!

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About Discomfort

Clothes shouldn't just look good, they should feel good, too. Discomfort can mean a lot of things—itchiness, lack of breathability, lack of temperature control, or stiffness.

Types of fabric to watch out for

Oil-based fibers, such as nylon and polyester, are less likely to be breathable compared to cotton.2

When surveyed, people say they are more likely to stop wearing polyester and rayon casual shirts and pants because they are uncomfortable and clingy compared to cotton casual shirts and pants.3

People have identified polyester athletic wear as being uncomfortable and clingy, sticky and scratchy compared to cotton athletic wear.4

Wool and weir fiber are known to itch and irritate.

60% of consumer complaints of discomfort are in garments predominantly made with non-cotton fabrics.5 That's because cotton is a natural fiber. Its comfort can be attributed to its softness and the fact that it's one of the most absorbent fibers, which aids in temperature control and breathability. Cotton fiber absorbs water vapor given off by the body, so skin does not become wet and clothes don’t cling or stick.6

Bottom Line

Cotton equals comfort, so look for cotton on the label.

Check the label

Join the movement

1Cotton Incorporated Lifestyle Monitor.

2Marjory Joseph. Introductory Textile Science, 5th edition, 1984, pp. 358-359.

3Cotton Incorporated Lifestyle Monitor.

4Cotton Incorporated 2012 Sports Apparel Survey.

5Cotton Incorporated Customer Comments Project.

6Kathryn L. Hatch. Textile Science, University of Arizona.

Shrinking

82% of people say they are bothered by shrinking.1

Here's what they're saying

I bought a shirt (at a store that will remain nameless) for over $50 bucks. After one wash, it shrunk to half its size. After the second wash, the buttons fell off and it fell apart. $50 bucks is so not worth a one-time wear.

My husband shrunk my shirt! Instead of reading the care instructions, which said hang dry, he just threw it into the dryer at high heat. I'll need to lose 20 pounds before I can fit into it again.

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About Shrinking

Clothes that fit when you buy them should stay that way. Some shrinking is natural, but clothes should hold their shape and size.

Causes

All fabrics shrink, often after washing and drying. What determines if the clothes you buy will shrink is the fabric construction. If the manufacturer doesn't treat the fabric appropriately during the manufacturing process, you may be left with a garment that will shrink after laundering.

Types of fabric to watch out for

Cotton often gets the blame for shrinking, but shrinking isn’t a cotton issue, it’s a clothing issue. Shrinking is a problem for other fibers like polyester and rayon, too. In fact, based on research, the number-one issue consumers have with rayon is shrinking.2

Blends. Cotton/rayon blends are also proven to shrink more than 100% cotton does.3

What you can do

Help prevent shrinking in your cotton clothing with these laundering tips:

Bottom Line

Look for preshrunk cotton and follow care instructions.

Check the label

Join the movement

1Cotton Incorporated Lifestyle Monitor.

2Cotton Incorporated Customer Comments Project.

3Cotton Incorporated Internal Textile Research.

Loss of shape

76% of people say they are bothered by their clothes losing their shape.1

Here's what they're saying

I have this pair of skinny jeans that I loved when I tried them on in the store. They were stretchy and comfortable. I wore them once and couldn't believe how loose they became. I constantly had to pull them up to prevent that saggy look around the booty area.

I bought my first pair of leather pants a few months ago. I spent a LOT of money on them, so I was extremely disappointed when they completely stretched out the first night I wore them. They went from skin tight to a loose waist and baggy knees after only 3 hours. Not what you want in a pair of tight leather pants!

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About Loss of Shape

Stretch, across fabrics, is accomplished by adding a stretchy fiber, usually spandex, into the fabric blend. During the fabric processing the amount of stretch and recovery can be set. If it’s not set properly, loss of shape can occur.

Causes

Stretching in the right places is great, but often the recovery part starts to fail, leaving bagging around areas like the knees and elbows. The technical term is fabric growth. The way a fabric is constructed, from yarn selection to dyeing and finishing, can affect the performance of a garment. If the fabric is not woven tightly enough, it can lose its shape. If a fabric containing spandex is not heat-set properly, distortion of the fabric can occur.

Types of fabric to watch out for

Apparel that contains spandex has a tendency to see issues of bagging and loss of shape. They're also less likely to be breathable.2

Most stretch denim is composed of 1% to 2% spandex. In skinny jeans, the spandex component can go up to as high as 5% to 8%. Be aware that spandex in denim can cause unpredictable things to happen as they day goes on.

Average spandex percentages range from 2% to 3% for woven shirts and about 5% for knit shirts.3

Bottom Line

There is such a thing as too much stretch. Look for cotton-rich clothing, or cotton jeans with a hint of spandex.

Check the label

Join the movement

1Cotton Incorporated Lifestyle Monitor.

2Almetwally, et al. "Physical and Stretch Properties of Woven Cotton Fabrics Containing Different Rates of Spandex."

3Retail Monitor Survey.

Wrinkling

64% of people say they are bothered by wrinkling.1

Here's what they're saying

I bought a long flowy top which felt like cotton, but was actually 100% rayon! It took me forever to get the wrinkles out with an iron because the fabric couldn't accept high heat.

I don't have time for wrinkles! I spend so much time ironing and after a few minutes of wear, my clothes look just as wrinkled as they did prior to ironing.

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About Wrinkling

We all know what wrinkles are—unintentional and unwanted creases in fabrics.

Causes

There are two types of wrinkling—wet wrinkling, which happens after washing and dry wrinkling, which happens during wear. For example, when you’re sitting in a chair in a warm environment you may notice your clothes begin to wrinkle. This is because wrinkles are caused by pressure, plus moisture and heat.

There are things that can be done to fabrics before you buy them to help prevent wrinkling, like adding finishes or heat to the fabric.

Types of fabric to watch out for

We all know cotton wrinkles (of course it does—it’s a natural fiber). But it can be manufactured in a way that can impart a resistance to wrinkling, which is why many brands and retailers now offer wrinkle-resistant cotton.

While cotton does wrinkle more easily than other fibers, it’s also easier to wash and iron safely. Many man-made fibers, like rayon, require special washing instructions and must be ironed on a low setting.

Laundering tip: Don't overload your washer, as fabrics will have more of a chance to tangle up and wrinkle more.

Cotton Enhancements

Wrinkle-resistant cotton can be found at major retailers across the country. It's common in garments like men's and women's woven cotton dress shirts and men's, women's, and kids' cotton pants.

More than 7 out of 10 consumers say they are likely to look for wrinkle-resistant features in shirts and pants.2

Bottom Line

Look for wrinkle-resistant cotton.

Check the label

Join the movement

1Cotton Incorporated Lifestyle Monitor.

2Cotton Incorporated Lifestyle Monitor.