What Is Fabric? Your Quick Guide to Everything Fabric!

13 minute read

What is fabric? What is the difference between textile and fabric? How do you create crafts with fabric? Fabric is one of the most versatile craft materials out there. You can use it to make everything from simple quilts and pouches to intricate clothing and accessories. In this guide, we'll go over all you need to know about fabric, from its history and the different types of fabric to its manufacturing and uses in DIY projects and fabric crafts

Find out all the answers to your burning questions and more in this quick guide to everything fabric.

Altenew Dreamy Bouquet Fat Quarter Fabric Collection

Altenew Dreamy Bouquet Fat Quarter Fabric Collection

Table of Contents:

I. Introduction
II. History of Fabric
     A. Fabric and Textile Technology Timeline
III. What is Fabric?
     A. Fabric vs Textile
     B. Joann Fabrics
     C. Fabric Measurements
          1. How big is a yard of fabric?
          2. What is a fat quarter of fabric?
IV. Manufacturing
     A. Main Sources of Fiber
          1. Natural Sources
          2. Artificial Sources
     B. What Is Textile Manufacturing?
     C. Top 10 Textile Exporters as of 2021
V. Industry Updates
VI. What Is Fabric Art
     A. Crafts with Fabric
VII. Conclusion

History of Fabric

Before the invention of textile and fabric, animal hides, leaves, and felt were used by humans to protect their bodies from the elements. The first textile examples were believed to be from 6500 BC and discovered in a Neolithic site in Anatolia. The creation of fabric began when ancient people from 34,000 BCE weaved strands of flax fibers (which are now used to make linen). Natural dyes from plants were then used to color this simple and earliest form of fabric textile. Scientists found the earliest proof of the existence of fabric textiles in Turkey, Egypt, and Israel.

Fun Fact! The first known textile from South America was discovered in Guitarrero Cave in Peru and woven out of vegetable fiber.

Fabric and Textile Technology Timeline

Are you curious about how fabric first came about? Do you want to know the first type of synthetic fiber invented? Or who invented the first sewing machine? We are highlighting the most noteworthy events in fabric and textile technology history right here. (Source)

 Year Event
50000 BC A discovered twisted fiber (a 3-ply cord fragment) indicates the possible use of clothing, bags, nets, and similar technology by Neanderthals in southeastern France
6500 BC Approximate date of Naalebinding examples found in Nahal Hemar cave, Israel. This technique, which uses separate short lengths of thread, predated the invention of knitting and crocheting. Women of the Nanti tribe (an indigenous people of the Camisea region of Peru) still practice it. Nålebinding also remains popular in the Scandinavian countries, as well as in the Balkans.
6000 BC Evidence of woven textiles used to wrap the dead at Çatalhöyük in Anatolia.
2500 BC The Indus Valley Civilisation cultivates cotton in the Indian subcontinent.
600 BC Oldest samples of cloth printed by woodblock printing from Egypt.
500-1000 BC The Spinning Wheel was invented in the Indian subcontinent.
114 BC The Han Dynasty initiated the Silk Road trade route.
1988 BC Production of linen cloth in Ancient Egypt, along with other bast fibers, including rush, reed, palm, and papyrus.
1275 AD Approximate date of a silk burial cushion knit in two colors found in the tomb of Spanish royalty.
1589 William Lee invents the stocking frame, the first hand-operated weft knitting machine.
1493 The first available reference to lace is in a will by one of the ruling Milanese Sforza family.
1764 James Hargreaves invents the spinning jenny. The spinning jenny is a multi-spindle spinning frame and was one of the key developments in the industrialization of textile manufacturing during the early Industrial Revolution.
1745 Jacques Vaucanson in Lyon invents the first fully-automated loom (a device used to weave cloth and tapestry).
1856 William Henry Perkin invents the first synthetic dye.
1830 Barthélemy Thimonnier develops the first functional sewing machine.
1910 Rayon, the first man-made fiber, was created. It is also called ‘artificial silk.’
1945-1970 Antimicrobial research enters a "golden" period. By the 1980s, antimicrobial treatments for textiles were developed and implemented in manufacturing.
1940 Spectrophotometer was invented, with an impact on commercial textile dye processes.
1943 The popular fabric store Joann Fabrics opened in Cleveland, Ohio.
1938 First commercial nylon fiber production by DuPont. Nylon is the first synthetic non-cellulosic fiber on the market.
1958 Spandex fiber was invented by DuPont's Joseph Shivers.
1970 Superwash acid treatment of wool creates a more durable material that does not shrink in laundry.
2020 Joann Fabric store made $210.9M to $212.9M, with 9 million new customers. The increase in sales is credited to mask mandates and an increased interest in DIY projects.
Did You Know? The exchange of luxury textiles was predominant on the Silk Road, which linked traders, merchants, pilgrims, monks, soldiers, nomads, and urban dwellers from China to the Mediterranean Sea during various periods. Trade on the Silk Road was a significant factor in developing the great civilizations of China, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Persia, the Indian subcontinent, and Rome. It helped lay the foundations for the modern world. (Source)

Discover the best fabric for fabric crafts here!

5 fat quarter fabric with different designs and colors

What Is Fabric?

Fabric is a textile produced through various processes such as weaving, stitching, bonding, crocheting, spreading, knitting, or felting. It is essentially woven or knitted fibers and yarns. Clothing, shoes, bags, bedsheets, cushions, upholstery, household items, fabric crafts, and more - you’ll find a lot of things around your home are created with fabric. 

Fabric is an essential component of any garment or accessory. Some common types of fabric include cotton, which is found on casual shirts, or denim jeans made from recycled materials such as plastic bottles. The way they're created will help you recognize them when sewing your projects or making crafts with fabric.
DIY floral blouse created with 2 fat quarter fabric pieces from Altenew

Difference between textile and fabric

Fabric, textile, and cloth are synonymous terms. While textile is a much broader term that generally refers to clothing and the clothing industry, fabric is a piece of textile combined with other materials to create clothes, garments, accessories, etc. Textile is the unfinished product, while fabric is an essential component used to make a finished product.

Fun Fact! Nålebinding is a Danish word that literally means "binding with a needle" or "needle-binding." It is also known as "knotless netting," "knotless knitting," or "single needle knitting." While this fabric creation technique preceded knitting and crochet, it involves passing the entire length of the working thread through each loop. It also requires much greater skill than knitting to create a fine product.

Joann Fabrics

If you have been into sewing or fabric crafts, you’ve probably heard of Joann Fabric or simply Joann’s. This is probably the most popular fabric store in the United States. Formerly known as the “Fabric Shop,” the store was opened in 1943 in Cleveland, Ohio by German immigrants Hilda and Berthold Reich, Sigmund and Mathilda Rohrbach, and Justin and Alma Zimmerman. In 1963, the fabric store grew, and the founders changed its name to Joann Fabrics. Joann was a combination of the daughters' names from both families: Joan and Jacqueline Ann.  

As of March 2020, Joann’s has 865 stores in 49 states.

Fabric Measurements

How big is a yard of fabric?

A yard of fabric is 3 feet, 0.9144 meters, 36 inches, or 91.44 centimeters. It is basically double your shoulder width or the measurement of a yardstick. This measurement, however, only refers to the length of the fabric, not the width. The fabric width typically has to do with the type of fabric and its intended use. Quilting cotton and similar fabric are typically 40” to 45" wide, while garment fabrics are 60". Home decor and upholstery fabrics can be on even wider bolts.

A square yard of fabric means the measurement for the width and length is the same - about 36 inches or 0.9 meters.

What is a fat quarter of fabric?

A fat quarter of fabric is a standard size for quilting and measures 18 inches by 22 inches. Fabric stores usually sell by the yard or meter. To create a fat quarter fabric, you need to cut the fabric into ½ yard (18” along the lengthwise grain) and then cut it again in the middle. This will give you a ¼ yard cut. Take note that the dimension of the fabric’s longest side may vary because some quilting fabrics are not 44 inches.

Fun Fact! A loom (a tool used to weave cloth and fabric) holds one set of yarn vertically (warp) as it interlaces and weaves in the horizontal yarns (weft) at right angles.

DIY pattern weight made with pink and white fabric from Altenew Dreamy Bouquet Fabric collection

DIY Pattern Weight


Textile manufacturing and production are continuously evolving - from the ancient period to the present day. The various types of textiles and fabric readily available in the market have been influential in how we dress, fashion trends, designs, etc. 

Main Sources of Fiber

For the longest time, natural fibers - from animals, plants, and minerals - were the main components for textile manufacturing. However, since natural fibers have intrinsic restrictions, synthetic ones were developed. For instance, cotton and linens wrinkle, wool shrinks, and silk is too delicate. According to thoughtco, “Synthetics delivered greater comfort, soil release, broader aesthetic range, dyeing capabilities, abrasion resistance, colorfastness, and lower costs.”

Natural Sources  Artificial Sources
  • Animal (wool, silk, and hair fibers such as angora, cashmere, and alpaca)
  • Plant (cotton, flax, jute, bamboo, linen, hemp, and ramie)
  • Mineral (asbestos, glass fiber)
  • Synthetic (nylon, polyester, acrylic, spandex, rayon, Tencel, acetate, and triacetate)


What Is Textile Manufacturing?

This huge industry is based on the process of converting fiber into yarn, then yarn into fabric.

Fabric dye is then used to create cloth, which in turn gets converted to clothing, bags, furniture, carpet, various household items, and other industrial products. The most common natural fiber and most widely used in the textile industry is still cotton. It makes up 90% of all-natural fibers in the industry. Cotton’s versatile features and comfortability made it a popular choice in the production of clothes and accessories.

Fun Fact! Synthetic textile was invented by British chemist Sir Joseph Swan. After 200 years of scientific research on artificial fibers, Swan finally unveiled the first synthetic fiber at the International Inventions Exhibition in London in the early 1800s. (Source)

DIY cut-out floral designs from fabric sewn into a pink t-shirt

Create a DIY t-shirt with cut-out florals from Altenew's Fabric Collection

Top 10 Textile Exporters as of 2021

The textile industry has been an integral part of many countries' economies for centuries. It is a competitive world with numerous advantages that help boost the economy. Countries are looking into capturing global markets to have access both ways: providing jobs locally while also helping contribute towards growth within their own country through earnings from clothing exports.

  1. China - The leading manufacturer and exporter of textiles has an export value of approximately $266.41 billion as of 2021. The country produces eight major textile categories: cotton fabrics, silk fabric, chemical fabrics, wool fabrics, knitted fabric, textile machinery, fiber, and garments.
  2. Germany - Known for exporting synthetic yarn, knitted apparel cloth, and man-made fiber, Germany’s export value is $38.99 billion.
  3. Bangladesh - The third-largest exporter of textiles and apparel globally, has an export value of $38.73 billion. It is also the second-largest textile exporter of Western fast fashion brands and excels in bulk order.
  4. Vietnam - With its rich history of high-quality manufacturing and skilled labor force, Vietnam’s export value as of 2021 is $37.93 billion.
  5. India - India’s export value of $37.11 billion can be attributed to the fact that it is the second-largest cotton producer globally and has one of the oldest textile industries.
  6. Italy - The wide range of fibers (linen, cotton, wool, and silk) available in Italy made it a strong contender in the industry. Its current export value is $36.57 billion.
  7. Turkey - This country’s dynamic textile industry and high-tech solutions placed it as the world's 7th top exporter of textile, with an export value of $27.56 billion.
  8. United States of America - It is no secret that the US has a massive investment in technology, which enabled the country to produce high-quality textiles. Its current export value is $27.14 billion.
  9. Hongkong - Known for its printed and dyed fabric, the country has an export value of $20.43 billion.
  10. Spain - This country’s skilled workforce helped it enter the top 10 and earn an export value of $20.20 billion.

Learn sew and no-sew crafts with fabric in this online class

5 fat quarter of fabric with various designs and colors and DIY roll-up storage for craft supplies

 DIY Roll-up Storage for Crafting Supplies

Industry Updates

Here are some of the most notable updates in the clothing, fabric, and textile industry during the 20th and 21st centuries. 

  • New applications and treatment for textiles were created.
  • Synthetic fibers were invented.
  • Manufacturing control systems were computerized.
  • Workers in the clothing and textile industries became unionized in the United States.
  • UC Davis established a Division of Textiles and Clothing.
  • The sustainability practices of the global textile industry came under fire around 2010. Experts found the textile industry to have a negative environmental impact at most stages in the production process.
  • Secondhand clothing trade and textile recycling around the globe were seen as a solution to reduce landfill use
  • The Internet and social media put a spotlight on the issue of fast fashion contributing to increasing textile waste around the world. 
  • Microfiber, the thinnest artificial fiber, was only invented 20 years ago in Japan. Also known as Ultrasuede, this fiber is even more delicate than silk and a hundred times finer than a strand of a human hair!

3 DIY hoop art fabric crafts in different sizes

DIY Hoop Art - Crafts with Fabric

What Is Rayon Fabric?

Rayon is a semi-synthetic fiber created in 1910 from natural sources of regenerated cellulose. It is also known as the first man-made fiber.

Rayon fabrics have versatile properties, so they can resemble the feel and texture of wool, cotton, silk, linen, and even nylon. It can be easily dyed in a wide variety of colors too. This type of fabric is ideal for hot and humid weather because it is soft, smooth, comfortable, cool, and highly absorbent. 

Textile Design

From fashion design to carpet manufacturing, textile design is a field that encompasses anything fabric or cloth-related. This field yields functional and everyday items such as clothes, carpets, towels, curtains, etc. The three major disciplines under textile design are printed textile design, woven textile design, and mixed media textile design. Over the years, the evolution of textile design has been integral in influencing other fields like fashion, interior design, and fine arts.

Pink fat quarter fabric with white leaf and floral patterns in a sewing machine

Learn easy no-sew fabric craft ideas in this online class!

Uses and Functions

The way we live is always changing, but there's one thing that never goes out of style - textiles! Textile translates to “anything made from threads or strands,” which encompasses a colorful array used in clothing and other household items like carpets and curtains. In fact, textile fabrics make up most of what you see around your home on a daily basis: bedsheets, towels, pillowcases, upholstery furnishings, and even car seats. Beyond their functionality and practicality, fabrics have an artistic and aesthetic value.

Textiles are also used in industrial processes (strengthening fiberglass) and scientific procedures, as well as the production of commercial items like backpacks, tents, nets, flags, cleaning rags, etc. Balloons, kites, sails, and parachutes also use textile fabrics. In addition, traditional handicrafts like sewing, quilting, embroidery, and knitting use various types of fabrics and textiles. Crafts with fabric have recently gained popularity - thanks to online stores like Etsy and social media sites like Pinterest and Instagram. 

Find no-sew fabric craft ideas on this page!

What Is Fabric Art?

Fabric art (also known as textile art) utilizes plant, animal, or synthetic fibers to create unique designs on either functional or ornamental things. Some examples are a piece of clothing, sculpture, canvas art, rug, or a DIY wall hanging. Fabric crafts can range from repurposed household items to DIY home decor and other everyday items decorated or created with fabric. There are a ton of ideas for fabric craft projects to make and sell readily available online.

2 DIY throw pillows with black text made from 2 different fat quarter fabric designs from Altenew

Make Fun & Cute DIY Throw Pillowcases

Crafts with Fabric

Creating crafts with fabric is another creative avenue for crafty people. Fabric is such a versatile material that renders well to a wide range of DIY projects: from cute pouches and coin purses to throw pillowcases and headbands. Here are a few fabric craft ideas to jumpstart your creativity.

  • Add a swatch of fabric as a textured background on your handmade cards.
  • Add decoupage medium to one side of the fabric - once it dries, you can treat it like paper! It cuts, scores, folds, and die-cuts beautifully.
  • Look up no-sew fabric craft tutorials online. You will be amazed at what you can do with fabric and fabric glue.
  • Ready to try sewing? Make beautiful tote bags, pouches, scrunchies, face masks, small garments, and more!

DIY tote bag with watercolor floral designs with craft supplies in it

DIY Floral Tote Bag for Craft Supplies

Start Your Fabric Crafting Journey Today!

With the right materials and a little bit of know-how, you can create beautiful fabric crafts that will add personality and style to any room in your home. Experiment with different fabric types and see which ones work best for you. And if you’re ever stuck or need some inspiration, check out our blog for more ideas on how to use fabric in your crafts. We can’t wait to see what amazing projects you’ll come up with!

 DIY wall hanging art with blue fabric and white floral die-cuts

DIY Fabric Craft Idea for Home Decor

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs):

A yard of fabric is 36 inches or 91.44 centimeters. 
Yes, you can. Acrylic paint works on fabric. However, the acrylic paint needs to be combined with a textile medium and set with heat (using an iron), so it won’t wash off the fabric.
Rayon is a semi-synthetic fiber and is also known as the first man-made fiber. It is made from natural sources of regenerated cellulose.
You can make sew or no-sew crafts with fabric. For the latter, you can use fabric glue or iron-on hem tape. 
A fat quarter of fabric is a common size for quilting and measures 18” by 22”.

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