How does a fabric handle?

It might sounds a bit strange to ask how a fabric handles, as this is usually a question reserved for sporty motorised vehicles. However, the definition is pretty much the same in both cases – “To behave or perform in a particular way when handled” – and refers to how the object feels. Handle is not something that usually springs to mind when I browse clothing in high street stores, because most fabric used in mainstream garments feels exactly the way you would expect. Chunky knit jumper with a dull finish and no fluffiness to the fibres? Yup, that’s cotton. But every now and again something comes along that surprises when you touch it., like wet-look leggings. The look like they’re made of PVC, so anyone with a little knowledge of fabrics would expect them to feel a bit stiff, but they were just as soft and flexible as ordinary leggings. They’re easily recognisable now, but were quite a surprise at first.

Ever since I spent three years studying textiles, I have been unable to resist fondling garments in shops so that I can find out whether the handle and drape are what I expect. Most of the time, I’m correct. Occasionally, stores throw me a curve ball. Today I reached out and grabbed something that my eyes and brain just couldn’t make any sense of whatsoever, and it was made from a soft synthetic knit with a pile… like knitted faux fur. Then I spotted a cute pleated skirt that I really couldn’t work out the fibre content of. Turns out it’s polyurethane!

It’s easy for designers to go for striking colours and patterns that look good in photographs, but it’s very clever indeed to design clothing using fabrics with a handle so pleasing that you have to buy it after just one touch. Not only does it appeal if something feels interesting to your own skin, but it’s also a great conversation starter with someone you’ve got your eye on! I’m not sure if I’m in the minority with my need to touch fabrics in order to fully understand them, but it makes me happy that some retailers are also thinking that way too. The world needs more touchy-feely clothes.

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