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Keep Napped Fabrics from Getting Nappy

Norm Oehlke |

‘My coat was soft and smooth when I left it for cleaning, and now it’s rough and stiff, and feels awful. What did you do to my expensive cashmere? It’s ruined.”
Let’s hope you never have to face an irate customer over the appearance of a napped fabric such as camel’s hair or cashmere. Napping is the process of producing a surface finish in which the fiber ends are raised to the surface of the fabric — some surface fibers stand up, rather than lay flat as in a plain weave.
These fabrics are manufactured at the mill with a short surface nap for a soft, silky, luxurious appearance and feel. The fibers may be clipped to a uniform length and brushed to lay flat, or processed to maintain a raised, upright position.
Napping traps air to increase the fabric’s warmth. It creates a natural water- and stain-repellent by keeping staining substances near the surface of the fabric. It also changes the appearance, texture and hand of a fabric, giving it a hairy, soft, lustrous feel. The appearance of a napped fabric will be changed by the alteration of light reflected on the nap.
Wool is often used for napped fabrics and can be combined with silk or Angora. The fur of the Angora rabbit is often used in knitted yarns and knitted fabrics because it gives a fluffy, silky appearance. Angora fibers are smooth, lustrous and resilient.
Fur fibers can also be used to add softness, color and value to the fabric. Fur fibers can add considerable cost to the end product, making luxury items that should be treated with respect.
Most camel’s hair and cashmere items require professional drycleaning to avoid shrinkage, color failure and other problems. Professional cleaners are equipped to properly steam, card, brush and finish the nap to restore its original appearance.
The same factors that enhance the texture of a napped fabric can affect the general appearance of the article. Because the fibers are on the surface of the fabric and often not well-secured, the nap may shed and abrade easily in wear and cleaning.
Napped fabric will also mat, pill and abrade more easily than tightly woven fabrics. A loss of nap may be noted first around the edges of the buttonholes, collars, pockets, seat, lapels, elbows and other areas of the garment that receive frequent rubbing in use.
A nap can be soft and long or heavy and short; the fabrics may be woven tightly or loosely formed. The shorter, tightly woven napped fabrics usually wear better than the longer, loosely constructed ones.
Cashmere and camel’s hair garments are typical napped fabrics. When new, they are soft, smooth and have a nice sheen. However, their condition will change with wear and care. These fabrics react much differently than most woven fabrics. Your customer doesn’t know this, so special caution must be exercised in the care process to keep the luxurious fabric looking nice.
Any unsupported surface fiber used to produce a nap will start to mat, ball up or abrade with wear alone. This begins in the areas of hardest use. Matting and abrasion of the nap is a progressive condition that is aggravated by wear, not the care process.
Consumers sometimes feel that the high price paid for a napped fabric ensures longevity. However, this fabric is purposely constructed to have a soft feel, and wear characteristics are sacrificed when compared to a tighter weave. This problem is not a defect in the fabric, but a natural characteristic of its construction.
Spotting. All napped fabrics should be tamped gently in spotting; avoid brushing. Brushing will cause severe entanglement of the surface nap, creating a dull, harsh area.
Spotting agents on the dry and wet sides alike should be tamped after being applied to the stain. Greater tamping is acceptable on the dry side, if necessary. Dry agents won’t contribute to the matting of the nap like wet agents can. Dyes on wool are quite stable on the dry side. Apply only the amount of wet-side agents necessary to soften and remove the stain — no more — and tamp gently.
Most napped fabrics will be made from wool products, so be careful when using protein removers. Some dyes on wool will bleed and change colors in the presence of alkalis (protein removers and ammonia). If a color change or dye bleeding is noted while using alkalis, flush the area well with steam to remove the alkali and neutralize it with a tannin formula or 28% acetic acid. Most dyes on wool are quite stable to tannin formulas and 28% acetic acid. In some cases, removal of old, set protein stains may not be completely successful due to a sensitive dye.
Protein stains such as blood can often be safely removed with the use of digesters. Digesters are neutral in pH and almost always safe on dyed wool; if the dye is alkali-sensitive, use a digester instead.
Some temporary flattening and distortion of the nap will be noted after repeated wet-side spotting. After all spotting is completed, lightly brush the nap in a downward direction with the spotting brush. Whipping the air gun back and forth over the spotted area helps raise the nap. The finisher can brush the area again once the fabric is dry, applying buck steam and brushing or carding lightly.
Finishing. Finishing napped fabrics properly is critical to controlling matting and balling of the surface fibers. Unless this is done, the customer will complain about the fabric’s rough texture and loss of softness. Some customers may go so far as to suggest that the coat is not theirs.
They remember the item for its soft, luxurious feel, which was probably the item’s main selling point. Matting can change the texture of the nap to such an extent that the garment won’t be recognized. To avoid such complaints, use special finishing procedures.
The distorted nap must be brushed, carded or combed out straight. Brushing or carding removes the harsh, stiff feel and restores the fabric’s original soft, smooth texture. To perform this properly, the item must first be thoroughly steamed with buck steam or steamed well on a steam form. While the fabric is still warm and moist with steam, brush it in a downward direction with a stiff-bristle brush or a carding brush. The construction of the fabric and degree of matting will determine what type of brush to use.
Some soft cashmeres and camel’s hair fabrics may only need a stiff-bristle brush while a heavier, badly matted fabric may require a wire carding brush. Be sure the fabric is still warm or moist with steam when brushed, because failure to first soften the fabric will make carding difficult and may pull fibers out of the weave.
It will be necessary to resteam the fabric several times before completing a carding or brushing. Pay particular attention to areas prone to wear such as the elbows, cuffs, seat and neck — or any place where the nap is matted or balled up, instead of smooth and shiny.
It requires extra time to finish a napped fabric properly, but the results will be noticeable. The fabric will feel softer and smoother, almost like the condition that attracted the customer to it at the time of purchase. Finishing can change an objectionable appearance to one of beauty. Once you’ve processed a napped fabric this way, you’ll realize how much the item has improved, and your customer will be back again.

About the author

Norm Oehlke

Retired Columnist

Norm Oehlke was the author of American Drycleaner's Spotting Tips column from 1996 through 2007, as well as the author of American Drycleaner's Spotting Guide. Now retired, he spent a lifetime in the industry — first in a plant, and from 1955 through 1995 at IFI and its predecessor, NID. He resides with his wife, Adeline, in Highland, Md.

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