Different terms used interchangeably can result in a lot of confusion. Two of those terms are cloth and fabric. While it doesn’t make a lot of difference when you use these materials in your next sewing project it helps to know these differences so you can make better choices.
To define the term cloth all you need to know is that it is a woven or felted material made from wool, cotton, or similar fibers. Fabric on the other hand is defined as fibers made by either weaving or knitting.
The differences between the two terms may be minuscule and too technical to worry about but keep reading to find out those differences. You may be able to impress others with your extensive fabric knowledge.
To most people and the dictionary we consulted, the two terms actually mean the same thing. The only real difference between the words, according to the dictionary, is when the term cloth is applied to a clergyman.
They say ‘a man of the cloth’ not ‘a man of the fabric.’ Another dictionary said similar things defining the term fabric as a ‘cloth’ that has been made from different fibers. Of course, all the examples to illustrate the word cloth have used natural fibers and not synthetic ones.
Another difference between the application of the two terms, also not related to sewing, etc., is the phrase ‘the fabric of society.’ You do not hear anyone saying ‘the cloth of society’.
Those may be technical differences but they illustrate the point that the two terms are used to refer to the same fabric except when they are used outside of the clothing industry. Then they have completely different meanings and applications.
As you can see from the two dictionaries we consulted to find out if there actually is a difference, there really is no difference between them. The two terms are used interchangeably and refer to the same items when used in the sewing and fabric worlds.
Sometimes you may see some people claiming that the term cloth is being used metaphorically but generally when those two terms are used, they mean and refer to the same items. You go to a fabric store because that sounds nicer than saying you are going to the cloth store.
Also, the term fabric gives everyone the exact meaning of your sentence. They know exactly which store you are going to. You are going to a store that sells fabrics still on the bolt and not made into clothing.
If you say, you are going to the clothing store, everyone also knows clearly where you are going. You are not going to a fabric store with bulk materials ready to be sewn. Instead, they know you are going to a store that has that fabric already made into clothing items.
Usage in a sentence shows the difference but when applied correctly to materials to make clothes, they are referring to the same thing.
As we do our research for this article, it seems that the difference between these terms, including textiles, is more technical than a difference between synthetic fibers and natural ones. In the latter case, you can actually see the difference and the ingredients are vastly different.
But with the word textile, it is not so black and white. The word textile can include materials for carpets, rugs, and even plastics. They are created by interlacing fibers together. But that definition can be applied to the terms cloth and fabrics.
Textile fibers are fibers made from silk, rayon, yarn, thread, chemical fibers, and even metal wire. In other words, the same things cloth and fabrics are made from to some extent.
The application and use of the textile items may be broader than cloth or fabrics but it also just may be a technical name to divide the cloth and fabric categories up a little further.
To be honest, we see little difference between these 3 terms as we have gone through our research. There may be subtle differences but everything that has been mentioned to define each term can actually be applied to all terms.
For example, the concept of medical textiles can be seen as the same as medical cotton fabric or cloth. Even the products made by textiles can be made from cloth or fabric. Those items include hats, bags, rugs, medical fabric, plastic items, and the list goes on.
The one difference may be that geotextiles are a bit different from regular cloth and other fabrics. Geotextiles are a fabric, yes that word is used in their definition, to help with soil conditions. In fact, the definition specifically says ‘permeable fabrics’.
So even here it may be hard to separate textiles from either fabrics and cloth. The best thing one can say is that these terms represent a different application of the terms one more for government or political needs and laws and the others used by the general public.
It is the same as cloth in clothing. That term is a generic term that doesn't really differentiate between actual materials used. It is a classification one uses when they are looking for a good cloth to sew in their next sewing project.
In other words, the term fabric is used to clearly define the material used in clothing and keep it separate from the material you use as a rag or cleaning tool. Also, it can be used to describe the quality of material used in a suit, shirt, dress, and so on.
For example, ‘that is a nice piece of fabric you used to make that ___________’ Or ‘that is fine quality cloth you used to make your ___________.’ You can use either term but fabric may be less confusing than the term cloth.
According to one source, the term fabric has an archaic definition that meant building or structure. Not so much a physical building but how fibers fit together or how society works together and so on.
Fabric cloth, under the archaic definition, could be seen as building cloth for your next clothing sewing project. The fabric cloth provides the structure you need to make sure the garment looks good, drapes well, and holds together for a long time.
Also, fabric cloth can be seen as just plain cloth which has the ancient meaning of any fiber woven together into a fabric. Cloth, like fabric, has more than 1001 uses and applications. It is a term used to describe how something is wrapped.
But then, one can exchange that term with fabric without losing any meaning or making the description seem awkward.
This is a good example of what we have been talking about throughout this article. There is a label called Terry cloth fabric and it is supposed to be nice and soft as well as absorbent.
But in the description of the material, the word fabric is used. One had said, this is a fabric... Plus it can be woven or knitted just like cloth can. There is a smooth side, and a looped side depending on the weave or knit style.
Also, it is a very absorbent material which can be made into ‘burp cloth’. In other words, this fabric is also cloth and used for the same purposes. Then the name terry cloth doesn't restrict the use of terms used to define this material.
People will say ‘terry cloth is a fabric.’ So the terms are going to be used interchangeably no matter what fiber is being used to create the article of clothing, etc.
Actually, these two items belong to the geotextile category of the textile or fabric industries. They are basically the same items with the landscape fabric being used to help control soil erosion and other landscape issues.
The material is permeable in both cases and made from synthetic fibers. The difference lies in that filter cloth does exactly what its name says- it is filtering different items out of whatever material you want to remain pure.
Landscape fabric is used in one instance to stop weeds from growing. It is a barrier and not a filter and may block light to stop those weeds.
There really is no difference between the terms cloth and fabric. Even the dictionaries do not define them in a way that would show a line between the two. You can use the two terms interchangeably without fear of being mistaken.
When you buy cloth, you are buying fabric.