Understanding Fabrics

This can be another confusing aspect of cloth pads…. “bamboo – isn’t that like making a pad of sticks”….. What is “PUL?”. Here is a brief rundown on some commonly used fabrics.

This is a fairly new fabric on the market (compared to the others). You may find it hard to believe bamboo canes can be made into a soft fabric, but it can! Its super soft! They use the fibrous inside of the bamboo canes to spin into thread to make the fabric. It commonly comes as jersey, velour, terry or fleece, generally with a small component of cotton (Anywhere from about 15% to 30%) which can help give it extra durability, although there are 100% bamboo fabrics available. The terry can come as a single or double sided loop. Bamboo as a fabric is more absorbent than cotton or hemp and much softer… it also has a slightly shiny look. It is not as durable as hemp however.

A ridged fabric, generally cotton, that can help stop the pad moving around in your underpants by providing a rougher surface that grips the fabric of your underpants. A good choice for wingless pads if you want something natural that doesn’t add much extra thickness. “Pinwale” refers to a fine close-together ridged fabric, and “Widewale” refers to one with very wide ridges.

Cotton (“Flat” cotton, “Quilting” cotton)
The “normal” cottons you can get for dress making or quilting. It is usually used as either a top fabric, or a backing fabric as it is available in a wide range of interesting prints, which make the pads visually appealing. They have the advantage over flannelette that they don’t look worn/faded as quickly, and do not pill. When wearing it as a top layer, you may not be able to tell much difference between the feeling of the cotton or flannelette, but it does not trap the flow as successfully as the fluffier pad toppings, so may feel “wetter”. Some find it also feels slightly cooler than a fluffier fabric, because it has no fluffy fibres to trap heat.

This is a cotton fabric, commonly used in Pjs, sheets. Called “Flannel” in the US, and “Flannelette” in Australia/UK (In Aus and UK “Flannel” technically refers to a wool product, not a cotton one). A common choice because of the variety of prints available, and the fact it is easy to find in local fabric stores. A good all rounder, and probably the most popular choice in pad toppings. This is a natural 100% cotton fabric. Slightly fluffy at first, though it looses some of this with prolonged use, and after it is washed can take on a slightly “pilled” and messy appearance. It is softer than plain cottons because of the fluffiness. Flannelette has a small amount of absorbency itself, and is often used for internal layers of pads, either as stabilising for other layers (such as hemp or bamboo) or in several layers itself.

This can be a little confusing because it can refer to many different types of fabric. Basically a “fleece” fabric is a fabric with a fluffy texture.

Polyester fleeces (Microfleece, Polarfleece, Windpro etc.) are used for pad tops and/or backing. As a top layer, a synthetic fleece (usually microfleece) can resist staining and provide a “stay dry” feel, where wetness is drawn through to the core, leaving the top feeling reasonably dry. As a backing, synthetic fleeces are used as a non-slip backing, and/or as a leak-resistant backing. The thicker or more dense a synthetic fleece fabric is, the better it will perform as a leak-resistant layer. A synthetic fleece backing helps to stop leaks as the blood tends to stay in the core rather than seeping through it, unless the core has become saturated (and then it can leak through the fleece). As the fabric is a more open weave there is more “breathability” than PUL, but its waterproofing is not as effective, so may not be suitable for a heavy flow.

Natural fleeces (Hemp, Cotton, Bamboo) are made by brushing the fabric to make this fluffy fabric. They are as absorbent as a terry, and used primarily as the absorbent “core” part of a cloth pad. They can also be used as a pad top or backing. A natural fleece backed pad will not be leak-proof at all, which is why it is important to understand the difference between a natural fleece and a polyester fleece.

This is generally a hemp cotton blend (50% hemp, 45% cotton), and unlike the stuff almost hessian-like woven hemps that you may think of when you ear “hemp”, the hemp blends used in cloth pads are as soft as cottons. Hemp is reportedly about 2-3 times more absorbent than cotton, yet the hemp fleece/terry most commonly used is quite a compact weave compared to a cotton terry, so this can make for a more absorbent core for less bulk than cotton terry. It’s also apparently antibacterial (though this is apparently in the oils and it therefore looses it over time). It is said that hemp needs around 6 washes to reach its maximum absorbency, so some pad makers prewash their hemp 2-3 times to get it started for you. While you can use the pads before the fabric has been washed 6 times, you will find it gets slightly more absorbent the more it is washed. As a crop, hemp is more environmentally friendly than cotton crops. It is commonly used in a Jersey, Terry, Fleece or Velour.

This is a thin T-Shirt fabric. Available in several Options (Cotton, Hemp, Bamboo). It may be 100% or a blend with something like spandex, Polyester or cotton. It is a common fabric – printed cotton jersey can be purchased through fabric stores fairly inexpensively. Other jerseys are normally purchased online or through specialty stores. It wears better than a flannelette (doesn’t “pill” or look as worn as flannelette can) and may be more absorbent than a plain/flat cotton because it is a little thicker.

This is a synthetic fabric, 80% polyester, 20% polyamide. Commonly used in household cleaning cloths. It reportedly holds around 7 times its weight in liquid, making it a very absorbent (and quick absorbing) fabric while being quite thin. It can however take a long time to fully dry, and it can also have trouble with compression leaking – where it gets filled like a sponge, and any pressure lets the liquid pool….. natural fibres tend not to do this. Sometimes this is used with a natural fibre to increase the absorbency and limit the pooling action.

“Ripstop” nylon or other forms of nylon fabric can be used as a water-resistant layer. They are thin fabrics and rely on the fact that the fabric itself doesn’t hold moisture and is a tight weave, so the blood is less likely to travel through. It is less water-resistant than a synthetic fleece, and much less than PUL.

Pilling is the term used to describe the little balls that form on some fabrics. This occurs over time with wear – specifically when fabrics are rubbing against something. In clothing (athletic wear and t-shirts in particular) you often find pilling happens between the legs, under arms and on the front. If you are unfamiliar with the term, you probably still know what the effect is. Some fabrics like “anti-pill” polarfleece are specially designed to resist pilling. Cloth pads can have pilling, with fleece and flannelette being particularly prone to it. It does not affect the performance of the fabric, it just detracts from the visual appeal. You can get special “lint shaver” tools that you can use to shave these balls off to restore the fabric to its former smooth appearance. Polyester fleeces are commonly made “anit-pill” which means they will not pill.

This is used to describe the fluffyness of a fabric. The fibres that stick straight up (more or less), as opposed to the flat weave/knit of a fabric. Fabrics such as Velour and velvet have a “pile”.

This is a fabric (usually polyester or cotton) that has been coated on one side with a thin film of waterproof plastic (polyurethene), to create a waterproofed fabric. So PUL stands for PolyUrethene Laminate. It is considered to be “breathable” – as the waterproof membrane lets no water through but will allow a little air through. This doesn’t mean you can breathe through it – it means that according to the industry standard, it allows a certain amount of airflow. Just enough to lessen the sweatiness compared to a PVC or other non-breathable plastic fabric. It was designed for uses such as raincoats, where the fabric is designed to allow airflow to prevent the wearer getting too sweaty inside the coat. Pads with this should be basically waterproof. Some people don’t like this as they feel the pad becomes as sweaty/non-breathable as a disposable pad and others find no sweatiness and can’t tell the difference in wearing from a non-waterproofed pad. The amount of menstrual flow, and how you flow can be different from woman to woman, so some women need it to prevent leaks and make them feel secure, and others can use pads without it. Examples of brands are ‘procare’, ‘fabrite’,’gore-tex’, ‘diaper maker’.

Quilter’s Cotton
This is a flat 100% cotton fabric, like you would use for dressmaking or craft projects. It is referred to as “quilter’s Cotton” because it is often found only in quilting shops, or in the quilting section of fabric stores and is a higher quality or more “designer” type fabric than a regular cotton. These are generally chosen for their range of prints.

Sherpa is a soft fabric that feels a bit like a fleece (like hemp/cotton fleece or polarfleece), but has a “bally” type appearance, a little bit like a sheepskin. It is generally a Cotton or cotton blend (20%poly) fabric. It has the advantage of being soft and absorbent. It is also somewhat thick, so it adds absorbency.

A synthetic fabric that is designed to resemble suede leather. It has a short pile, flatter than fleece. Feels soft.

These are 100% synthetics (man made fibres). Examples include polarfleece, microfleece, suedecloth, micro chamois and some velours. Because of the type of fabric, they can draw wetness down into the pad, leaving the top feeling drier, but this is more effective for heavy flow, as spotting can be too light to pass through as effectively. One disadvantage of a synthetic fabric is that they can feel hotter as they do not “breathe” as well as naturals. Because of their moisture repelling properties, some synthetics can provide a moisture resistant layer on the underside of a pad. Most notably polarfleece or microfleece. The synthetic fabric can also resist staining.

A fabric with a looped top. Sometimes called “Terry Towelling” (although “Terry Towelling” can also refer to the loopy thin fabric you might find made into tracksuits or baby clothes, which is polyester). The cotton terry is what you find in towels. Bamboo terry is similar to this, but has a shinier/silkier look and softer feel. Hemp or cotton “french terry” has shorter loops, and generally only on one side (the other is a smooth knit). This fabric is generally used as an internal absorbent layer in pads, or as inserts. It can also be used as a pad topping or backing. Some pads may be made from layers of this serged/overlocked together.

This is a velvet like fabric, slightly stretchy with a high pile (cut, not loopy). Feels very soft and nice against the skin. Generally commercially available in plain colours, occasionally printed. Available in natural (bamboo, cotton, hemp) or synthetic. The natural versions generally have a synthetic component – where the backing is polyester to give strength and durability (the pile being natural). The natural velours are harder to find (usually only available online), but has the advantages that natural fibres give. Synthetic velour has the advantages of synthetics as well as being cheaper and easier to find. Velours can feel drier on a pad than flatter fabrics (such as flannel or jersey) because of the “pile” of the fibres allows more airflow and space between the skin and the wetness. It also can help quickly grab the flow and allow it to absorb into the pad to avoid leaking.

Like velvet/velour, this fabric has a fluffy pile, which feels soft. Slightly shorter pile than Velour, and generally not stretch, and is more dense than velour. A cotton Velveteen will be more absorbent than a flat cotton because of the extra fabric in the pile. The pile seems to make the top feel dryer than a flatter no-pile fabric. Not commonly used due to its expense, though it is more readily available in fabric stores than a natural velour.

A waterproof fabric is one that does not allow moisture through. In cloth pad fabrics this is generally a PUL fabric. A pad with waterproofing is said to be less breathable, as the waterproof layer forms a barrier that limits airflow through the pad. However with the surrounding fabric being breathable, this is still more “breathable” than a conventional plastic disposable pad.

A water-resistant fabric is one that provides a level of leak-resistance in a pad, but is not completely waterproof. For a light flow this resistance may be enough to prevent leaks. Water-resistant fabrics, such as synthetic fleece or wool, can allow for more airflow through the pad than a waterproof fabric such as PUL. So these are seen to be a more “breathable” choice.

A natural option for water-resistance in a pad. Generally this is felt-like fabric used as the backing of a pad.