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A Guide to Understanding
the Fabric Behind Your Scrubs

Woman on laptop with fabrics working in a textile factory

You know that scrubs are made of fabric, but did you know that scrub fabric comes in a variety of fibers, weaves, finishes and treatments? Not all scrub fabric is created equal, and the first step to choosing the scrubs that fit your wants and needs is understanding how the fabric is made and what qualities it has as a result.

We’ve created a guide to help you become an expert in scrub fabric, whether you’ve never read a garment tag in your life or you sew for fun on the side. Below, we break down everything you need to know about scrub fabric, starting with fibers, moving onto weaves and, finally, wrapping up with treatments and finishes. After reading this guide, you’ll be able to understand the fine print on the product description or garment tag of scrubs, not to mention other garments as well.

Fibers

There are four main fabric fibers that appear regularly on scrubs’ tags: cotton, polyester, spandex and rayon. Whether used by themselves or blended together in various configurations, these four fibers are scrub fabric mainstays, so you should familiarize yourself with them.

Close up of clothing label showing wash instructions

Cotton

Cotton is one of the most common fabrics used to make any number of garments, including scrubs. And it’s for good reason: Cotton is lightweight, soft, flattering, durable and doesn’t build up static electricity. The fabric is thin yet strong, and it drapes nicely for a flattering fit, an important note for those who like to wear more form-fitting scrubs. Cotton is an especially good choice during the summer since it’s breathable and light, but it can be worn year round. Prints show up well on cotton, but dyes do fade with washing. Cotton may also shrink if it’s washed or dried improperly, and its fibers soil and wrinkle easily. However, it’s easy to launder and doesn’t really require any special care, and you can hang dry it if you’re worried about it shrinking. You may find 100 percent cotton scrubs, but this fiber is often blended with other fibers to prevent wrinkles and stop potential shrinkage.

Close up of water drops on black waterproof fabric

Polyester

Close behind cotton in terms of popularity is polyester. This synthetic fabric is derived from a chemical reaction that occurs between coal, petroleum, air and water (yes, really!). Because it’s synthetic, polyester doesn’t feel as “natural” as cotton, but it offers many advantages of its own: Polyester is wrinkle-resistant, easy to care for, durable and quick drying. It also resists stretching and shrinking, which it why it’s often blended with cotton (more on this blend below). Polyester is also moisture-resistant and not that absorbent, so it has a tendency to trap sweat instead of soaking it up like cotton. Some people don’t like the rough texture of pure polyester and this material can also build up static electricity, though washing it with fabric softener can stop this from happening. Speaking of the wash, polyester garments should be turned inside out to prevent snags and pilling. Wash the garments in warm water using fabric softener and then line dry them or put them in the dryer on low temperature with a dryer sheet.

Hand pulling on blue fabric to show stretch

Spandex

You probably associate spandex (also called Lycra® and elastane) with leotards, but this lightweight and durable synthetic material is used to add stretchiness to many types of clothing. However, spandex is resistant to stretching and shrinking permanently. It will stretch out, but then it will return to its original shape when you take off the garment, which is why spandex prevents bagging and sagging. As an added bonus, spandex is also resistant to perspiration and abrasion. However, spandex has a rather rough texture, so it’s not that comfortable to wear on its own. This is why it’s often blended with cotton, though if the fabric contains 10 percent or more spandex fibers, it won’t feel as comfortable as pure cotton. The washing protocol for spandex depends on how much is in the garment. Clothes containing up to 20 percent spandex can be washed on warm, followed by a cold rinse and then dried on low heat (for more spandex) or medium heat (for less spandex). Garments containing more spandex should be gently washed in cold water and then hung up to dry.

Red rayon fabric

Rayon

Rayon is a semi-synthetic fabric that is usually made from cellulose fibers taken from wood pulp, as well as additional chemicals. While it is derived from natural fibers, since the process requires certain chemicals, rayon is not considered a fully natural material in the way that cotton is. Rayon can be made to mimic the look and feel of almost any other fabric, including silk, wool, cotton and linen. This fabric comes in many different qualities and weights as a result. In general, it drapes well and looks soft and silky, but it’s not very durable over the long haul.

Rayon wrinkles easily and may also stretch or shrink when wet, so you have to be very careful when you wash it. Usually the safest bet with rayon is to hand wash and then line dry the garment. If the manufacturer’s tag says the scrubs can be washed in a machine, do it on the delicate cycle and then lie flat or hang dry the garment.

Blends

The four fabrics above are often combined with each other to forms blends of varying percentages–the two most common being polyester/cotton and polyester/spandex. Here’s what you need to know about each of them.

Infographic showing scrub fabric blends polyester cotton

Polyester/Cotton

These two fibers are a popular combination for both scrub fabric and other garments as well. The polyester helps the fabric retain its shape and resist stains and wrinkles, while the cotton makes the fabric absorbent and comfortable. However, the blend won’t possess any of these qualities as much as the pure original fabric, so a poly/cotton blend won’t be as breathable as 100 percent cotton, for example. Of course, the characteristics of the fabric depends how much of each fiber it contains, but generally a poly/cotton blend is versatile and durable. It also retains its dyes and prints through many wash cycles reasonably well, though it may pill when washed. To care for polyester/cotton fabric, machine wash on warm and then follow the manufacturer’s instructions for drying (usually drying in the machine on low to medium heat or hang drying).

Infographic showing scrub fabric blend polyester spandex

Polyester/Spandex

This fully synthetic blend is another popular choice for scrub fabric. The polyester provides durability and helps the garment maintain its shape, while the spandex adds some stretch and movement without sagging. Poly/spandex blends have a much silkier feel than cotton/spandex or cotton/poly blends and are virtually wrinkle-free. This blend is also moisture wicking and easy to care for. Like with poly/cotton blends, the exact qualities of the final fabric depend on the percentages of each fiber. As always, check the garment tag before washing a polyester/spandex blend garment and, when in doubt, wash on a cold, gentle cycle with similar colors and then tumble dry on low, hang up or lie flat to air dry.

Rolls of thread inside textile factory

Weaves

Determining the type of fibers used in a garment is only the first step to understanding scrub fabric. The next component to consider is the weave of the fabric, or how the horizontal (weft) and vertical (warp) threads are interlaced to create the actual fabric. There are three main weaves used in scrubs: poplin, dobby and twill.

Poplin

Poplin (also called tabinet) is a plain weave with crosswise ribs that normally give it a corded surface. This weave results in a durable fabric that prevents wrinkles and is easy to iron. Both sides of the plain weave fabric are the same and the surface of poplin fabric is smooth, which is why it’s a popular choice for printed fabrics. Historically, poplin used to refer to a type of fabric with a warp weave of silk and a weft weave of wool. However, now poplin is just a weave and poplin fabric may be made with any type of fiber. Common fiber choices for poplin garments include pure cotton and a cotton/polyester blend.

Close up of industrial dobby weaver in factory

Dobby

No, this isn’t a reference to a Harry Potter character. The dobby weave has actually been around since the 1840s. Dobby fabric is woven on a dobby loom, and the material can be distinguished by its extra texture and small geometric patterns. To create these patterns, a special piece of small equipment called a “dobby” is attached to the loom and used to raise and lower the warp (vertical) threads individually. The dobby weave is perhaps most well-known for creating the pique fabric used in polo shirts, but this versatile weave is also used on a variety of fibers and blends. The dobby weave results in a very absorbent fabric that prevents wrinkles, which is why it’s a popular choice for scrub fabric.

Man preparing cloth at a garment factory

Twill

This weave is created by passing the weft (horizontal) thread over two or more warp (vertical) threads and then repeating that pattern one warp thread over. This pattern forms diagonal, parallel ribs, contrasting the crosswise ribs of a plain weave. Because the rows of fabric are offset, twill weave tends to drape very well, leading to flattering garments. Twill fabric has a front side and a back side, unlike plain weave in which both sides of the fabric are the same. Twill weave fabrics already have a lot of texture and visual interest on their own, so they’re only occasionally used for prints. This texture also disguises soiling and stains well and the weave is durable and prevents wrinkles, which is why it’s often used for work uniforms such as scrubs. Denim is often made from a twill weave because of these characteristics.

Close up of colorful scrubs

Fabric Finishes and Treatments

After the fabric has been woven, it may be finished or treated in a variety of different ways to add different qualities to the material, such as moisture wicking or softness. Brushed cotton is an example of such a fabric. During the fabric creation process, the material is brushed on the face side to remove any excess lint and fibers, resulting in a very smooth and soft fabric that still provides the durability and high absorbency of cotton. Brushed cotton is different from flannel, which is brushed on both sides during the finishing process.

Fluid-repellent treatments are a popular finishing process for scrubs because nurses are around so many fluids (both bodily and not) all day. Another common liquid-related fabric treatment is a moisture-wicking finish, which helps the fabric absorb sweat from your skin and then dry quickly before you get cold and clammy. Finally, most antimicrobial scrubs are also coated with some kind of fabric treatment, though the exact process varies from manufacturer to manufacturer.

Fabrics are the building blocks of scrubs, and fibers, weaves and treatments are the building blocks of scrub fabric. After all, you wear scrubs for 12 or more hours at a time, so you want to make sure you are investing in comfortable, durable garments that will stand up to all kinds of challenges during a shift. Being an informed consumer and knowing how scrub fabric is made and what options are available will help you make the best decision as you shop for scrubs.

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