While microfiber products have been in existence for more than twenty years, fewer than twenty percent of all car owners use microfiber products to care for or detail their cars.
So What is Microfiber?
Microfiber is the terminology used to describe ultra-fine manufactured fibers and the name given to the technology of developing these fibers. Fibers made using microfiber technology, produce fibers which weigh less than 0.1 denier. The fabrics made from these extra-fine fibers provide a superior hand, a gentle drape and incredible softness.
Comparatively, microfibers are two times finer than silk, three times finer than cotton, eight times finer than wool, and one hundred times finer than a human hair. Currently, there are four types of synthetic microfibers being produced. These include acrylic, nylon, polyester and rayon. In this article, I will be discussing the most common blend of microfiber material used in automotive detailing applications; nylon and polyester.
Automotive microfiber is created by combining two DuPont fiber inventions: polyester and polyamide (nylon). The polyamide is used as the core of the hybrid fiber (generally 20 to 30% of the content) and the polyester is the outer skin (70 to 80%). Each fiber has specific qualities that, when properly blended, can be used to weave functionally specific fabrics. For the purposes of this discussion, I’m specifically referring to toweling and other automotive detailing products.
The superior cleaning and water absorbing ability offered by many microfiber fabrics happened quite by accident. Microfiber yarn development in the 1980s and early 1990s was specifically intended to stimulate competition for natural yarn materials, like cotton and silk. One of the early adopters of microfiber yarn was Olsson Cleaning Technology, Sweden, who discovered that splitting the fibers made the fibers “grab” and improved the performance of cleaning towels.
By 1994, the semiconductor industry was introduced to microfiber cleaning cloths, which could be used to wipe down the clean rooms used to produce memory, computer processors and other microchips. The benefit was huge because it was no longer necessary to use cleaning chemicals and the microfiber was nearly lint-free.
The best way to understand microfiber engineered for cleaning is to look at a cross section of the fiber itself. As you can see in the diagram below, the fiber is sliced into wedges (polyester) and attached to spokes (polyamide). Changing the fiber design allows cloth to be woven that scrubs, polishes or absorbs (e.g., functionally specific fabric). This was not previously possible.
Polyester wedges have the ability to scrape away microscopic bits of dirt while the polyamide spokes create a wicking action that pulls liquid into the fiber. Many microfiber yarn manufactures claim their microfiber yarn will absorb seven to eight times its weight in water, nearly double the capacity of cotton.
FYI: A recent study suggests that microfiber towels are potentially effective in removing bacteria from smooth surfaces.
The cross section diagram above is a standard microfiber thread. It’s approximately ten microns in diameter. To contrast, the average human hair is about 250 microns in diameter. If that isn’t descriptive enough, imagine a cloth with 90,000 to 200,000 fiber strands in a square inch of fabric. This stuff is tiny. To the human eye this thread would be all but unnoticeable.
When woven into cloth it has a soft feel, like cashmere or silk. The micro-replication design in the fiber shown creates a capillary action with quick, strong absorbency. This is what enables good automotive microfiber towels to clean and polish at the same time.
Automotive Microfiber Products
There is a diverse offering of microfiber products for automotive detailing, including towels, applicators, gloves, dusters and wash mitts. In the towels category alone, you will find dozens of different weaves, material weights, fabric blends, colors and sizes. It’s almost dizzying when you look at the different products side-by-side.
Here’s how I categorize microfiber towels for my own use:
1. General Purpose – This is typically a microfiber towel (16″ by 16″) with a standard terry cloth weave and an 80/20 blend of polyester and polyamide. The towel has no specific purpose, and will be equally adept wiping paint, glass, vinyl, plastic and leather. This towel will have a medium thickness (plush-ness) nap. If you do a lot of quick detailing on your car, this will be the towel you use most frequently.
Glass & Polishing – Microfiber cloths that work well for polishing and glass cleaning seem to have the same basic characteristics. First, the towel should be 100% lint free. In most cases, this means the weave is going to have a shorter nap than a general purpose towel.
Many people believe that a good glass towel will leave as little water as possible so the droplets will evaporate without leaving a spot. A decent glass towel needs scrubbing power to successfully remove the residues that cause streaking. It’s the same characteristic that makes a good polishing cloth.
A new generation of “edgeless” microfiber towels reduces possibility of scratching by removing the binding.
2. Drying – There are two different microfiber toweling weaves that make good drying towels: terry cloth and waffle (Piqué) weave. I have found that a short terry loop or one of the offset (longer on one side than the other) terry loops work well for drying. If you choose a microfiber terry cloth with a heavy, plush nap, you won’t be able to wring it out when it gets wet. My favorite drying towel material is the Piqué fabric that mimics a waffle pattern. It has the ability to wick up water like nothing else I’ve found or tested.
According to Leo Cerruti, a manufacturer of natural microfiber products, “[Piqué fabric] isn’t more absorbent than terry but the ridges act as hundreds of little squeegees which push the water up into the cups giving the fabric time to absorb.” As with the terry material, it’s best to find a fabric that’s not too heavy, or you won’t be able to wring it out when it gets saturated.
Microfiber “waffle weave” drying towels come in a range of colors and fabric weights. The fabric weight and differences in the weave dramatically change how the towels feel and perform. The highest quality drying towels offer satin bound edging.
3. Cleaning – There are a few microfiber weaves that are marketed specifically as “cleaning towels”. The nap is very tight and course, and the microfiber strands are not split. These towels have very little absorbency. The intended purpose of these towels is janitorial work, not car detailing. What I have found works best for me are hand towel size waffle weave towels and polishing towels.
Detailing Towels are an excellent solution for interior cleaning, window cleaning and wiping down door jambs.
4. Final Buffing – A couple years ago microfiber “suede” fabrics hit the clothing market. These fabrics crossed over into the automobile detailing arena as final wipe towels and final buffing bonnets. I have not been overly impressed with the fabric for automotive use. It is soft, but it does not seem to perform any better on paint (for final buffing) than a general purpose towel.
You may have seen microfiber towels labeled for other uses, but I have not found anything to date that does not fit into the five categories I listed above.
The Sonus Der Wunder Buffing Towel has a nice bound and stitched border for scratchless use. The towel has a dual nap that also makes it an excellent choice for buffing off waxes and quick detailing.
After buying and using microfiber products, I have made some observations:
1. The look and feel is deceptive. You cannot judge how a microfiber product will perform by its look or feel alone. You must test. Some towels that look and feel very soft and plush may, in reality, leave micro marring on a delicate paint finish.
2. Color makes a significant difference. Dark colors will not feel as soft as light colors. You can take towels of the exact same fabric that are dyed different colors and the darker towel will not feel as plush or soft.
3. Edge binding makes the most significant difference in towel safety (as a detailing towel). Towels surge bound with heavy polyester thread or improperly cut by a hot wire are more likely to cause micro marring on your paintwork.
4. The weave determines the best function of the towel, not the material blend or weight. While it’s true that polyamide is more absorbent than polyester, a towel made from a blend of 70% polyester and 30% polyamide is not necessarily a better drying towel than an 80/20 blend (respectively). The weave and fiber treatment (splitting) will determine the wicking ability of the towel as much or more than the material blend.
Guidelines For Comparing Products
The market for microfiber towel products, especially automotive towels, is fierce. With the demand for microfiber increasing in both retail and professional channels, dozens of small factories in Korea and China have sprung up, seemingly over night, to compete solely on cost. These factories are flooding the American market with low-cost, inferior products.
There is a significant difference between quality microfiber towels and junk coming in by the boat load.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Most inexpensive towels use microfiber thread that is not split. Quality microfiber towels absorb 7-8 times their weight in water because the fibers are split, creating more surface area. The cheap towels are not split because the equipment necessary to produce micro-replication splitting is very expensive.
2. The Microfiber threads on cheap towels are larger. Quality microfiber strands are .01 to .02 denier. Lately, I’ve been seeing very inexpensive cloths coming from China with a denier of .5 or higher. That’s about the same as the polyester thread used in bath towels for increased durability.
3. Some of the inexpensive towels may also be 100% polyester or have low polyamide content. As a result, the towels will have little absorbency capability.
Before you buy a bundle of microfiber towels at a ‘bargain” price, look, feel and read the label.
These don’t need to be expensive microfiber detailing towels. As long as the cloths are suitable for detailing a fine automobile you are good to go! But remember, just because it’s “microfiber” does not mean it’s a quality product!
When comparing quality microfiber towels, here’s what you need to know to make an intelligent buying decision:
1. Towel density is important. Density is a measure of fibers per square inch of fabric. The range for quality microfiber is 90,000 to 225,000 fibers per square inch. Generally speaking, the higher the fiber count the better the towel will absorb water and clean.
2. The ratio of the polyester and polyamide blend is important. While 80% polyester and 20% polyamide is typical, a 70/30 blend will absorb water faster. As polyamide is much more expensive than polyester, you can expect to pay more for a 70/30 blend.
3. Make sure you look at the weave and fabric thickness (plush-ness) of the towel. Depending on the specific task the cloth is designed to perform, the fiber ends may be hooked (for cleaning), feathered (for polishing and glass cleaning), or tufted (for drying).
4. We all know the saying; it costs more to make quality. Microfiber is no different. Quality construction is not always obvious, so let me share some observations. The biggest complaint with automotive microfiber is that towels with cheap edging scratch your paint. There are two possible reasons. First, the factory uses a hot wire system to cut their towels.
If not properly adjusted, or if a cheap machine is used, the hot wire will melt the fabric. When polyester and nylon melt, they turn into hard plastic. The second complaint is that the towel creates excessive lint. Microfiber lint is caused by towels with a high pile or a broad weave using a fiber split that’s inappropriate. The high pile or loose weave allow the fibers to break off, creating lint. The same split fiber used in a towel with a higher fabric density will lint less or not at all.
Do not assume that a towel that does not lint is a high quality towel. The cheapest towels don’t lint because they do not have split fibers.
Using microfiber towels is pretty simple. For cleaning, you simply wet, wring and wipe. For drying you wipe, wring and wipe. How much easier could it be? Of course, there’s a lot more to detailing than just cleaning.
One of the most common uses of the microfiber towel is quick detailing. If you’re not familiar, quick detailing is a light cleaning to remove dust, finger prints, water spots and other minor contamination. Microfiber towels make quick detailing a snap. Simply mist your car with a quick detailing spray and wipe.
There is a catch. When using microfiber towels, it’s best to wipe in a single direction until all visible dust and contamination is removed, flipping the towel frequently. A good microfiber cannot unload particles without being immersed in water. If you wipe back and forth while quick detailing, you will be rubbing the dirt you pick up back and forth over the paint.
When using microfiber to remove polish or wax, wipe in a back and forth motion, not in circles. Most microfiber polishing towels perform better this way. When used in a circular motion, the fibers will unload some of the product previously picked up. Flip and refold the towel frequently to maintain a fresh side. When the polish or wax begins to smear, it’s time to get a fresh towel.
I have read a lot of tips on how to clean and care for microfiber. People seem to be all over the map with their recommendations. It’s really very simple.
The best general purpose cleaner is a liquid detergent. It’s better to use too little than too much. Liquid is recommended over powder because some powders do not completely dissolve and the granules will lodge in the toweling.
Wash in cold water only. Warm water can be tolerated, but hot water cannot. Polyester and polyamide both shrink in hot water. If you wash in hot water the fibers will shrink and the towel will not perform as intended.
Do not use fabric softeners of any kind. The softener will become lodged in the microfiber reducing its ability to absorb water, clean and pick up dirt. In short, you’ll have a soft towel that’s useless.
Do not dry above medium heat. Treat microfiber towels the same as you would your delicate clothing. Drying with high heat is worse that washing in hot water.
Sonus has a special detergent specifically designed for washing detailing products out of microfiber and foam detailing accessories. Sonus Der Wunder Wasche is a highly concentrated liquid detergent that a cleaning solution was developed specifically for cleaning microfiber towels. Sonus Der Wunder Wasche is an active cleaner designed to restore microfiber towels, wash mitts, applicators and foam buffing pads to their as-new condition. Der Wunder Wasche is an engineered blend of micro cleaning agents designed to lift, emulsify and suspend waxes, polish residue, oils, proteins, silicones and soil for complete removal in the rinse water.
The Der Wunder Wasche formula cleans without bleach and softens through natural fiber lifting. With regular use, Der Wunder Washe extends the life of all microfiber textiles and foam pads.
Most Valuable Player
The most versatile microfiber product I have discovered to date is the waffle weave detailing towel. Originally designed to be a drying towel, the waffle (Piqué) weave has the best characteristics of several different weaves, making it adept as a drying towel, polishing towel, glass cleaning towel, and a quick detailing towel. The Piqué pattern does not allow it to be a good cleaning towel because it does not have hooked fibers to pull dirt away. If you’re looking for a single towel to do the most work, go waffle!
Choose a light grey, purple or white waffle towel (these are the softest) in a medium weight. The heavy weight towels are good for drying only. For drying, the best size is 25’ by 36” (bath towel size). For all other work the best size is 16” by 26” (hand towel size).
Critics Be Gone
Even after years of safe, beneficial use, there are still microfiber critics. Staunch supporters of 100% made-in-America terry cloth cotton toweling claim that cotton is the only safe toweling material. Possibly these people have not seen the magnified results of cotton vs. microfiber toweling.
The future of this wonderful technology is very bright. Manufacturers are developing unique ways to deal with towel bindings to eliminate potential paint scratching problems. Competition from the low-cost providers is keeping the quality towel prices in check. We should expect to see better fabrics with new weaves and even higher thread counts in the near future.
Be sure to also check out the Paint Repair Clinic section of the website!