History of Fabrics

Fabric is woven into humanity and has touched so many lives—beginning in ancient times when primitive peoples used flax fibers, separated into strands and plaited or woven into simple fabrics colored with dyes extracted from plants. Given the intimate history of people and fabric, it is hard to imagine that the industry or “art” of making fabric has evolved into one that adversely affects the environment. The fabric business is often used to symbolize the transformation of manufacturing brought about by the industrial revolution, as it was one of the first industries to benefit from the energy produced by the steam engine powered by fossil fuel. With industrialization, the fabric industry transformed from one grounded in nature to one that relies heavily on synthetic materials and chemicals.

For thousands of years before the introduction of synthetic fibers, the four great fibers in the fabric industry were flax, wool, cotton and silk, all products created from natural, rapidly renewable and abundant sources. Innovators developed synthetic fabrics to overcome some of the inherent limitations of natural fibers: cotton and linens wrinkle; silk requires delicate handling; and wool shrinks and can be irritating to the touch. Rayon, the first man-made fiber produced to emulate silk, became commercially available in 1910. Nylon, “the Miracle Fiber,” came to market in 1939 as one of the first synthetic fibers created from petrochemicals. It established an entire new world for synthetic fibers—including thread and women’s hosiery—and quickly replaced silk in a range of applications. Nylon became the dominant fiber for tents and parachutes in World War II. Nylon’s successful adaptation opened the door for other synthetic fibers.

At the time nylon was introduced, cotton was the king of fibers, making up 80 percent of all fiber production. By 1945, cotton production had decreased to 75 percent and its use in the home furnishings market continued to decline. Synthetic fibers made up 15 percent of the balance of the market, with wool and other fibers making up the remaining 10 percent. As more synthetics were developed, however, the manmade cellulose-based fibers like rayon, and the new fossil fuel fibers and films—acrylic, nylon, polyester, and polyvinyl chloride (See sidebar “Discovering Vinyl Film”)—continued to replace natural fibers. Synthetics delivered greater comfort, soil release, broader aesthetic range (for example, special dullness or luster could be achieved), dyeing capabilities, improved fiber cross section and longitudinal shape, tensile strength, abrasion resistance, colorfastness and better blending qualities, as well as lower costs.

The man-made fibers and films, and a steadily growing palette of synthetic additives, made it possible to add flame-retardancy, wrinkle and stain resistance, antimicrobial properties and a host of other performance improvements. By the mid-1960s, synthetics increased in market share to over forty percent. In the 1970s, a wave of greater consumer awareness and recognition of increasing product liability stimulated market demand for flame resistance in children’s sleepwear, carpet and other products, including upholstery fabrics. For some, manufactured fibers meant “life made better.”

Fabrics made from Natural Fibers

Natural fibers have been used for apparel and home fashion for thousands of years, with the use of wool going back over 4,000 years

EST. DATE FIBER BACKGROUND AND PRODUCTION
5,000+ BC FLAX
  • Generally considered to be the oldest natural textile fiber.
  • Fine linen was used as burial shrouds for the Egyptian pharaohs
  • Largest producer Soviet States; other large producers include Poland, Germany, Belgium and France. Largest exporters are Northern Ireland and Belgium.
3,000+ BC COTTON
  • Earliest use estimated between 3,000 BC to 5,000 BC.
  • Worn by Egyptians earlier than 2,500 BC.
  • Eli Whitney's invention of the cotton gin in 1793 revolutionized the processing of cotton.
  • The development of the power loom in 1884 brought significant improvements and variations to cotton fabrics.
  • Major producers United States, Soviet States, China and India. Lessor producers include Pakistan, Brazil, Turkey, Egypt, Mexico Iran and Sudan.
3,000 BC WOOL
  • Used by people of the Late Stone Age,
  • There are 40 different breeds of sheep, which produce approximately 200 types of wool of varying grades.
  • Major producers include Australia, New Zealand, Soviet States, China, South Africa, and Argentina.
2,600 BC SILK
  • Believed discovered by a Chinese princess.
  • Silk is made from two continuous filaments cemented together and used to form the cocoon of the silkworm.
  • Silk culture began about 1725 BC, sponsored by the wife of China's emperor.
  • Secrets of cultivation and fabric manufacturing were closely guarded by the Chinese for about 3,000 years.
  • There is a story that two monks smuggled seeds of the mulberry tree and silkworm eggs out of China by hiding them in their walking sticks.
  • India learned of silk culture when a Chinese princess married an Indian prince.
  • The major producer and exporter of silk is Japan.

Fabrics made from Man-made Fibers

It is important to understand that all manufactured fibers are not alike. Each fiber has a unique composition and it's own set of physical properties. The U. S. Federal Trade Commission has established generic names and definitions for manufactured fibers, including acetate, acrylic, lyocell, modacrylic, nylon, polyester, polypropylene (olefin), rayon, and spandex.

DATE FIBER FIRST COMMERICAL PRODUCTION
1910 RAYON
  • The first man-made fiber.
  • The first commercial production of rayon fiber in the United States was in 1910 by the American Viscose Company.
  • By using two different chemicals and manufacturing techniques, two basic types of rayon were developed. They were viscose rayon and cuprammonium rayon.
  • Today, there are no producers of rayon in the U.S.
1924 ACETATE
  • The first commercial production of acetate fiber in the United States was in 1924 by the Celanese Corporation.
1939 NYLON
  • The first commercial production of nylon in the United States was in 1939 by the E. I. du Pont de Nemours & Company, Inc. It is the second most used man-made fiber in this country, behind polyester.
1950 ACRYLIC
  • The first commercial production of acrylic fiber in the United States was in 1950 by E. I. du Pont de Nemours & Company, Inc.
1953 POLYESTER
  • The first commercial production of polyester fiber in the United States was in 1953 by E. I. du Pont de Nemours & Company, Inc.
  • Polyester is the most used man-made fiber in the U.S.
1954 TRIACETATE
  • The first commercial production of triacetate fiber in the United States was in 1954 by the Celanese Corporation.
  • Domestic Triacetate production was discontinued in 1985.
1959 SPANDEX
  • The first commercial production of spandex fiber in the United States was in 1959 by E. I. du Pont de Nemours & Company, Inc.
  • It is an elastomeric man-made fiber (able to stretch at least 100% and snap back like natural rubber).
  • Spandex is used in filament form.
1961 POLYOLEFIN/
POLYPROPYLENE
  • The first commercial production of an olefin fiber manufactured in the U.S. was by Hercules Incorporated.
  • In 1966, polyolefin was the world's first and only Nobel-Prize winning fiber.
1989 MICRO FIBERS/
MICRODENIER
  • The first commercial production of micro fiber in the U.S. was in 1989 by E. I. du Pont de Nemours & Company, Inc. Today micro fibers are produced in a variety of synthetic fibers (i.e. polyester, nylon, acrylic, etc.)
  • The true definition of a micro fiber is a fiber that has less than one denier per filament. Micro Fiber is the thinnest, finest of all man-made fibers. It is finer than the most delicate silk.
  • To relate it to something more familiar--A human hair is more than 100 times the size of some micro fibers
1993 LYOCELL
  • The first commercial production of lyocell in the U.S. was in 1993 by Courtaulds Fibers, under the Tencel¬ trade name.
  • Environmentally friendly, lyocell is produced from the wood pulp of trees grown specifically for this purpose. It is specially processed, using a solvent spinning technique in which the dissolving agent is recycled, reducing environmental effluents.