History of Textile Fabrics
History and origin of fabrics, the introduction of various textile fibers to mankind each from natural and man-made categories.
The 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 entirely new world of 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.
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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.
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