So many people underestimate the role fabric plays in their lives. Sure, we all put on clothes every day, many of us without a second thought. But have you ever stopped to think how many important moments and everyday experiences in your life are associated with some form of fabric? From your childhood blanket to your wedding dress, and your favorite worn-out jeans, fabric plays a major role not only in how we live but also how we feel. The look, touch and even scent of a familiar piece of clothing can bring to mind a first love, a cherished vacation memory or simply a sense of comfort.
We also use fabric to express ourselves. Even beyond the world of high fashion and designer labels, many people even feel that putting together outfits is the ultimate form of creative expression. We use different clothing styles, colors, materials and textures to express mood, attitude and personality.
Fabric and clothing also play an important role in religious and social beliefs. From the earliest recorded history, a person's clothes could give us an instant glance into their socio-economic status. Where today we hold those designer tags in highest regard, thousands of years ago, just the fact that one was able to afford clothing at all was a sign of wealth. Today, many religious orders are readily associated with certain types of fabric and clothes, from the bright yellow garb of the Buddhist monk to the heavy black burkas worn by many Muslim females, to the colorful hand-spun clothing associated with traditional African religions.
Above all, fabric serves a practical function. It protects us from cold and heat, the rain and the bright sun. We use blankets to cover ourselves as we sleep and woven rugs to cushion our steps as we walk.
With all of the contributions fabric makes to our everyday lives, many people don't stop to think how fabric is created. The process of turning natural and synthetic fibers into cloth is much more complicated than is commonly thought. In this article, we'll learn how the fibers used to make up fabric are extracted and transformed into the clothing and textiles we're familiar with.
Read on to the next section to learn about the many different materials fabric can be made from and how they are grown and harvested.
Raw Materials for Fabric
The raw materials that make up fabric can be divided into three distinct categories: those derived from natural plant sources, those from animals and those that are man-made.
To understand how fabric is created, we must first learn how these materials are harvested or created, and what must be done before they're ready to be sent on their journey into fabric production.
Cotton - This material comes from the cotton plant and is harvested by machine, then sent to a cotton processing plant. There, it's run through a series of rollers, which remove the seeds, clear away any debris or impurities, and separate the material into bales.
Flax - The flax plant is used to make linen. The plants are pulled from the ground by hand, flattened to remove seeds and combed through to separate the fibers in preparation for fabric production [source: Thomas Jefferson Agricultural Institute].
Silk - This material is made by harvesting the cocoon of the silkworm, which is lined with a thin layer of silk filament that is softened and then removed as one single thread. This thread will be twisted together with several others before it is moved to the next stage of production, as single threads are too thin to work with.
Wool - The coat of a sheep is shorn, and the resulting fleece is washed and carded, or rearrange it into a shape that will be easier to turn into fabric. It can be done by hand or machine, and produces a square mat of fibers.
Rayon - Invented in the late 19th century, this material is a popular alternative to silk. It's made by forcing cellulose through a machine called a spinneret. This machine is similar to a showerhead, and it forms the cellulose from liquid to a solid filament. Cellulose itself is a simple sugar polymer derived from plants [source: FiberWorld Classroom].
Nylon - Nylon can truly be called the first man-made fiber. While it's produced the same way rayon is, the ingredients that go into nylon production are not derived from plant sources. Nylon is made from coal and petroleum by-products, water and air.
Polyester - This material is a step up from nylon and rayon in terms of strength and versatility. While it, too, is made by forcing chemicals through a spinneret, the chemicals used for polyester are derived from alcohols.
The Manufacturing Process of Fabric
There are three basic steps required for fabric production. The first step in creating fabric is yarn production. Here, the raw materials that have been harvested and processed are transformed from raw fibers into yarn and threads. This is done by spinning the fibers. Spinning can be done by hand, but this process is quite tedious and time consuming. These days, the vast majority of spinning is done by spinning wheel. The fibers are drawn across the wheel, and as it spins, the fibers are collected on a cylindrical object called a bobbin. The bobbin holds the spun fibers, which are now connected into a long strand of thread or yarn. In the next step, the bobbins will be transferred to another machine, where the yarn will continue on its journey into fabric.
After the raw materials have been converted into yarn, they're ready for the second step in the production process, which involves joining these individual threads together to form fabric. This process of joining the yarn together is called weaving. Weaving is done on a machine known as a loom and requires two sets of yarn. The first set, called the warp set, is strung tautly across a metal frame. The second, called the weft, is connected to metal rods, with one thread per rod. The loom is controlled by a computer, which lets the weft know how the fabric should be woven.
After the fabric has been woven, it's removed from the loom and is ready for the final step: processing. Fabric that's fresh off the loom is called greige, and it looks nothing like the crisp white sheets or clothing you're used to. It's discolored and full of impurities, seed particles and debris. Before it can be transformed into useful textiles, it must be cleaned. First, it's treated with bleach to purify the base color. Next, it's treated with a variety of chemicals and cleaners to remove oils, wax and other elements that are naturally occurring in most fibers. Finally, it's ready to be shipped out to clothing and textile manufacturers.
In addition to loom weaving, there are other methods for joining fabric, including knitting and crochet. While both are traditionally associated with wool materials, crochet is also common with lace production. Both are traditionally done by hand. Hand looms are also widely used throughout the world, and hand-woven textiles tend to be very popular with consumers.
Fabric Color and Design
Of course, fabric fresh off the loom and processed is still not ready for clothing and textile manufacturing, unless everything you're making is white! The material must be treated for color and dyed before it's ready to ship.
The first step in dyeing the fabric is to run it through a machine called a Mercerizer. The Mercerizer contains a chemical solution, including caustic soda (also called lye), which is kept at moderately low temperatures. The mercerization process increases the size of the pores on the fabric threads, making it easier for them to accept color during the dyeing process. Without mercerization, bright, bold fabrics would not be possible.
Next, the fabric is washed, and while it's still wet, it's stretched across a metal frame and pulled tightly. This aligns the weave patterns and also opens up the fabric to accept even more color.
Throughout history, fabric dye has been made from a variety of protein and plant sources, including the same cellulose used for making rayon that was discussed in our raw materials sections. Crushed berries, roots and other plants were also popular, and have been used to color fabric for thousands of years. In 1856, William Henry Perkin, a scientist searching for a cure for malaria produced the first synthetic fabric dye, known as aniline, by extracting quinine with alcohol. His discovery revolutionized the fabric dyeing process and helped pave the way for new dye colors and more effective coloring techniques [source: Druding].
Today, reactive dyes are the most common. These dyes are made in the lab from chemical compounds. When they're applied to wet fabric, the dyes react to the very molecules in the fabric fibers themselves, forming a strong bond that will hold the color in place at the molecular level [source: Burch].
Evolution of Fabric and Clothing
The earliest form of fabric most likely came in the form of animal skins draped across the body for warmth, both as clothing and bedding. Because of their very composition, formed from protein and plant sources, early textiles tend to disintegrate over time, so there's very little evidence of their history. The best information we have about the history of fabric comes from the tools used in its creation.
In 1988, distinctive sewing needles made from bone were found near Russia. These needles were dated to around 18,000 B.C., and were likely used to sew animal skins together to form crude clothing. In addition, clay tablets have been found that show fabric weaving in the Middle East as early as 8,000 B.C. It's believed that the first hand looms were created around the same time [source: European Textile Network].
The earliest surviving fabric scraps have been traced to Anatolia (near modern day Turkey, and can be dated to around 6,500 B.C. These include woven rugs, along with some scraps that indicate early wool cultivation. Fabric at this time was spun by hand or woven on primitive looms, and was formed from linen, wool and flax.
In China, silk production began around 2,800 B.C., and became a major export, opening up trade routes and partnerships with countries worldwide.
During the 1st century A.D., both cotton and wool production became popular, and more advanced looms were created to make weaving easier. It was also around this time that the first spinning wheel was created. The first evidence of knitted fabric is also traced to this period.
Through the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century, the majority of fabric production was done locally. Raw materials such as silk, lace or linen were traded among the wealthy, but the average person wore homespun or knitted wool and cotton garments. As steam and water-powered machinery became available in the 19th century, fabric production in Western Europe and North America shifted to centralized factories.
The next big development in fabric production came in 1891 in France with the invention of the world's first synthetic fibers. This cellulose product derived from wood and other plants was first known as Chardonnet silk but was eventually named rayon. The invention of rayon was quickly followed by nylon in the 1930s and polyester soon after. Today, a large percentage of fabric is composed of these fibers, bringing down the cost of clothing considerably [source: Encyclopedia Britannica].
The Business of Fabric and Fashion
So how does this raw fabric, freshly woven and dyed, reach store shelves across the world? It's purchased by design houses in the world's major fashion capitols, including London, Paris, Milan, New York and Los Angeles. From there, it's transformed into garments that will be shown in the annual fashion shows. The items presented at these shows will influence fabric and fashion for the coming year, with manufacturers quick to copy every new trend.
Fashion designers can use fabric in two ways. First, they look at the existing fabric supply for inspiration. A great texture or look may become the basis of design for the hottest new fashion. On the other spectrum, designers will contract with fabric manufacturers to create an exclusive material just for them. The fabric producer will generally make a variety of samples to meet the designer's specs. From these, the designer will choose the fabric that best meets the look, texture, color and feel of what they're working towards.
The majority of fabric production these days takes place in Asia, with China leading the way. Bangladesh and India are also major exporters. These countries have taken over the role of fabric and clothing production because of low wages and low workplace safety standards. Garment workers across the world are exposed to extremely poor working conditions.
Because there's a growing movement towards locally produced fabrics. In the United States, this sentiment is especially popular, with fabric and apparel manufacturers using their "Made in America" status as a powerful marketing tool. The largest fabric and apparel producer in the United States, American Apparel, has long emphasized it's anti-sweatshop stance, and on the company Web site, they point out that their average employee makes $12 per hour. Their fabric and clothing is shipped worldwide, and presents one of the first real competitors to the Asian and Indian fabric markets.
To learn more about fabric creation, apparel manufacturing and the fashion industry, see some of the links on the next page.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
More Great Links
- Barrens, Richard Jr PHD. "Chlorine Bleach." Department of Energy. Date Unknown. 11/19/08http://www.newton.dep.anl.gov/askasci/chem99/chem99533.htm
- Burch, Paula E. PHD. "The Chemistry of Dyeing: Reactive Dyes." All About Hand Dyeing. 2003. (11/20/08)http://www.pburch.net/dyeing/chemistry_reactivedyes_lesson.shtml
- Druding, Susan C. "Dye History from 2600 BC to the 20th Century." Dye Seminar at Convergence 1982. (11/15/08)http://www.straw.com/sig/dyehist.html
- Encyclopedia Britannica. "Major Industrial Polymers." (11/16/08)
- European Textile Network. "Timetable to the Technological Development of Textile Production in Europe." Date Unknown. 11/15/08http://www.etn-net.org/routes/intro/indust_timetable.htm
- FiberWorld. "Manufacturing: Synthetic and Cellulosic Fiber Formation Technology." Date Unknown. (11/17/08)http://www.fibersource.com/F-TUTOR/techpag.htm#spinneret
- Schultz, Nick. "Does Sweat-Fighting Athletic Gear Work?" Slate. 9/14/05. (11/20/08)http://www.slate.com/id/2124889/
- SilkRoad Foundation. "History of Silk." 2000. (11/16/08).http://www.silk-road.com/artl/silkhistory.shtml
- Thomas Jefferson Agricultural Institute. "Flax: A Crop From America's Past With Renewed Potential." Date Unknown. (11/17/08)http://www.jeffersoninstitute.org/pubs/flax.shtml