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Textiles, a reference guide for crafters

The word textile originates from the Latin “texere,” which means to weave. Throughout antiquity, people wove textiles by hand. Today, manufactures use machines to complete the weaving process. The fibers that people use to create textiles come from a range of sources. In the past, people exclusively used naturally occurring fibers, including those derived from minerals, animals and plants. Advances in science and technology have improved the number of fiber sources available; current processes use technology and chemicals to produce textile fibers. Today, manufacturers derive two-thirds of fibers produced in the United States from technical processes, which lessens the burden on natural resources.

The majority of fibers used in textile manufacturing come from plants. For example, cotton—a very common fiber in cloth and clothing items—produces a soft fiber used in the production of multiple items, including sheets, towels, jeans and washcloths. Linen—a popular summertime fabric—comes from the flax plant. People use linen to fashion clothing, handkerchiefs and table linens.

People also use fibers derived from animals. For example, wool is one of the most important and frequently used animal fibers. Approximately 200 variations of wool exist produced by 40 sheep breeds. In addition, some wool is derived from camels or goats. This popular fabric keeps people warm during winter, much like its natural purpose as an animal covering. Some other benefits of wool include its ability to resist fire, dirt and wear and tear. Another important animal fiber used to produce clothing and other items is silk. Silkworms produce the fibers used to create silk fabrics when they create a cocoon. Skilled workers harvest the silk fibers by gently unrolling the cocoon. Manufacturers create a range of brilliant products, including scarves, ties and skirts using silk fabrics. Silk fabrics deliver several benefits, including the ability to absorb brilliantly colored dyes.

Technical advances allow manufacturers to create synthetic fibers. Generally, the fibers are composed of cotton linters, petrochemicals or the pulp of wood. Some examples of synthetic fibers include polyester, nylon and acrylic. Synthetic fibers also offer a range of benefits, including their strength, versatility and capacity for simple laundering. Unlike wool or silk, which owners should hand wash or dry clean, synthetic fibers stand up well against the household laundry room.

Generally, the fabrics used to create clothing and other items are created by weaving various fibers together. In the past, the creators of clothing items performed the weaving process by hand. In order to fashion a new item of clothing, workers created fabric using twisting or knitting techniques. Researchers have not identified when the textile industry began, although it remains as the one of the oldest forms of human manipulation to create a practical object. Textiles predate architecture and even the earliest paintings; early humans used animal skins long before the first “home” was built to cover their bodies. Today, manufacturers of mass-produced goods use machinery to create fabrics from raw fibers.

Manufacturers generally create two types of fabrics: woven and knit. Woven fabrics require two sets of fibers: the warp and the weft. The warp is used in a lengthwise position while the weft is used in a crosswise position. Manufacturers thread the warp fibers through tools called a loom and a harness. The harness raises and lowers different sets of warp fibers, which creates a shed, or space, in between the fibers. Then, a shuttle pulls the weft through the spaces created in the warp fibers, which makes the crosswise pattern seen in woven fabrics.

The knitting process only requires a single fiber or set of fibers. The machines used for knitting create loops in the fibers. Needles then link other fibers through the loop to develop a knitted fabric. This process also creates a lengthwise and crosswise structure. Knitted fabrics resist wrinkling and present better elasticity than woven items. In addition to woven and knitted fabrics, manufacturers create braided, laced and tufted items. These fabrics do not require weaving or knitting and are known in the industry as nonwoven fabrics.