March 16, 2012

Textiles-Natural Fiber Types & Sources*

Stop for a moment and look around your environment, the ubiquitous woven goods on the floor, sisal mats at the entry or an area rug at a foyer. Scan the walls and ceilings. Notice the variety in treatments: upholstered panels to enhance acoustics, Sheers or Shade-cloth to diffuse light and afford privacy. Textiles made of natural fibers have been around us for thousands of years, over 30,000 to be exact-a sampling of flax (linen) fibers found at the Dzudzuana Cave, in the Republic of Georgia, was dated to be 34,000 years old. Our prehistoric ancestors made cords of wild flax fibers to weave baskets and cushion the handles of their stone tools (*1); images of the sampling show it to be not unlike chic raw linen’s, currently, found at our local fabric showrooms. Our common caveman had stylish ways to avoid rough hands. Who knew?

In today’s market, what qualifies as a textile? The term is broad. Leading industry institutions, such as ACT (Association of Contract Standards) and CFFA (Chemical Films and Fabrics Association), seem to shy away from a concise classification. ACT uses the word Textile in their mission statement, yet, does not define it in its glossary (*2). Textiles, woven and non-woven fabrics are made of fibers, natural and/or synthetic-classified as staple (*3) or filaments (*4). Typically, Textiles are surface oriented, a form of industrial design which at its best combines applied science and chemistry with the newest technologies and proven methods for their engineering. The physical properties and performance, the strength and degree of durability of any fabric, all these, depend on composition and method of construction.

Natural Fibers are sourced from the following categories(*5):

  1. Animal sources include

                                                              i.      Mohair (silk-like luxury fiber, composed mostly of keratin protein and sourced from the Angora Goat)

                                                            ii.      Silk (a protein fiber with a prism-like structure that refracts incoming light at different angles producing a shimmer effect; most commonly sourced from the cocoons of the larvae of the mulberry silkworm-moth caterpillars)

                                                          iii.      Wool (inherently resistant to: flames, soil and static electricity due to composition and fiber structures (not homogenous); composed mostly of keratins, protein molecules with a complex chemical structure, responsible for fiber elasticity, staple and crimp formation; wool fibers are hydrophilic, readily absorb moisture- 1/3 of its weight; the cross-section of typical wool fibers (30-50 microns) are a percentage of a human hair (50-100 microns), whereas the finer the diameter the softer to touch and more wearable capability-Merino Wool average 17-25 microns, the larger diameter fibers are used for flooring, tapestries, etc.)

  1. Plant/Vegetable sources include

                                                              i.      Cotton (in use for over 5,000 years, it is a staple fiber composed mostly of cellulose; although, there is a current growing demand for organically grown cotton, traditionally, it is harvested for mass production through means which are quite harmful for the environment; it uses large amounts of fertilizers and accounts for more than 20% of the world’s consumption of pesticides. This crop is rapidly renewable but typically renders the fields barren due to the extent of chemicals used during harvesting. The textiles produced tend to soil easily and fade; thus, they are colored with toxic dyes and finished with formaldehydes.)

                                                            ii.      Flax/Linen (flax is amongst the strongest vegetable fibers, 2 to 3 times stronger than cotton-from this bast fiber linen is derived; its cross-section of irregular polygonal shapes contributes to the coarseness of the fabric; stronger wet than dry, it is inherently insect resistant but is susceptible to mold and mildew)

                                                          iii.      Sisal (used since Pre-Columbian times, this fiber is extracted from the leaves of plants from the Agave group; sisal fibers are strong, coarse and inherently resistant to deterioration in saltwater; categorized into 3 industrial grades it is used for paper production (lowest grade), cordage (medium grade) and carpet yarns (higher-grade).

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