Care Labels for Textiles: Definition & the Industrial Revolution

Instructor: Anne Butler

Anne has a bachelor's in K-12 art education and a master's in visual art and design. She currently works at a living history museum in Colorado.

Ever wonder what those little symbols mean on your clothing tags? These tell whoever's washing your clothes how they should be washed, whether in hot water, cold water, or even no water at all. But why are these labels even there?

Industrial Revolution = More Clothing Choices

The 1700s were a time of many changes throughout the world. Britain's Industrial Revolution began around the 1760s, which brought about new weaving technologies that allowed thread to be created even faster than before. Since threads could be created faster, that meant more fabrics could be woven, like linen, cotton, and wool.

Englishman Samuel Slater snuck these innovations over to the U.S. from England in about 1789. He was thought of as a traitor to England since he brought British technology over to the former colonies. Bringing them over was America's gain, however, and cotton mills and other mills sprung up all over New England.

Samuel Slater

Rise of Synthetics

As technologies advanced and designers sought to create more styles, the demand for new fabrics increased. A Swiss man named Audemars received a patent for artificial silk in the 1800s. The later 1800s saw the creation of rayon by Sir Joseph Swan. PVC, or polyvinyl chloride, was also discovered in the 1800s. It was later used as a water-resistant coating for fabrics. Nylon was created in the 1930s, polyester in the 1940s, and spandex in 1959.

Caring For the Different Fabrics

All these different fabrics obviously can't be washed the same way. Stick a wool sweater in a hot water load and it will shrink. Your red socks shouldn't go in the same load as your white towels. Some clothes must be air dried, and some others can't even go in the washer at all. So how did consumers learn to care for all these different fabrics?

That's where the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) comes in. They're the government agency responsible for protecting consumers and making sure all products being sold in the United States are properly labeled. The first law they created was the Wool Products Labeling Act of 1939. This act required all wool products to be labeled, telling buyers what kind of wool was used. Wool can be from anything from a sheep to a llama. The act also requires the label to say whether the wool's been processed directly from the animal, or if it's been recycled, like from a sweater that's been remade.

Wool clothing care label

In 1952 they passed the Fur Labeling Act, and in 1960 the Textile Fiber Products Identification Act. Finally, the Care Labeling Rule of 1971 was issued by the FTC to help consumers know how to wash their clothes. Some labels also include where the garment was made. A big movement in the 1970s and 1980s encouraged shoppers to ''look for the union label,'' which meant that that piece of clothing had been made in a union-run factory.

Union Label
union label

In 1998 the labeling rule was changed from written instructions on labels to symbols on labels. This change allowed the labels to be used worldwide, instead of just being limited to English speaking countries.

Washing Instructions

Some companies, such as Hanes, have even managed to do away with the annoying and sometimes itchy labels. Their technology prints the washing instructions and other information right on the inside of the clothing. This started in the early 2000s, and many other companies are doing the same today.

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