Natural Textile Fibers

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Fibers are the building blocks of textiles and each type can impart distinct traits to a textile. In this lesson, we are going to explore some of the most common natural textile fibers and see what distinguishes each.

Natural Textile Fibers

Look at the tag on your shirt. Or, if you can't reach it, grab a friend and look at the tag on their shirt. On that tag is a list of materials used to make the shirt. More than likely, most of those materials weren't available to people before the technological advancements of the 20th century. For the rest of human history, people made clothing out of natural materials, those sourced from living matter, such as animals or plants.

The basis of any textile (an object made by weaving strands of yarn into cloth) is the fiber. Fibers are very thin materials that are strong, resilient, and flexible enough to be combined into something thicker, like yarn. The fibers used to create textiles define their feel, how they react to dyes, and the way they breathe. So, trust in fibers. They've got you covered.

Plant Fibers

There are many natural fibers that have been used by human populations around the world and throughout history. A great many of them are derived from plants that have either been domesticated or simply harvested wild. These fibers have been used to make clothing, blankets, and decorations for millennia.

Hemp

Let's start with some of the oldest-sourced fibers. Hemp is a variety of cannabis which grows quickly and in diverse conditions. Perhaps for these reasons, hemp is one of the oldest domesticated plants in the world, being continuously cultivated by human populations roughly as long as wheat, rice, or maize. Hemp fibers are assumed to be the first plant fibers that humans learned to spin into yarn. Some archeologist think that hemp fibers may have first been spun into yarns up to 10,000 years ago in Mesopotamia. What we know for sure is that hemp was commonly being used in textiles in China by 4500 BCE.

Linen

Closely following behind hemp is another plant-based fiber called linen. Linen is a type of fiber produced from stalks of the flax plant. Archeologists have found possible evidence of linen production dating to thousands of years ago in the prehistoric lakes of Switzerland, but the mainstream production of linen began around 3400 BCE with the Egyptians. Egyptians made a very fine and technically-advanced linen that dried quickly, was strong, and could hold dyes without quickly fading. Today, linen is one of the most popular natural fibers in the world.

Cotton

Rounding out the big three of plant-based fibers, we arrive at cotton. Cotton fibers are soft but strong, having a very high amount of a structural molecule called cellulose. Roughly 90% of cotton fibers are cellulose molecules. By comparison, less than 60% of hemp fiber is made of cellulose. Cotton is found naturally around the world and was actually developed by ancient peoples of both the East and West Hemispheres independently. The first solid evidence we have of cotton textiles dates back to around 3000 BCE in India. Cotton has played a major role in world history, especially in the United States, where it was the dominant cash crop for decades. In fact, it's economic power was so great that Americans in the 19th century called it ''King Cotton''. Today, it's still one of the most commonly used natural fibers in the world.

Cotton
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Animal Fibers

While there are many kinds of plant fibers, humans have also found that many animals produce fibers that can be efficiently spun into yarns and woven into cloths. There are a few major ones we need to discuss.

Wool

Since textiles erode over time, we'll never know which fibers were the first ones ever produced. However, a strong argument can be made for wool. Wool is a fiber made from the hair of sheep, goats, camels, alpacas, and a few other animals. To be clear: wool is a specific kind of hair, distinct from the hair on your head or the fur on your dog. Wool is naturally elastic, and grows in crimped clusters. Wool has been used widely throughout history because it is enormously effective at blocking the transfer of heat. Think of it like a textile thermos. In cold places, wool prevents the loss of body heat. In hot places, it protects people from the scorching sun.

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