Plants to Insects: The Fibers of Textiles

What is a textile? Across the board, the word is defined by methods of manufacture, materials made from natural or synthetic fibers processed through weaving, felting, knotting, twining, knitting, spinning or crocheting. Given such a general definition, we’ll explore cotton, wool and silk through their methods of manufacture and look at sample textiles in the Homestead’s collection. You might be surprised at what can be correctly named a textile!

We’ll start with cotton, fibers taken from the seed pod of the cotton plant, predominantly grown in warm climates. Cotton remains one of the most versatile textiles known and is the base for broadcloth, corduroy, crêpe and denim with altered finishes after weaving. Before it can be woven, cotton fibers must first be separated from seeds and other impurities. It is then sorted according to length and whiteness and further processed by carding and combing to obtain long strands to be wound onto bobbins. From here the yarn is spun and woven into a cloth.

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A similar process is used in the manufacture of wool, derived from the soft, curly hair of sheep, alpaca, goats and similar animals. After removing the fleece from the chosen animal, it is sorted into the differing grades and then cleaned through several processes. Due to the origin of wool, it comes to the sorter full of dirt, grease, straw and other undesirables. To be fit for production it must be dusted, scoured, carbonized, blended and oiled. The next steps mirror those for cotton from carding to weaving. The type of animal fleece, blend percentages, weave and finishes alters the final product. For example, cashmere, jersey cloth, flannel, velour and tweed are all wool cloths.

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Finally we come to silk, derived from the molting cocoon of a silkworm feeding on the mulberry plant. In order to unravel the silk fibers, it is soaked in boiling water to loosen the gum that holds the cocoon together. The fine threads that result are then reeled, sorted, doubled and finally twisted to form stronger threads. To from cloth, the threads are dyed, if necessary, and then woven in a loom. Spun silk, composed of the shorter fiber or waste from the outside of the cocoons, is mainly used in knitted fabrics or embroidery. Depending on the weave and finishing, silk can be made into chiffon, satin, taffeta, tulle and velvet.

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Caring for textiles will be the focus of our first White Glove Workshop for 2015, taking place on Saturday, February 7. We’ll take a look at some techniques and basic principles of textile conservation within a historic museum setting and participants are encouraged to bring an item from home for evaluation. Make your reservations here or call: (626) 968-8492 for more information.

Thanks to Collections Assistant, Melanie Tran, for the fascinating facts and images!

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