Skip main navigation

Fiber processing

Textiles are the foundation of the fashion industries and here we explore fiber processing; the start of the textile production process.
Fiber processing machine

Because textiles and other materials are the foundation of the fashion industries, an understanding of the historical context and organization of the global textile industry is important

The term textile is used to describe any fabric (e.g., woven or knitted materials) made from natural (e.g., cotton, wool, silk) or manufactured (e.g., nylon, polyester, rayon) fibers. The textile industry is organized around four basic components of textile production—fiber processing, yarn spinning, fabric production, and fabric finishing.

Fiber processing

Fibers comprise the basic unit used in making textile yarns and fabrics. Fibers are classified into generic families according to their chemical composition and can be divided into two primary divisions—natural fibers and manufactured fibers. Natural fibers include those made from natural protein fibers of animal origin (e.g., wool, cashmere, camel, mohair, angora, and silk) and natural cellulose fibers of plant origin (e.g., cotton, flax, jute, bamboo, and sisal).

Although natural fibers have been used in making textiles for thousands of years, manufactured fibers have been around for only about 130 years. In the mid-1800s, scientists became interested in duplicating natural fibers. In 1891, “artificial silk,” made from a solution of cellulose, was commercially produced in France. In 1924, the name of this fiber was changed to rayon. In 1939, nylon, the first fiber to be synthesized entirely from chemicals (synthetic), was introduced by E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Company.

Since then, many more manufactured fibers have been developed, including cellulose-based fibers (e.g., lyocell, rayon acetate), synthetic fibers (e.g., acrylic, aramid, modacrylic, olefin, polyester, and spandex), and mineral-based fibers (e.g., glass, gold). New manufactured fibers are developed through research efforts that take up to five years before the fiber is available on the market. When a fiber belonging to a new generic family is invented, the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) assigns it a new generic name. Currently, more than forty generic fiber names are recognized by the FTC (U.S. Customs and Border Protection 2006).

For more information refer to the table available in the download section below for a listing of these generic fiber names.
By the early 1950s, acrylic and polyester (both developed in the 1940s) were available for consumer use. Triacetate was introduced in 1954, providing a less heat-sensitive alternative to acetate, a previously developed synthetic fiber. These new fibers provided lower-cost and lighter-weight alternatives to natural fibers. Apparel made with synthetic fibers offered consumers easy-care, wrinkle-free, and drip-dry clothing that freed them from the high demands of caring for cotton and woolen clothing.
Over the next decades, fashion trends and technological developments in textiles became intertwined. Fiber producers developed new texturizing processes that made possible such innovations as stretch yarn. Nylon stretch socks became available in 1952, and by the 1960s, fabrics made with synthetic fibers began to overtake those made with natural fibers in popularity. Today, manufactured fibers are produced by large companies and sold either as commodity fibers (without a brand name) or under brand names such as Lycra® spandex, Tencel® lyocell, Dacron® polyester, or Antron® nylon.
Starting in the 1980s, scholars and companies began investigating the environmental impact of fiber manufacturing. Fibers were analyzed around the degree to which they were (Chen & Burns 2006):
  • nonpolluting to obtain, process, and fabricate
  • made from renewable resources
  • reusable/recyclable
  • fully biodegradable.
In response, the cotton industry has implemented processes that are more environmentally responsible, including organic cotton (grown without the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides), cleaner dyeing methods, and reduced water use. Manufactured fiber companies have also developed more environmentally responsible production processes, including the lyocell method of rayon (made from harvested wood pulp and processed with recycled nontoxic solvents) and polyester staple fibers made from recycled plastic soda bottles that are made of polyethylene terephthalate, or PET (Figure 1.6).
Figure 1.6: Polyester staple fibers recycled from soda bottles are used for creating more environmentally responsible textiles.

Companies are also recycling scrap yarns and fabric as a means of reducing the number of scrap materials ending up in a landfill.

Fiber processing is the start of the textile production process, in the next step we discuss yarn spinning and fabric construction. Next, we look at yarn spinning and fabric construction.

This article is from the free online

Fashion and the Global Supply Chain

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now