Lecture 6: Other fibres

Lecture 6: Other fibres
By Karen Finch

Outline of the history and production of other fibres used for making textiles – hair, hemp, jute, ramie and various seed and leaf fibres. Brief introduction to the making of artificial silk filaments and early manmade fibres and their dates.

Editor’s note

The images in the right-hand margin (indicated by red numbers within the text) are the slides Karen displayed while she was delivering the lecture. We have retained Karen’s original numbering, so where slides are missing due to copyright issues some numbers will be non-sequential.

Other fibres

Man’s first clothing is said to have been fig leaves but it was more likely to have been furs. However, furs would not have fitted him as well as they fitted the animals they had come from so they may not have been too comfortable and pretty soon he began to look for something else.

The turning point might have been when man discovered that long thin fibres from the coats of animals or from plants could be twisted together to form continuous thread.

The next step would have involved interlacing these threads into fabric. There is circumstantial evidence that fabric was made from fibres as early as 20,000 BC.

The words textile and fibre came from the Latin TEXERE and FIBRA. Texere means to plait or weave together and fibra means fibre or thread. A fibre can be defined as a body of great length in proportion to its diameter. So, the textile fibres are fibres which can be added together, they are spinnable because of their length, strength, elasticity, flexibility and the slightly rough surface that enable them to cling together.

In the course of the long development of textiles, many hundreds, even thousands, of fibres must have been tried and discarded before the few most suitable natural fibres used today were selected.

Today and for centuries past, wool, silk, linen, hemp, jute and cotton have been the most important of our natural textile fibres.

There are other fibres, both animal and vegetable, that are beautiful and useful but whose production has never risen to any size. There are various reasons, they might have taken too long or been too difficult to grow or to harvest to be economic except for the people who first discovered their spinnability and for whom these fibres may well have been the only textile material available.

Part of the interest in historic textiles lies in the ability to recognise materials and techniques and to detect, when these are not quite the expected ones, so it is necessary to be aware that there are literally hundreds of such different useful fibres. Some have put it at 700 vegetable fibres, which have at some time, in some place, been made into fabric.

It is clearly impossible for any textile historian to anticipate every single textile fibre. The important things to keep in mind are, first, that the textile fibres today fit into 2 main groups, natural and man-made fibres and that each of these split into 2 further groups.

The natural fibres can be animal or vegetable and the man-made fibres can be either natural polymer fibres or synthetic polymer fibres.

Traditionally used animal fibres include silk from wild and cultivated silk-worms, pinna mussels and spiders. Pinna mussels lived in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea. In common with other mussels the pinna produces a fine silk like thread with which it fastens itself onto rocks or other mussels.

Spiders also produce a kind of silk. Stockings and gloves made from spidersilk were exhibited at the Academy of Science in Paris in 1710 but spiders are uncooperative and not willing to become domesticated.

Attempts to “milk” spiders of silk continued but the threads were of little practical use for textiles.

They are, however, still used for making “cross-wires” in optical instruments because spider thread is uniform and strong and will withstand changes in humidity and temperature.

Wool comes only from sheep. Other animals produce hair. Hair from domesticated animals including goats 2, camels, llamas, horses, cows, rabbits, cats and dogs are all used to make textiles. The list of animals include some wild ones too such as beavers.

Hair-fibres, produced in sufficient quantities to have had considerable commercial value have usually come from the goat and camel families.

The Turkish ANGORA GOAT 5 has a coat of long lustrous hair known as MOHAIR. Most of today’s production of mohair comes from S. Africa and the United States of America, particularly from Texas and California.

Turkey was the largest producer of mohair till about 1890. Mohair was, and still is, used for tents by nomadic peoples because of its remarkable resistance to wear and because it does not felt very easily. Mohair also swells when it gets wet so that mohair tents acquire a degree of waterproofing in rain. Conversely in dry weather it allows for ventilation.

The goats 7 are clipped twice a year and produce 4 to 5 lbs. of mohair at each clipping. The quality of the hair varies according to its source – both on the goat and geographically.

Raw mohair contains natural grease, dirt and vegetable impurities which may make up as much as ½ of its weight. The clean fibre is generally white and has a silky texture with only a few kemps or dead hairs such as are found in woollen fleeces. The fibres vary in length depending on the age of the goat. At 6 months, an Angora kid will provide fibres 4″ to 6″ long. At 12 months, they will be 9″ to 12″ long.

The surface of a mohair fibre is covered with epidermal scales encircling the finer fibres and more firmly anchored to the body of the fibre than they are on wool. There are also fewer scales than there are on wool. They are placed closely together without overlapping and give mohair its smooth, silky handle and good light-reflecting qualities. It is this natural lustre together with the fact that it dyes well and wears well that makes it so suitable for all manner of dress materials, furnishing, wigs and fur fabrics.

The KASHMIR GOAT 8 lives in parts of China, Northern India, Tibet, Iran and Afghanistan and is reared as a domestic animal. It has an outer coat of long coarse hairs and an inner coat of superfine downy fibres. These are the fibres used for making the famous CASHMERE shawls 9. Tibetan cashmere has always been considered the best and finest material for making cashmere shawls.

The downy fibres are combed from the goat’s coat in spring and, in the process, separated as much as possible from the coarser outer hair. Each animal provides little more than 4 oz a year so it takes the combined output from 30-40 goats to make ONE overcoat. The fine downy fibres are only 1″ to 3½” long and the coarser hairs are 2″ to 5″ long. Their epidermal scales have serrated edges and project from the fibres to cause an irregular, non-reflecting surface.

Cashmere fibres are usually grey, buff-coloured or white. The cortical layer of the coloured fibres are full of tiny granules of pigment. Hair fibres of any animal are chemically similar to wool but cashmere wets out with water much quicker and is more sensitive to the effects of chemicals. It is very easily damaged by alkalis used for washing and will dissolve in caustic soda.

As the world output of cashmere is very small, production is a costly process and, inevitably, any cloth made with cashmere is expensive.
It is so fine and soft, however, that it is regarded as one of the most desirable textile fibres of all. It is not very elastic but this fact actually contributes to the beautiful drape of the shawls and other straight garments. It is often mixed with fine wool fibres for more elasticity and to cut the cost.

The BACTRIAN or two-humped CAMEL 11 of North West China and Mongolia is a very important animal. It is used for transport and it supplies camel hair. Camel hair is shed in matted locks which consist of outer-coat hairs of long, 12″ or more, tough hairs and a downy undercoat of fine soft hairs from 1″ to 6″ long. These soft hairs are separated from the long, hard top hairs by combing and they form the really valuable part of the coat.

The scales of the fine undercoat fibres with their diagonal edges cannot easily be seen under the microscope because they project only slightly from the body of the fibre. The cortical layer of camel hair contains the coloured pigment granules that give the fibre its characteristic pale red-brown colour. Camel hair does not bleach by traditional methods so may be dyed to darker colours only. The fine downy wool is used for knitting yarns and for warm comfortable blankets, camel-hair coats and dressing gowns.

The coarse, outer hairs may be used for tent ropes, industrial belts for pulling machinery, tent fabrics and coarse blankets.

The LLAMAS 12 of South America have some similarities to camels. They are also used for transport and they grow a valuable coat of fine soft underfibres and dull unelastic coarse outer hairs. The colours are black, brown and white. The fine fibres of the undercoat are soft and strong, 12″ or more in length, not quite as fine as camel-hair though they are similar in other ways, including the extreme fineness and smoothness of the epidermal scales surrounding the fibres. Llama wool is mainly used in Peru for weaving rugs and clothing fabrics.

The ALPACA is a close relative of the Llama, living in the same high mountain regions of the Andes, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and North West Argentina.

The Alpaca has a strong coat with hairs up to 24″ long, a little finer than mohair but not so glossy. The coat which is black, brown, fawn or white, again with indistinct scales, is exported and used to make tropical suitings and hardwearing furnishing fabrics.

The HUARIZO is a cross between the Llama and the Alpaca. Its coat has a fine soft undercoat of lustrous fibres which are made into fabrics of first-rate quality. The outer hair is used for ropes and twines.

The VICUNA 13 is a small species of wild Llama which mainly lives in Peru. Attempts to domesticate it have – so far – been unsuccessful and it is shot for its coat which weighs [1?] lb. Several thousands are shot every year, controlled by the Peruvian government.

Vicuna fibres are generally regarded as the finest and rarest wool-like fibres in the world. They are about 2″ long, white, fawn or brown and usually left undyed. Vicuna fibres are used for superfine coating materials and shawls. The finest fibres come from animals of the highest mountain areas.

The GUANACO is a very similar animal with a slightly coarser coat. The Guanaco is semi domesticated and lives in large areas of South America.

All these South American animals are related species and their fibres are alike in general characteristics. Unwashed they only contain about 3% of natural grease, 20% foreign matter in all. The fibres which are generally stronger than those of wool, react in much the same way to chemicals and to physical conditions. Llama type fibres do not felt easily.

HORSE HAIR comes from the mane and tail and is used for furnishing and for making sieves. COWS’ HAIR comes mainly from the tail but the body-hair is also used with wool fibres for effect yarn.

Commercially used animal fibres other than wool or hair come from BEAVERS 15, RABBITS and HARES. The top layer of fibres from these animals are called beard, guard or shield fibres, the under layers are fur fibres and these are the ones used in the fur felt trade which supplied the tops for the hatmaking industry.

ANGORA rabbits have longer fibres than those of the common rabbit and they are often blended with wool for effect yarns.

VEGETABLE FIBRES can be put into 3 groups.

BAST or stem fibres come from Flax, Hemp and Jute and from Ramie and other nettle plants.

LEAF FIBRES come from MANILA or ABACA and SISAL or AGAVE plants, from PINEAPPLE plants and from various kinds of PALM LEAVES. SEED and FRUIT FIBRES come from COTTON, COCONUT, KAPOK and MILKWEEDS.

All plant fibres are built up of cellulose, various amounts of LIGNIN, PECTIN, WAX, MINERAL SALTS and pigments of colour. The useful fibre of bast or stem plants is called the technical fibre and is the length from the root to the first branch.

One of the most ancient plants to be cultivated for its fibres is the HEMP plant 18, CANNIBIS SATIVA. It is thought to be the first plant fibre grown in China where there is evidence of its cultivation as early as 2000 BC.

In the West it was seen by Herodotus who described it as a new plant. Hemp was first grown in Central Asia and spread to Europe by 2 routes – over the Eastern Mediterranean countries to Italy and over Russia to the Baltic countries.

Hemp is greatly influenced by its environment and changes according to the conditions in which it finds itself. The hemp plant that is cultivated in the north is the Russian Hemp which has shorter and coarser fibres than the Italian hemp. Exactly when the hemp plant got into the northern countries is not known, perhaps the Vikings picked it up on their travels but it was an important and widely grown plant at an early date because it was taxable in the Northern countries from the 13th Century.

The hemp plant is a large, decorative, junglelike [annual] plant which in a hot climate can grow up to 10ft high.

Because of its size each plant yields quite a lot of fibres.

Hemp grows with male and female plants which originally made its cultivation on a large scale a problem since the male plants died much sooner than the female plants with consequent loss of fibre material.

Eventually a Russian scientist succeeded in developing a new hemp plant with both male and female flowers. This new plant called SHURIGHEMP after its inventor is well suited to intensive cultivation.

Hemp fibres, like flax, come from the stem and are freed by the same procedure except that their length necessitates tearing or splitting the stems lengthwise so that they come apart into much smaller pieces with natural ends to the fibres. Fibres [are not] cut across because this would cause their tips to be lost with the blunt ends becoming difficult to spin.

Hemp fibres cannot be spun as finely as flax fibres. The characteristics of the two fibres are in some ways similar but the lignin content of hemp is higher and this causes hemp fibres to deteriorate faster than flax fibres given the same conditions. Sunlight is particularly damaging to lignin.

The natural twist of hemp is opposite to linen so it should be Z spun for strength. To test whether a fabric is made from hemp or linen by the natural twist necessitates freeing a length of thread. This test should be conclusive and one that could be carried out on any fabric.

Italian hemp fabrics could easily be mistaken for linen because of their inherent fineness and because they are usually produced with more skill than any other hemp fabrics and may be used for many of the same purposes as linen.

Hemp has been widely used in the rural areas of Eastern European countries for bedlinen and warps in Kelims and other hangings.

RAMIE is another stem fibre which has been grown and used in all 5 continents from early times. Ramie has other names, RHEA and CHINAGRASS for instance and it grows particularly well in the East where it can be spun and woven to such fine qualities that it has sometimes been mistaken for silk. Fine lace, mostly bobbin-lace, has been made from Ramie because of its strength.

Ramie belongs to the nettle family of plants. Nettles were used for making fabrics in Northern Europe at least from the Bronze Age and it is from nettles that we have the word NET.

Nets are used for fishing, and hairnets and even clothing according to legends and fairytales and are still made with exactly the same knots and tools as they were in the earliest pieces that have been found.

The earliest woven piece of the late Bronze Age was found in VOLDTOFTE in Denmark about 100 years ago but until a quite recent scientific analysis, it was taken for flax and this has caused some confusion in mapping the growing of cultivated flax.

Another find of a bundle of nettle fibres ready for spinning was made in Norway in a settlement dated to a few hundreds years later than the Voldtofte find.

Fishing net was also said to have been used by a girl called KRAKA to snare and win a Danish King called REGNAR LODBROG who reigned before Viking times 20. Lodbrog, signifies trousers with a long haired surface. Lod, now laadden, means hairy. Broge stands for the kind of trews worn by the vikings.

Hans Christian Andersen rewrote one of the ancient fairy tales into his own tale of Eliza and the wild swans who were her bewitched brothers and described how she made shirts for them from nettles. The description of the nettles, how they grow and how they are made into yarn without first retting the stems to free the fibres is quite true.

It is possible, after drying nettle stems, to scrape away the marrow and then to free the fibres by beating the stems with clubs or wooden mallets and this is in fact how even today the nettle fibres are obtained in parts of the Soviet Union.

The nettle plants have given us beautiful and strong fibres which have been used from earliest times. Why then, do they play such a relatively minor role in our textile production? The answer lies in economics.

Ramie is difficult to decorticate with traditional methods. It takes a lot longer to process than linen does and the plant does not grow an even and consistent quality of fibre. It is only recently that advances have been made in the combined problems of cultivation, fibre extraction and processing which may result in the renewal of the industry in Japan and America.

Ramie has great wet and dry strength, it dyes well, is absorbent, does not shrink and is resistant to mildew and abrasion.

None of the vegetable fibres have been as important to us as flax and cotton but JUTE 21 is now grown in larger quantities than linen. JUTE is a bast fibre from plants of the herbaceous annual CORHORUS family which probably originated in the Mediterranean areas and was taken to India where it found excellent growing conditions in the hot damp regions of Eastern Asia and it has since been grown in enormous quantities.

India began to export jute to Europe in the 2nd half of the 18th Century. Dundee became the centre of the British jute industry from 1822. By 1867 there were 60 jute factories with an average of 100 looms each in Dundee and 20,000 men were employed in the making of jute products.

Jute is processed much like flax but the high lignin content means that only very coarse yarns can be made from it and also that jute fabrics, exposed to light, deteriorate in a comparatively short time.

In any case, even given favourable conditions Jute is not likely to last more than 40 years.

Jute is used for sacking, ropes and matting of various kinds. It is also used for carpets in combination with other fibres and as a base for linoleum.

The fibres in HOP 22 plants have been used for spinning and weaving. A book of “Magic for Fruentimmere” (Ladies) describing the processes was published in Denmark in 1802.

The plant is cut into yard-long pieces and retted by exposure during the winter and then treated much like flax. The resultant yarn has been used for coarse sheeting in rural communities.

CABBAGE STALKS contain fibres which have also been spun and woven and so do willow branches and spartan grass.

Several fibres are referred to commercially as hemp, including such coarse fibres as Manila and Sisal but these are LEAF FIBRES not STEM FIBRES and have quite different properties to hemp fibres. LEAF FIBRES run lengthwise through the leaves of plants that form one seed leaf such as SISAL from the leaves of the AGAVEPLANT SISALANA PERRINE originally grown only in Central America but now cultivated in Africa and Asia too.

SISAL is used for cords and ropes, sacking and matting.

MANILA comes from ABACA plants cultivated in the Philippine Islands. Manila fibres are mainly used for ropes of various kinds because of its strength and high resistance to sunlight and water. It does not easily get waterlogged but continues to float on water.

Yet another leaf fibre with properties similar to hemp or flax grows in New Zealand and now also South America and Africa. Its name is PHORMIUM TENAX and it can be made into fabrics resembling linen though it is mostly used for making twine and sacking.

Pineapple fibres have also been used for weaving. The resultant fabric is known as PINNACLOTH. This is a fairly stiff, silk-like fabric from the Philippine Islands which was used for fashionable dresses during the 19th century.

Leaves from Mulberry trees produce fibres used for paper making and BARK cloth.


Lastly, seed and fruit fibres.

Cotton is a seed fibre and so is COIR or coconut fibre which surrounds the shell of the inner Kernel of the coconut. It comes mainly from India and Ceylon from where it is exported all over the world to be used for ropes and matting.

KAPOK is another seed fibre surrounding the seeds of the Kapok tree of Java and Ceylon where it is known as KAPOG. Apart from its use for stuffing cushions and mattresses, kapok is used in lifebelts because of its lightness and resistance to water.

MILKWEED fibres resemble Kapok a little though they are not nearly as useful.

ASBESTOS is our only mineral fibre of natural origin and comes from rocks which, because of unusual treatment during their formation, have crystallised in the form of fibres.

Asbestos has been known and used for making heat resistant textiles since earliest times. The lamps of the Vestal Virgins are supposed to have had asbestos wicks.

The Greeks, Pliny and Pausanionos refer to it. Pliny mentions that asbestos material was used for making the shrouds of royal persons whose bodies were burnt in funeral pyres. The material went white in the fire and appeared purified but did not disintegrate and thus preserved the ashes of the royal body. This same method was still in use in Turkey in the 17th Century.

In 1674 an asbestos handkerchief – very hygienic – was demonstrated to the Royal Society. During the 18th century a Russian factory produced socks and gloves made from asbestos.

Asbestos has also been mined in Cyprus and China and in 1860 it was found in Canada. Today, the Canadians fabricate more than 2/3 of the world’s supply of fireproof articles. The rest come from South Africa, Rhodesia and Russia. Apart from its resistance to burning, asbestos resists acids, alkali and most common chemicals.

Man-made fibres provide a very large section of today’s textile production. There are two groups of man-made fibres – Natural and Synthetic polymer fibres.

Natural polymers include CASEIN FIBRES from regenerated proteins. These have not as yet achieved much success though new production methods appear to be introduced from time to time.

The possibility of making natural polymer fibres was first envisaged in 1664 by an English scientist Robert Hooke but not until 1842 did an English weaver Louis Schabe devise a machine for making artificial filaments by forcing liquid through very fine holes. He used glass which was not very suitable.

French scientists developed glass fibre fabrics earlier than British Scientists. A piece woven in 1839 is now in the Conservatory of Arts and Crafts in Paris. In 1846 another scientist, Frederich SCHONBEIN discovered that cellulose from plants could be turned into another substance, Nitrocellulose which, unfortunately, was rather inflammable but gave us our first plastic namely celluloid and led to the first RAYON fibres, really NITROCELLULOSE fibres, soft, strong and flexible but extremely dangerous to wear.

It was not until 1883 when Sir Joseph Swan began to look for some way of making filaments for his electric light bulbs that a chemical treatment to change the dangerous nitrocellulose back into harmless cellulose was discovered and, in 1885, artificial silk textiles were exhibited in London.

In France, Count Hilaire de CHARDONNET made the same discovery in 1884. He exhibited artificial silk materials at the Paris Exposition in 1889 and in 1890 a factory was built in Besancon to produce “Chardonnet silk”. But handling nitrocellulose is a dangerous occupation so the process eventually had to be abandoned. The last Chardonnet silk factory in Brazil burnt down in 1949.

In 1890 a new process was invented to make CUPRAMMONIUM 42 fibres. These are still made for their special qualities but, already in 1892 another process for making regenerated cellulose fibres was devised to form the solution known as VISCOSE which, in the years before World War I developed rapidly and VISCOSE RAYON is now the most important natural polymer fibre of all.

After the war, cellulose acetate fibres 43 were developed which, though not explosive, differ fundamentally from the others in that they are not converted to cellulose but remain cellulose acetate and the properties of these fibres are different from those of cellulose fibres.

Work on synthetic polymer fibres did not really begin until the 1930s except for some experimentation in Germany.

In 1939, NYLON came out of the experiments done in America by WALLACE H. CAROTHERS on polyesters and polyamides. The first Nylon stockings were produced in 1940.

POLYESTER FIBRES were not marketed till 1947. This far, polyester fabrics are thought to be the most useful synthetic supporting fabrics for use in conservation because of their stability and resistance to light.

The subject of man-made fibres is vast and will need to be researched in step with the demands made on Conservators now and in the future, the ability to recognise whether an unusual fibre has been used for an object may help to give useful evidence for dating ancient fabrics as well as for being a deciding factor in necessary conservation work.

Recording such findings and making records available for future study could help to extend the known history of trade and other forms of communication between different countries at given times in History.

Technical research of this kind has been done in Denmark on textiles and other contents of Bishop ABSALON’S grave in Roskilde Cathedral. Though his 12th century grave had been opened twice before there were still enough textile pieces left to analyse fibres and weaves by using the special equipment shared by all the branches of conservation of historic objects at the National Museum of Denmark, at their conservation premises at Brede, just outside Copenhagen.

Photographic material normally used in hospitals has been adapted to record details of fibres so deteriorated that they hardly exist any more. This equipment can even show evidence of missing decoration on objects of any kind by a form of X ray and clever lighting. In the case of a textile, by showing up traces of dye – which may have migrated from the fibres of now-lost embroidery threads into the background of an embroidered object.

Finally, it should be noted that all of the fibres mentioned have been recycled or reconstituted, in various ways. Woollen fibres have been processed to become SHODDY and used with new wool for cheaper kinds of cloth. Silk has been made into paper as has linen and cotton waste, which still forms the basis of handmade paper.