A few weeks ago I wrote about the route my friend Monika Ryser took to become a textile designer. Today I’d like to briefly describe what she told me about how fabrics are made. Please note that this describes the making of woven fabrics. Knit fabrics are created somewhat differently.
Fabrics begin their journey as raw materials. Those include plants (such as cottons or flax), animals (sheep, silkworms), or synthetics (man-made materials). These raw materials are collected/harvested, and are then taken to spinning facilities, where they are separated/combed into fleece. From the fleece, the fibers are spinned into yarn/thread. Over the last several decades most of the world’s spinning facilities have been located in third-world countries.
After the threads are made, they are turned over to weaving mills, to be woven into fabrics.
When Monika was working at such a mill in the later 1980’s, threads were imported to first world countries, where they were shown in special exhibitions. Representatives from different weaving mills went to these exhibitions to select threads. They often met with their customers first, to hear what kind of fabrics they needed. They then chose threads based on those needs.
The weaving process itself requires the combination of vertical threads (called warp) with horizontal threads (called weft), and is done on a loom. Since the Industrial Revolution, most of the world’s commercial fabrics have been made on automatic industrial looms.
When Moika worked in a mill, mills first wove short samples, about 100 meters long, of 20-30 possible designs for each of their customers. They sent these samples to the customer for evaluation. Once the customer chose the sample that best fit their needs, the mills went into full-mode production, and wove thousands of meters of the selected fabric.
The weaving process is noisy and dirty. The industrial looms are so loud, that if long-time weavers don’t use earplugs religiously, they often end up damaging or losing their hearing. Yarns shed a lot of lint in the weaving process, so mills are often full of dust. No one knows the health effects that breathing this dust has on workers.
Because of the noise and dirt, the unhealthy working conditions, and the cost of labor, most weaving mills, too, have moved to third-world countries in the last few decades. The Swiss mill where Monika worked, for example, was shut down long ago. It is now hard to find weaving mills in first world countries, and the ones that did survive often weave specialty items, such as car safety belts.
A freshly-woven fabric is called greige. It is full of impurities, dirt, and particles. Often, it is the color of the raw materials, mostly dirty white or beige. Plaited fabrics are an exception, as they require the threads themselves to be dyed before they are woven.
Here is an example of a plaited cotton:
And here is another plaited cotton (This is made to look a bit like plaited wool, as generally wools are more often dyed before weaving):
Once off the loom, the fabric needs to be processed. First, it needs to be cleaned, to remove both natural oils, waxes and dirt, as well as materials that were added during the weaving, such as potato starch or glue. After the cleaning, some fabrics are dyed or printed. The dying process is different from one type of fabric to another. Different textiles are treated with different chemicals to make them softer/stiffer. Some fabrics undergo both chemical treatment and dying.
Denim fabric, for example, is dyed once finished:
When the fabric is complete, it is ready to be cut and made into the many textile products we see all around us (including all my ANY Texture items :-)).
If you would like to see how fabric is made, the internet has a lot of videos to chose from. I found these fun ones with which you can start. This one is about cotton fabrics:
And these are about wool: