I had the wonderful opportunity to tour the modern ADO plants in Germany and South Carolina. Also, I recently spoke with Donald Hurwitz, a representative of the Scottish Cotton Lace Co., which continues to make lace the old-fashioned way. As a result of seeing both the old and the new, I have come to the realization that although a lot has changed in how fabric is manufactured, a lot of the overarching process remain the same.
The general process of making fabric is the same today as it was 300 years ago. Fabric begins as fiber. That fiber is spun into yarn, which is then woven into fabric. Simple, isn't it? Yet throughout history the details of that process have changed immensely. And in order to produce fabric today we use immense, complex machines.
People have been weaving fabrics from natural fibers for thousands of years. People have long supplied their textile needs using plant fibers such as cotton and flax; animal fibers such as wool, llama or cashmere; or insect fibers such as silk. No matter what kind of natural fiber was used, it needed to be cleaned out and straightened.
People traditionally did this by combing the fibers. When done across rows of wire teeth it is called carding. Prior to carding machines, people used hand cards. Hand cards looked a lot like large dog brushes with stiff wire teeth. After carding the fiber it needed to be spun into yarn. This, of course, was done with a spinning wheel. After spinning it, you had your yarn. Then all you needed to do was to weave some fabric.
There are as many ways to weave fabric as there are cultures in the world. A ground loom is mentioned in the Biblical story of Samson. And there is evidence that ancient Romans used a three-harness loom. The Incas of the South American Andes perfected the use of the backstrap loom to produce intricate textiles. In general, though, the mass production of fabric has depended on the development and improvement of weaving machines. By the early centuries of this millennium, the drawloom was being used in Europe to produce elaborate textiles. This wooden contraption the size of a room required skilled workers and workshops. Most fabrics made on these looms were silk and very expensive.
The production of fabrics changed with the introduction of the Jacquard loom in the late 1700s. This loom, named for its inventor, required fewer workers to produce fabrics. First, a design was copied onto drafting paper. Then a card was hand-punched for each pick to show the warp to be raised. The cards then were laced together and placed on a cylinder. As the cylinder turned, each card was pressed against a set of horizontal needles, each connected to a separate vertical hook that raised or lowered the warp it controlled. With each set of cards came a reproducible, easy-to-manufacture design. It signaled the advent of mass-produced fabrics.
Jacquard looms still are at work today in the halls of the Scottish Cotton Lace Co. Workers there continue to hand-punch their cards to run on the 200 year-old machines. Instead of being steam-driven, though, today they run on electricity. But the techniques and machinery of the 1800s continue to be passed down generation to generation.
You can see that specialty fabrics such as lace were, and still are, handmade. Technically lace is not lace unless it is handmade. There are two traditional ways to make lace. The first is called needle lace. Here, you use a looping technique with a needle and thread to produce the lace. It was the original method of making lace.
The second is bobbin lace. Bobbin lace, like that of the Scottish Cotton Lace Co., is made from a large number of fine yarns, each wound on a bobbin to prevent their entangling.
Lace is worked on a pillow or fabric- covered frame on which a paper pattern is laid. The pattern has many holes into which pins are stuck as the lace is being worked. The yarns are twisted around the pins and interlaced to make the pattern. Workers then alter the lace to fit whatever needs their customers demand, whether that be valances or curtains or other window treatments.
Today, fabrics still begin with fiber. Only now, we have many different fibers to choose from. In addition to all of the natural fibers, which are still used throughout the world, we have synthetic fibers. In the late 1880s the first synthetic fibers were invented. Scientists had watched silkworms spin silk after eating mulberry leaves and wondered if they could reproduce that effect.
Experimenting first with mulberry trees and then with evergreens the scientists produced artificial silk, now known as rayon. After that success, scientists didn't look back, and today we have fibers such as polyester and Kevlar to produce fabric with desirable properties such as heat resistance and anti-wrinkle properties. Scientists branched out, though, and used petroleum rather than trees to produce the newest synthetics.
Today, whether the fiber is natural or synthetic, it goes through the same basic steps to be turned into a fabric. Enter a processing plant and you'll see forklift trucks driving around huge bales of unprocessed fibers. This is how the fibers arrive at the plant. The first thing that's done to the fiber is opening and cleaning it. Fibers from several different bales are combined in huge hoppers. A technician takes thin layers of fiber from each bale and then feeds them into a blending machine. A blending machine makes a well-blended mix of the fibers free of dirt, dust and impurities.
A ductwork system, looking a lot like your own home's heating system only larger, transports the mix to the carding area. Instead of hand-held wire brushes, plants now employ massive (and noisy) carding machines. These machines remove fibers that are too short while separating and straightening the rest to create a uniform web of material. This material then enters a funnel where it is bunched into a card sliver. This card sliver looks a lot like a rope.
At this stage, the sliver has two options. If it is being made into fine-quality cotton fabric, it will go into the combing machine. This machine spreads the material out into a web again to clean and straighten the fibers. All short fibers and impurities are removed. All other yarn passes straight to the drawing area, the next step in the process.
Drawing pulls several strands of sliver together to make the yarn more uniform. After combing and elongating multiple slivers, random defects are eliminated. After this stage, the sliver goes to the roving frame where it is drawn out and twisted slightly to hold the fibers together. Only now is the fiber ready to be spun. Rows of high-speed spinning machines work noisily and quickly to spin the yarn, which winds onto a spindle. Afterward, the yarn is wound onto large spools to be woven.
In most cases, the fabric is woven on massive computer-controlled looms. At first the plant creates a small sample, called a gamp. A stylist will check the gamp for irregularities and possible changes in the color, texture or pattern. Once the sample checks out, the plant produces a whole run of the fabric. Depending on what finishes are added, the fabric goes through a variety of finishing processes before being shipped out to showrooms and on to you and me.
Despite all the advances in technology, fabric still comes from fiber. We still spin fiber into yarn and weave yarn into fabric. And today still more fabric is made from cotton than any other fiber. Close on its heels, petroleum-based synthetics make up a third of the fibers used to produce fabrics today.
What will the future hold for fabric production? There is no telling. Scientists are currently researching biodegradable fabrics. All of the fabrics made from petroleum polymers do not biodegrade. But now, scientists are looking into producing plant-grown polymers, which would be easily broken down in nature. Maybe one day you will be sewing window treatments from fabric that really did grow on a tree!
Cheryl Strickland is owner of Professional Drapery School, Swannanoa, NC, and is an internationally acclaimed speaker with 20 years experience in the window coverings industry. She is the publisher and editor of Sew WHAT?, an international monthly newsletter for professional drapery workrooms. Strickland also is the author of A Practical Guide to Soft Window Coverings and the Designer's Sketch Pad, which are available through Draperies & Window Coverings magazine.
A glossary of terms used in fabric making:
• Blending-the process of combining thin layers of fibers from several different bales to create a mix of fibers free of dirt, dust and impurities.
• Bobbin lace-lace made from a large number of fine yarns, each wound on a bobbin to prevent their entangling.
• Card sliver-a rope of fibers. After carding, the uniform web of straightened fibers are bunched together to create the sliver.
• Carding-traditionally, the process of combing fibers across rows of wire teeth or a hand-held brush to clean and strengthen them. In modern factories, large machines are used.
• Drawing-the process of pulling several strands of card sliver together to make the yarn more uniform.
• Gamp-a small fabric sample woven for the stylist to check for irregularities and possible changes in the color.
• Jacquard loom-introduced in the late 1700s, this loom used hand-punched cards, which controlled raising or lowering the warp to create easily reproducible designs. It signaled the advent of mass-produced fabrics.
• Needle lace-lace created using a looping technique with a needle and thread. It was the original method of making lace.
• Roving-the process in which card sliver, after drawing, is drawn out and twisted slightly to hold the fibers
together. Only then is the fiber ready to be spun.