Fabrics from the Land & the Lab: Origin Stories

By Patti Galvan

Fibers from animals

  • Wool does a great job keeping sheep warm throughout the cold winter. Sweaters, coats, and hats made from wool keep people warm, too. After the wool is sheared off sheep, it is brushed and combed so that the fibers point in the same direction. Then the fluffy mass of fibers is twisted together to make yarn. People or machines knit, crochet, or weave the yarn to make fabric!
  • Silk is a strong, smooth, shiny fabric made from cocoons! As a silkworm enters the pupal phase of its lifecycle, it spins a cocoon around its body. Before it has time to emerge as a moth, people carefully unravel the cocoon and arrange the long fibers neatly. The number of cocoons needed, the amount of work, and the beautiful look and feel of the fabric, make silk very expensive. 

Fibers from plants 

  • Cotton is a soft, absorbent, and breathable fabric that is made from fibers that grow as seeds mature, on a cotton plant. It takes about 5 months for cotton to grow from seed to harvest. The fiber is plucked off the seeds and separated from the dried plant parts. Then it is brushed and combed so that the fibers point in the same direction. The 2-4 cm long fibers are twisted to make yarn, which is then woven or knit to make blue jeans, T-shirts, sweaters, towels, and bed sheets. Shorter fibers are separated out and used as filling for mattresses, furniture cushions, cotton balls, and paper money! The world uses more cotton than any other fiber!
  • Linen is a soft fabric that is made with fibers from the stem of the flax plant. Flax grows from seed to harvest in just 3 to 4 months! After all the crunchy parts of the dried plant are removed, the soft long fibers have a shiny golden color. These fibers are twisted to make yarn and then woven to make fabric. Linen clothing is very breathable making it an excellent choice for clothes worn when the weather is hot. Sometimes people refer to tablecloths, cloth napkins, and bedding as “linens” because there was a time long ago when all these items were made of linen. 
  • Jute is a strong flexible fiber that grows in the stem of the white jute plant. People pull the long fibers out from the soft layer between the hard inner core and the tough outer skin. Jute fiber is used to make twine, rope, and burlap. It is inexpensive, biodegradable, and grows from seed to harvest in just 4 months! 
  • Rayon is a category of fabrics made from wood! This group of fabrics is considered semi-synthetic because the starting natural resource is cellulose from wood pulp. People use different chemical reactions to break the cellulose down and rebuild the parts into new polymers. Early rayon fabrics were sold as an inexpensive alternative to silk. 

Fibers from coal and petroleum

  • Nylon is a strong lightweight fabric invented more than 80 years ago. Two solutions, made from coal, air, and water, are layered one on top of the other. A chemical reaction occurs between the solutions forming a thin layer of nylon. Pulling on this layer stretches it into long fibers. Nylon was the world’s first completely synthetic fabric.
  • Polyester is a durable easy-care fabric made from petroleum. People use chemical reactions to transform the polymers in petroleum into plastic chips. These are then melted and pushed through small holes. Cold air hardens the stream into long thin plastic fibers. which are twisted together into yarn. Machines either weave or knit yarns together to make fabric. Polyester is inexpensive to make and tough enough to be used and washed many times. 
  • Recycled Polyester is made from used plastic containers that have been collected from recycling programs. They are cleaned, cut into small pieces, and melted to make many different useful products, including fabric. To make polyester, the melted plastic is pushed through small holes, stretched, and twisted together. This polyester fiber is then knit or woven to make fleece jackets, T-shirts, and athletic shoes!
  • Acrylic is such durable easy-care fabric that is used to make outdoor umbrellas and cushions, suitcases, blankets, stuffed animals, and clothing. Originally it was developed to be a substitute for wool and is still used in winter hats, sweaters, mittens, and jackets. Acrylic fibers are processed the way that polyester fibers are to become yarn and then fabric.

Patti Galvan is the Kids & Chemistry Program Manager at the American Chemical Society.