Bunch-Hellemans, In search for fiber

Although Western tradition ranks clothing among the basic needs along with food and shelter, the members of some human societies in the recent past wore no clothing, and many societies today wear very little. Climate is not the deciding factor for nakedness, as societies known to use the least amount of clothing, the Fuegan and Tasmanian of 200 years ago, lived on islands with notoriously bad weather. In Europe, however, clothing is known from very early times.

Small statues depict clothing as early as 15,000 BCE. This clothing is thought to be of animal skins, but linen cloth made by weaving existed at least as early as 6000 BCE. In any case, animal skins are not the right shape or size for clothing and need to be sewn together with fiber of some sort. While thin strips of skin have been used as fibers, the Ice Man of 3300 BCE used animal sinews in some places and grass in others.

Although the earliest recorded evidence of the use of fiber involves flax — linen is fiber from the flax plant — ambiguous evidence suggests that wool from sheep or goats was employed for cloth by that time as well. Sheep and goats were among the first domesticated animals; in the New World, llamas and alpacas, which also produce wool, were also domesticated early. In warmer climates of both the Old and New worlds, cotton became the most common plant fiber from early times. By the 18th century CE, cotton was shipped all over the world. Introduction of new ways of processing cotton was a hallmark of the Industrial Revolution.

Humans are not the only animals to use fiber. Birds have long used animal hair and plant fibers for nest building. They also anticipated humans in the discovery of the utility of silk, a chemical fiber produced by spiders and caterpillars. Most birds prefer spider silk, some of which forms a micro-Velcro and some of which has adhesives attached. People in China discovered that the caterpillar of the silkworm moth produces the longest silk fibers in nature, some 900 m (3000 ft) long. Shiny silk was seen from the first as superior to animal hair or plant fibers. During the Chinese’s virtual monopoly of hundreds of years, trade in silk became the strand that held eastern Asia to the West along the famous Silk Road.

Silk begins as a liquid that is extruded though a tiny opening; it hardens into a solid in the air. As early as the 17th century, inventors recognized that this process could be imitated by a machine if the right liquid were found. Some early attempts used gums or other natural plant products. Chemists in the 19th century perceived that cellulose from the breakdown of wood or some variation on it would do the trick. At least a half dozen different versions of such artificial silks emerged, the best of which we now call rayon. In the 20th century, the same idea was used with a different class of chemicals, the polymers. In bulk, the polymers are plastics, but as fibers they are nylon, Dacron, and polyester. For many purposes, the artificial fibers are better (wrinkle-free cloth is often cited as the greatest boon), but natural fibers continue to excel for others.