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A textile vendor displays his wares on a sidewalk in Karachi, Pakistan.

A textile is a flexible material composed of a network of natural or artificial fibers often referred to as thread or yarn. Textiles are formed by weaving, knitting, crocheting, braiding, knotting, or pressing fibers together. In addition, the fibers themselves may be referred to as textiles.

The development of textiles has played an important part in the development of human civilizations. Since ancient times, humans have found ways to make textiles, which have been used chiefly to produce articles of clothing. In this manner, people have learned to protect their bodies from elements of the weather—the heat, cold, rain, snow, and so forth. Consequently, textiles have helped people dwell in regions with a wide range of climatic conditions, allowing us to broaden our horizons.

Over the past century, textiles made from synthetic fibers have been used in conjunction with those made with naturally occurring materials, thus broadening the types of textiles available. In addition to clothing, textiles are used for carpeting, furniture upholstery, table cloths, bedsheets, tents, flags, balloons, parachutes, and sails. Textiles are also used for artwork.


Textiles are used in assorted ways, of which the most common are for clothing and containers such as bags and baskets. In the household, textiles are used in carpeting, upholstered furnishings, towels, and coverings for tables, beds, and other flat surfaces. Textiles are also used for artwork.

In the workplace, textiles are used in industrial and scientific processes such as filtering. Miscellaneous uses include the production of flags, tents, nets, and cleaning devices. In addition, textiles are used in devices made for transport and recreation, such as sails, balloons, kites, and parachutes. Textiles that are used for industrial purposes and chosen for characteristics other than appearance are commonly referred to as technical textiles.

Sources and types

Various types of fabric. From left: evenweave cotton, velvet, printed cotton, calico, felt, satin, silk, hessian, and polycotton.

Textiles can be made from many materials, which have been derived from four main sources: animal, plant, mineral, and synthetic. In the past, all textiles were made from natural fibers obtained from plant, animal, and mineral sources. In the twentieth century, these were supplemented by artificial fibers made from petroleum.

Textiles are made in various strengths and degrees of durability, from the finest gossamer to the sturdiest canvas. The relative thickness of fibers in cloth is measured in deniers. Microfiber refers to fibers made of strands thinner than one denier.

Timeline of clothing and textiles technology

  • Pre-history - spindle used to create yarn from fibers
  • Unknown date - invention of the loom
  • c. 6500 B.C.E. - Approximate date of Naalebinding examples found in Nehal Hemar cave, Israel. This technique, which uses short separate lengths of thread, predated the invention of spinning (with its continuous lengths of thread) and requires that all the as-yet unused thread to be pulled through the loop in the sewn material (Barber 1991). This requires much greater skill than knitting in order to create a fine product (Theaker 2006).
  • 4200 B.C.E. - Date of Mesolithic examples of Naalebinding found in Denmark, marking spread of technology to Northern Europe (Bender 1990).
  • 200 B.C.E. to 200 C.E. - Approximate date of earliest evidence of "needle knitting" in Peru, a form of Naalebinding that preceded local contact with the Spanish (Bennett & Bird 1960).
  • 247 - Dura-Europos, a Roman outpost, is destroyed. Excavations of the city discovered early examples of naalebinding fabric.
  • 500 to 1000 - spinning wheel in use in India
  • 1000s - Finely decorated examples of cotton socks made by true knitting using continuous thread appear in Egypt (Theaker 2006).
  • 1275 - Approximate date of a silk burial cushion, knit in two colors, found in the tomb of Spanish royalty.
  • 1562 - Date of first example of use of the purl stitch, from a tomb in Toledo, Spain. This stitch allows knitting of panels of material. Previously, material had to be knitted in the round (in a tubular form) and cut to open.
  • 1589 - William Lee invents the stocking frame
  • 1733 - John Kay patents the flying shuttle
  • 1738 - Lewis Paul patents the draw roller
  • 1764 - James Hargreaves or Thomas Highs invents the spinning jenny (patented 1770)
  • 1767 - John Kay invents the spinning frame
  • 1769 - Richard Arkwright's water frame
  • 1779 - Samuel Crompton invents the spinning mule
  • 1784 - Edmund Cartwright invents the power loom
  • 1794 - Eli Whitney patents the cotton gin
  • 1801 - Joseph Marie Jacquard invents the Jacquard punched card loom
  • 1816 - Francis Cabot Lowell builds the first power loom in the United States
  • 1856 - William Perkin invents the first synthetic dye
  • 1892 - Cross, Bevan, & Beadle invent Viscose
  • 1953 - First commercial polyester fiber production by DuPont
  • 1963 - Open-end spinning developed in Czechoslovakia

With the introduction of modern manufacturing techniques, the speed and scale of production of textiles have changed dramatically. In addition, with the introduction of artificial fibers in the 1920s and 1930s, the range of materials has increased in the last century. Today, synthetic fibers and blends of synthetic and natural fibers are being used to produce new types of fabric. Also, a wide range of new dyes have been introduced.

Animal textiles

Animal textiles are commonly made from hair or fur of animals. Wool, commonly used for warm clothing, refers to the hair of the domestic goat or sheep. It is distinguished from other types of animal hair in that the individual strands are coated with scales and tightly crimped, and the wool as a whole is coated with an oil known as lanolin, which is waterproof and dirtproof. The term woollen refers to raw wool, while worsted refers to the yarn spun from raw wool. Cashmere, the hair of the Indian cashmere goat, and mohair, the hair of the North African angora goat, are types of wool known for their softness.

Other animal textiles made from hair or fur are alpaca wool, vicuña wool, llama wool, and camel hair. They are generally used in the production of coats, jackets, ponchos, blankets, and other warm coverings. Angora refers to the long, thick, soft hair of the angora rabbit.

Silk is an animal textile made from the fibers of the cocoon of the Chinese silkworm. It is spun into a smooth, shiny fabric prized for its sleek texture.

Plant textiles

A textile shop in Karachi, Pakistan

Grass, rush, hemp, and sisal are all used in making rope. In the first two cases, the entire plant is used for this purpose, while in the latter two, only fibers from the plant are utilized. Coir (coconut fiber) is used in making twine, floormats, doormats, brushes, mattresses, floor tiles, and sacking.

Straw and bamboo are both used to make hats. Straw, a dried form of grass, is also used for stuffing, as is kapok. Fibers from pulpwood trees, cotton, rice, hemp, and nettle are used in making paper.

Cotton, flax, jute, and modal are all used in clothing. Piña (pineapple fiber) and ramie are also fibers used in clothing, generally with a blend of other fabrics such as cotton.

Seaweed is sometimes used in the production of textiles. A water-soluble fiber known as alginate is produced and used as a holding fiber. When the cloth is finished, the alginate is dissolved, leaving an open area.

Mineral textiles

Asbestos and basalt fiber are used for vinyl tiles, sheeting, and adhesives, "transite" panels and siding, acoustical ceilings, stage curtains, and fire blankets.

Glass fiber is used in the production of spacesuits, ironing board and mattress covers, ropes and cables, reinforcement fiber for motorized vehicles, insect netting, flame-retardant and protective fabric, soundproof, fireproof, and insulating fibers.

Metal fiber, metal foil, and metal wire have a variety of uses, including the production of "cloth-of-gold" and jewelry.

Synthetic textiles

All synthetic textiles are used primarily in the production of clothing.

  • Polyester fiber is used in all types of clothing, either alone or blended with fibers such as cotton.
  • Acrylic is a fiber used to imitate wools, including cashmere, and is often used in place of them.
  • Nylon is a fiber used to imitate silk and is tight-fitting; it is widely used in the production of pantyhose.
  • Lycra, spandex, and tactel are fibers that stretch easily and are also tight-fitting. They are used to make activewear, bras, and swimsuits.
  • Olefin fiber is a thermal fiber used in activewear, linings, and warm clothing.
  • Lurex is a metallic fiber used in clothing embellishment.
  • Ingeo is a fiber blended with other fibers such as cotton and used in clothing. It is prized for its ability to wick away perspiration.

Production methods

Weaving is a textile production method that involves interlacing a set of vertical threads (called the warp) with a set of horizontal threads (called the weft). This is done on a machine known as a loom, of which there are a number of types. Some weaving is still done by hand, but a mechanized process is used most often.

Knitting and crocheting involve interlacing loops of yarn, which are formed either on a knitting needle or crochet hook, together in a line. The two processes differ in that the knitting needle has several active loops at one time waiting to interlock with another loop, while crocheting never has more than one active loop on the needle.

Braiding or plaiting involves twisting threads together into cloth. Knotting involves tying threads together and is used in making macrame.

Lace is made by interlocking threads together independently, using a backing and any of the methods described above, to create a fine fabric with open holes in the work. Lace can be made by hand or machine.

Carpets, rugs, velvet, velour, and velveteen are made by interlacing a secondary yarn through woven cloth, creating a tufted layer known as a nap or pile.

Textile treatments

Textiles are often dyed to produce them in almost every color. Colored designs on textiles can be created in a number of ways:

  • weaving together fibers of different colors (plaid)
  • adding colored stitches to finished fabric (embroidery)
  • creating patterns by tying off areas of cloth and dyeing the rest—called tie-dyeing
  • drawing wax designs on cloth and dyeing in between them—called batik
  • using various printing processes on finished fabric

Textiles are also sometimes bleached. In this process, the material's original color is removed by chemicals or exposure to sunlight, turning the textile pale or white.

Textiles are sometimes finished by starching, which makes the fabric stiff and less prone to wrinkles, or by waterproofing, which makes the fabric slick and impervious to water or other liquids. Since the 1990s, finishing agents have been used to strengthen fabrics and make them wrinkle-free.

See also

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Barber, E. J. W. Prehistoric Textiles: The Development of Cloth in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages with special reference to the Aegean. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991. ISBN 0691035970
  • Bender Jørgensen, Lise. “Stone-Age Textiles in North Europe” in Textiles in Northern Archaeology, Textile Symposium in York, North European Symposium for Archaeological Textiles Monograph 3, NESAT III. London Archetype Publications, 1990. ISBN 1873132050
  • Bennett, Wendell C. and Junius B. Bird. Andean Culture History; Handbook Series No. 15; second and revised edition. New York: The American Museum of Natural History, 1960.
  • Theaker, Julie. knitty: History 101. knitty.com. Retrieved June 7, 2007.


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