Textiles are defined as the yarns that are woven or knitted to make fabrics. The use of textiles links the myriad cultures of the world and defines the way they clothe themselves, adorn their surroundings and go about their lives. Textiles have been an integral part of human daily life for thousands of years, with the first use of textiles, most likely felt, dates back to the late Stone Age, roughly 100,000 years ago. However, the earliest instances of cotton, silk and linen being to appear around 5,000 BC in India, Egypt and China. The ancient methods of manufacturing textiles, namely plain weave, satin weave and twill, have changed very little over the centuries. Modern manufacturing speed and capacity, however, have increased the rate of production to levels unthinkable even 200 years ago.
Trade of textiles in the ancient world occurred predominantly on the Silk Road, a winding route across lower Asia that connected the Mediterranean lands with the Far East. Spanning over 5,000 miles and established during the Han Dynasty in China around 114 BC, the Silk Road was an integral part of the sharing of manufactured goods, cultures and philosophies, and helped develop the great civilizations of the world. During the Middle Ages, simple clothing was favored by the majority of people, while finer materials such as silks and linens were the trappings of royalty and the rich. During the 14th century, however, advances in dyeing and tailoring accelerated the spread of fashion throughout Western Europe, and drastically altered the mindset of both wealthy man and commoner alike. Clothing and draperies became increasingly elaborate over the next several centuries, although production methods remained largely unchanged until the invention of steam-powered mechanized facilities during the Industrial Revolution. From that point on, quality textiles became available to the masses at affordable prices.
Textiles can be derived from several sources: animals, plants and minerals are the traditional sources of materials, while petroleum-derived synthetic fibers were introduced in the mid-20th century. By far, animal textiles are the most prevalent in human society, and are commonly made from furs and hair. Silk, wool, and pashmina are all extremely popular animal textiles. Plant textiles, the most common being cotton, can also be made from straw, grass and bamboo. Mineral textiles include glass fiber, metal fiber and asbestos. The recent introduction of synthetic textiles has greatly expanded the array of options available for fabric manufacturers, both in terms of garment versatility and usability. Polyester, spandex, nylon and acrylic are all widely used synthetic textiles.
In addition to the multitude of textiles available for use, there are many different methods for creating fabrics from textiles. Weaving is performed using a loom, typically a rectangular frame on which strands of fibers are hung and interlaced with other fibers. Knitting involves interlacing strands of yarn with the use of a needle, and is typically done by hand, while weaving is largely mechanized. Lacing is performed using a backing piece to create finer fabrics with open holes throughout the piece. Interlacing a yarn through an existing piece of woven cloth results in a layer known as a pile, which is prominent in the manufacture of carpets and velvet. Finally, and by far the oldest technique, is felting, which involves squeezing a mat of fibers together in a liquid to create a tangled, flat material.
Textiles can also be colored using a variety of techniques, including weaving together fibers of differing colors, bleaching to create a pure white look, stitching colored yarn through existing fabric, the use of resist dyeing, and many other ways of printing directly onto finished fabric. Modern dyeing methods can create fabrics of almost any color or pattern imaginable.
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