Putting the Pieces Together
All textiles are a composite of fibers, fabrics, finishes and
embellishments. Museums attempt to identify the composition of
each garment when determining the proper way to treat, exhibit,
Prior to the 20th century, all fibers came from natural sources-either
animals or plants. Common animal fibers are hair, fur, wool and
silk. Common plant fibers, which can come from leaves, stems,
or seeds, include cotton and linen. Synthetic fibers such as
rayon and nylon, which were not available until the 20th century,
were usually developed in response to wartime shortages of natural
fibers. Thus, they were made to resemble the features and appearances
of natural fibers, but often do not age as well.
Joining Fibers To Make Fabric:
There are various ways fibers are joined to make thread and
cloth. These include spinning, netting, lace-making, macramé,
Treating The Cloth:
Finished cloth is often treated before it is used. Each treatment
results in a special effect, but many of the processes will eventually
speed up the deterioration of the fabric. Some of the more common
treatments are as follows:
Cropping, napping, and shearing all raise fibers to
the surface and create a fuller, denser "piled" fabric
such as corduroy cotton.
Rubbing, pressing, and glazing all result in a smooth,
lustrous surface such as moiré silk.
Scouring is the washing out of agents such as oil, lubricants
and sizing used during weaving.
Fulling is the use of lubricants, detergents, and other
additives (including "fuller's earth") to absorb grease
and dirt as well as add weight to the fabric.
Mercerization is a strongly alkaline chemical treatment
for cotton. The treatment swells fibers, increasing the fabric's
strength, durability, luster, and ability to take dyes. It also
The addition of dyes to add color and/or design to fabric
is a chemical treatment, which involves heat and non-porous additives
like starch and wax. Many dyes and pigments are not very stable
and will fade, weaken the fibers, and make the cloth more susceptible
to environmental changes.
Weighting is sometimes used in the processing of silk. Silk
is boiled to remove natural protective gum, then steeped in metallic
salts or sugar. The resulting increase in weight, which made
the silk more profitable as it was sold by the pound, had the
advantage of also making the silk feel fuller, drape better,
and rustle more. However, over time, the metallic salts act like
little knives, and also make the fabric more sensitive to the
harmful effects of light. Old weighted silk becomes highly susceptible
to fracture from handling, and without very good care, it splits
and turns to powder.
As fabrics are made into garments, the stitching, the decorative
surface embroideries and appliqués, and the way the garment
is designed become integral to the actual structure of the piece.
Some of these embellishments cause extra stress and strain. Beads,
buttons, sequins, feathers, bone, pottery, and plastic sometimes
contain or are attached with materials that interact with the
fabric, finishes, and/or dyes, with unfortunate results. For
example, early sequins were made of gelatins and glues which
soak up moisture from the atmosphere and then become tacky or
even dissolve. Rust marks are another example of the type of
damage caused by this unintended interaction.