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Fibre history

About 200 B.C. the development of skins for writing led to parchment, which is made by simply removing the wool or hair from the skin and allowing it to dry in a stretched condition, parchment, unlike leather, is not tanned. The very first parchments were the fragments from the Dead Sea Scrolls, roughly 2,000 years old.

In around 1800 B.C. the civilization of Babylonia was famous for its wool. The people distinguished food sheep from wool sheep. There was also a unique grading of the wool into three groups Mountain Wool, Second quality and Good quality.

The first fleece is dated back to 5000 B.C. in the form of a crude clay image of a sheep found at Sarab in Iran.

The earliest remains of true fine wool came from the Greek colony of Nymphaeum in the Crimea, dating back to the 5th Century B.C.

The wool of the early wild species of sheep tended to have a short, woolly undercoat covered by long coarse straight hair. But this has disappeared in the domestic breeds instead improving the quality and abundance of the wool. They also had black or brown coats to act as a camouflage against predators. The oldest wool cloth was found in a bog in Denmark, which was made in about 1500 B.C.

The finest wool during Roman times came from Tarentium in about 37 B.C. and during these times there were definite signs of selective breeding. The Romans developed a special strain of sheep called the Terenton that had a superior fleece, but required special care, as it lacked hardiness.

During the Middle Ages wool was England's main export trade, with every European country relying on England for it. By the end of the 18th Century there were more than 300 British laws detailing every aspect of the sheep trade.

The world's animal population has many species with bodily covering of hair, fur or wool. Animals in cold regions developed over millions of years a combination of long, tough hairs, combined with a fine, dense underfur. This produced a layer system to insulate out low temperatures, wind and water. In equatorial regions, animals developed short sleek coats (which may change seasonally) in order to protect their skins from the burning and heating effect of the sun's direct rays.

Mankind has the body least equipped to live in the world's varied climatic conditions, but he has used his intellect and enterprise to compensate for this.

Primitive man protected his body with animal skins, and he learned to appreciate the merits of alternative furs according to fibre length, fibre fineness (or fibre diameter) and fibre density of the pelt. Innovative man eventually looked beyond furs to other fibrous materials, and he began to prepare them to twist them, to interweave them, and make garments to suit his needs.

In the world's hot and temperate zones, the fibres used were usually cellulosic or vegetable-based: cotton, linen, jute ramie and hessian. Cellulosic fibres grow readily in hot climates, and the resultant garments were designed appropriately for wear in hot weather. These fibres are all vegetable in origin and have a common chemistry. In colder regions, nomadic tribesmen combed their animal flocks as they moulted each spring, and spent the long winter nights spinning and weaving the soft, woolly fibres into garments which would keep them warm and dry throughout the cold winter season ahead.

In the late 18th Century, the Industrial Revolution began a movement which took the textile industry from the home into the factory. Machines were invented to carry out processes which for countless generations had been carried out by hand. The machines and factories developed an insatiable demand for fibre, and an international trade in textile fabrics began to develop.

Bradford in Yorkshire, England, became the centre of the wool textile industry. The demand for sound, fine wool was capitalised on by the fledgling colony of Australia. Australian graziers found that the vast areas of dry pasture land were suited to the fine-wool breeds of sheep. Rams of the Spanish Merino breed were imported and these provided the basic breed lines on which the Australian Merino was established.

The most recent evolution in the textile industry has been the introduction of man-made fibres. The first group of man-made fibres which are still widely in use were "regenerated" from naturally occurring products. For example, cellulose from trees is regenerated into fibrous cellulose to produce viscose rayon.

The next evolutionary step was to completely synthesize the fibrous material. The oil industry yielded the base products for the synthesis of nylons, acrylic and polyester fibres. These are termed "man-made synthetic fibres."

Characteristics

Wool is an extremely complex protein, evolved over millions of years for the protection of warmblooded animals in a great variety of climates and conditions. By comparison, synthetic fibres are simple, having been designed for specific limited purposes.

Wool fibre is so resilient and elastic that it can be bent 30,000 times without danger of breaking or damage. Every wool fibre has a natural elasticity and wave or crimp that allows it to be stretched as much as one third and then spring back into place. Its complex cellular structure also enables it to absorb moisture vapour but repel liquid - try and soak up water with a wool cloth. No synthetic fibre has been able to combine all these characteristics.

Wool fibre comprises

An outer layer of scales and the bulk of the fibre, called the cortex. This is made up of millions of long cells held together by a strong natural binding material. This material is made up - put simply - of paracortex and orthocortex, each with slightly different qualities, that give wool fibre the characteristic "crimp" or small curls.

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