Meeting Report: Natural and Manufactured Yarns

26 January 2018
Dr Fiona Moir

Friday 26 January's talk was from local spinner, weaver and dyer, Dr Fiona Moir. Many members were expecting to learn more about local sheep breeds and spinning wheels, but they were in for a surprise. Rather alarmingly Fiona began her talk by demonstrating the burn test — how fibres react to the flame of a match. Some turn to ash, others bubble and melt, and they all smell different. With a bit of practice this technique can be used to distinguish between different fibres.

Fiona went on to explain that fibres can divided into those that are produced naturally and those that are man-made. The most well know natural fibre is wool, produced by the twenty or more native British sheep breeds and other non-native varieties. Sheep come in an assortment of shapes and sizes and produce a range of wools from fine for garments to very coarse for carpets. Fibre also comes from goats, dogs, rabbits and the camelid family, with herds of alpaca and llama being found in Dumfries and Galloway. Silk also comes into the natural category and Fiona explained that the silkworm produces a liquid protein which hardens when it comes into contact with the air. It is extruded through a spinneret in its mouthpart, and the continuous thread is used to form a cocoon.

Natural fibres also include those of vegetable origin, such as cotton. The plant seeds are inside the cotton, and the two need to be separated in order to obtain something worth spinning. Considerable water and pesticides are required to grow cotton, and chemicals are necessary for the bleaching process, so cotton is not considered to be an environmentally friendly fibre. However, it is possible to find beige organic cotton, which is less damaging to the environment. Flax is another vegetable fibre, along with sisal, kapok, hemp, ramie and nettles. Though the latter are the type found in the Himalayas, not of the common garden variety!

Moving onto synthetic fibres, Fiona produced another surprise — they are not a recent discovery. People first attempted to make synthetic fibres in 1665, and the first artificial silk was produced as early as 1855. Nylon, along with several other similar fibres, was developed during the 1930s as a bi-product of the petroleum industry. Milk protein, which many modern day hand spinners consider to be a relatively recent invention, was first introduced in 1935. Polyester, acrylic and spandex all appeared in the 1950s.

Their petroleum origins mean that these synthetic fibres are based on a finite resource. By the 1990s interest was growing in something more eco-friendly. China pioneered the development of bamboo fibre, and tencel, a fibre made from wood pulp, was first produced in 1995. Synthetic fibres made from protein also emerged, for example, soya, a bi-product of tofu production. After breaking down the proteins into cellulose, the result is forced through a spinneret, mimicking the silkworm. These synthetic fibres can be chopped up, given a crimp and dyed to enhance the result. Ingeo, made from corn, is another renewable resource. However, if land that could be used for growing crops for human consumption is instead used to produce crops to be converted into textiles &emdash; is this sustainable use of resources?

The modern day textile industry also makes use of recycled polyester, for example plastic bottles are melted, air-dried and spun to form a fibre.

And what of the future? Genetic engineering has already produced a goat that bears spider genes, and whose milk can be spun, and we are all being encouraged to focus more on reusing, recycling and repurposing. Fiona concluded by encouraging members to consider the environment when they purchase fibre and fabric and to do a little research to find out how things are produced before buying.