Where technology brought us 

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Synthetics revolutionize textiles

By Sarah Larson, Dispatch/Argus Staff writer

John Greenwood / staff
Hancock Fabrics employee Barb Johnson displays some of the many synthetic fabrics commonly used today. The fibers include polyester, rayon, poly-rayon blends, and nylon.

The invention of synthetic fibers revolutionized the way people buy and care for clothes and other textiles.

Man-made fibers such as rayon, nylon and polyester worked their way into clothing and linens, improving with each new innovation. As they improved, synthetic fibers made fabrics easier to care for and more affordable.

``The invention of synthetic fibers came at a time when our time at home was limited, so they're easy to care for, quick drying, and practically wrinkle-free,'' said Gwen Johnson, associate professor of business at Black Hawk College in Moline.

Rayon was first invented by the English scientist Robert Hooke. In 1664, Mr. Hooke proposed making fabric from a man-made glutinous substance similar to the fluid secreted by the silkworm.

It took another two centuries until the French scientist Count Hilaire de Chardonnet figured out how to manufacture the fabric. He forced the thick fluid through small holes to create strands, then hardened them in a chemical bath.

The result was called artificial silk until about 1924, when the term rayon came into popular use. In 1937, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission officially recognized rayon.

Nylon, which is stronger than silk, was introduced in the 1930s. Next came polyester in the 1940s.

Man-made fabrics benefited consumers, making clothing and home textiles last longer and cost less. They also benefited countries, though, too. Nations that once had to import a large amount of cotton and wool for their textile industries now could make their own fibers.

A significant problem with all of the early synthetics, though, was comfort. They had little.

``Those textiles fit into our lifestyle beautifully,'' Ms. Johnson said. ``The problem was, they were not very comfortable. They didn't wick moisture away, they didn't drape properly, they felt rough.''

To solve that problem, the textile industry quickly learned to blend the synthetic fibers with natural fibers of cotton, silk and wool, Ms. Johnson said.

Blending brings the beauty of natural fibers to the strength and affordability of synthetics.

Copyright 1999, Moline Dispatch Publishing Co.