A Brief Introduction To Textiles


A textile is any object woven from natural or synthetic fibres. This also includes fabrics made by the interlacing of yarns or threads by knitting, braiding, netting or felting.
The primary natural fibres are from animal sources (wool, silk and hair), vegitable sources (cotton, flax and hemp) and, less commonly, a mineral source (asbestos).
Synthetic fibres have been under development from the late 19th century. The first synthetic fibres are known as regenerated fibres and were of natural origin, such as cotton or wood pulp, dissolved in a solvent and extruded as a filament. Rayon was first produced in the 1920s and is one of the important early natural based synthetics.
A fibre is defined as a unit of matter with a minimum length of 100 times it's diameter, flexible,and capable of being woven.

Within the militaria collecting field, the term textile generally means clothing such as jackets, shirts and headwear, but can also include some footwear, web equipment, insignia, maps, flags, and banners.

Animal Source Fibres


Sheep are the primary source of wool in military textiles. Wool consists mainly of a protein called keratin, which is made up of amino acids. Keratin contains 3 - 4 % sulfur which is an insect attractant. Wool fibers absorb more moisture and accept dyes better than vegetable fibers. Wool is not a strong fiber and weakens considerably when wet.


Silk is an animal (insect) fiber that is derived from the cocoon filament of the silkworm (Bombyx mori). Because it is basically protein, silk is easily affected by alkalies and various inorganic acids. Like wool, it easily absorbs moisture and will take dyes readily. These dyes, however, are not as light-fast as those on wool. Silk is as strong as a steel wire of the same diameter but is very light sensitive. Therefore, it will break down faster than wool when exposed to ultra-violet rays. The most commonly encountered military artifacts composed of silk are scarves, medal ribbons and escape maps.

Vegitable Source Fibres


Cotton is a vegetable fiber derived from lint on the cotton seed. It can survive in moderate alkaline conditions but is adversely affected by acids. Cotton does not transmit moisture like linen and is very absorbent in its processed state. It is this characteristic which allows cotton to take dyes well. Cotton has a very characteristic clockwise twist; for this reason, it is commonly spun in a 'Z' twist.


Linen is a spun and woven vegetable-based fiber derived from flax stalks and branches. Linen fibers lie close together and are durable. They withstand moderate alkaline conditions because of their cellulose content, but are readily affected by acids. Moisture easily passes through the fibers of linen, causing the material to undergo dimensional and weight changes as well as changes in the overall strength. Linen does not take dye well and is usually left in a bleached or unbleached white state.

Agents of Deterioration

All textiles are deteriorated by light, insects, microorganisms, and air pollution which, alone or together, cause considerable loss of tensile strength and pliability. The oxygen in the atmosphere affects all organic substances to varying degrees. Prolonged exposure to normal atmospheric conditions will cause textiles to weaken and disintegrate. The speed of the deterioration varies according to environment and the nature of the fibers. The main factors that promote the decay of textiles can be categorized into three groups:


All organic source textiles are subject to attack by molds, mildew and bacteria. The environments that favor the growth of these organisms are as damp heat, stagnant air, and dirty storage conditions. Animal source textiles are particularly succeptible to attack by insects and rodents.


Excessive heat causes desiccation and embrittlement; exposure to ultra-violet light causes a type of deterioration known as "tendering," as well as the photochemical degradation of susceptible dyes. Environments that are too damp or too dry can lead to mold growth or desiccation of a textile. Improper handling or storage can cause stress on the fabric which leads to tearing or separation.


Exposure to gases from adhesives or paints can cause tendering. In some cases, these gases are converted to acids, a primary cause for the deterioration of some textiles. A coat of paint or layer of adhesive in a display case for example, may may produce fumes or "off gas" for months after it appears to be dry. In larger cities, air pollution may be a serious threat to textiles as well as human health.

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