Elements of a Textile – Who Are the People Behind the Fabric?

#HawaiiFiberProject Part IV – Textiles

Do you see the people behind the fabric you wear? Traditionally weaving textiles for clothing, blankets and rugs was done artfully and carefully by women. Children grew up watching their mothers and grandmothers spinning yarn and weaving intricate designs in the home. As our societies have changed, these traditions have slowly left our households and have become a far away industry in developing countries. An industry in which many laborers are exploited and suffer harmful working conditions. Something that was once globally ingrained as a part of our everyday cultural heritage has shifted to big garment industries in economically struggling countries eager for work. There are still small pockets of artisan made textiles and fiber artists, but our visceral connection to textiles has been more or less lost.

In this post I want to bring the textile back to life, and look at the human lives touched along the way. From harvesting and gathering materials to weaving the fabric, there are many hands in the process before the textiles even enter a garment factory or design studio. During the #HawaiiFiberProject, I researched every step of the supply chain for natural materials. The process for creating textiles would be similar for synthetic materials except for steps one and two (spinning and harvesting), and leathers and furs deserve a whole dedicated post, which I’ll put out another time. For the purpose of this project and showing the many layers and people involved, I stuck with wools and plant based materials.

I’ll walk you through each step, harvesting and gathering, spinning, weaving, dyeing and finishing. As we go, imagine the men, women and children around the world that work to make these textile take shape. To take a peek into the lives of those constructing clothing, you can learn more in the Fashion Revolution’s Garment Diaries series, where they researched the day to day lives of garment workers in Cambodia, Bangladesh and India. Textile mills and dye houses exist in these countries as well and this valuable research provides a snapshot of what their lives may be like as well.

Step 1 – Harvesting and Gathering

For each fiber this will vary slightly. In my project I looked at three different fibers, pineapple, waste materials, and locally grown wool. You can check out my post on pineapple fibers to learn more about the process of stripping the leaves and extracting the fibers. For the waste fabric I cut strips of waste materials that my mom had saved, it took several hours to cut up enough fabric for one tote bag. The locally grown wool is by far the most labor intensive fiber in this group. First the sheep need to be sheared, then the wool needs to be washed and carded until it’s ready for spinning.

This stage of textiles is often overlooked but it has a huge impact. Cotton, for example, requires a lot of water to grow, making it a controversial sustainable fiber. There are vast differences in the treatment of sheep between locally grown wool and mass produced wool. Oftentimes breaking down plant fibers is extremely labor intensive and requires a lot of difficult manual labor. With every fiber there are different concerns. I would encourage you to research the fibers in your clothing and thoroughly understand the process of growing and harvesting the fibers. Is there a history of forced child labor? How do pesticides affect the workers? Are the animals treated well?

Step 2 – Spinning

This stage is a bit simpler, and nowadays would mostly be done by machine. The biggest concerns I would have are in regards to labor conditions and working with the machines. Are the machines safe? And are the workers treated fairly?

Traditionally, hand spinning was done in the home and is still practiced as a fiber art. You can still find artisan made, hand knit or hand loomed products made with hand spun yarn, but since this is so time intensive, these products are a luxury item.  

While in Hawaii I got to learn to spin with the Hawaii Handweavers’ Hui at the Hilo public library. It was fun to chat with the members and hear what they planned to do with their yarn. I was also excited to see three young girls learning to spin, loved to see that the younger generation had an interest in the craft. I have to say, it takes a lot of patience to get an even and fine thread. I didn’t quite get the technique down, but it was almost mesmerizing to keep the thread consistent. It seems like it could be useful as a meditative practice.

Step 3: Weaving

Weaving, like spinning, has been mechanized for large scale production. The introduction of the power loom in the late 1700’s revolutionized the textile industry and has led to the high tech industrial looms of today. In this stage the fiber is transformed into usable fabric, and depending on the type of weaving, this stage can determine the end use for the textile. For example a cotton can be woven into a heavy weight denim or a thinner cotton thread can be used to create a lightweight lawn fabric. Each type of textile would be used for completely difference products. 

There are different levels of mechanized looms and since hand loomed products are very popular, some of the easier to use looms are used to make artisan products. Since these artisan made products can be sold at a higher price point, this allows women in rural areas use their cultural heritage to make textiles and get paid fair wages. There are also those who still use the original rustic looms of their ancestors to create truly stunning works of art, further increasing the value and earning potential. 

Although both spinning and weaving have largely been mechanized, people still run these machines. The human element is not removed by the introduction of high powered machines, just lessened to some degree. The introduction of big machines can bring up new concerns, such as safety precautions.

Step 4: Dyeing and Finishing

Sometimes the dyeing process happens before weaving depending on the textile being created or the process at the mill, but it can be done after the textile has been woven as well. Dye houses work in batches, and it’s important to use fabric from the same dye lot for each production run. The fashion industry tends to identify colors via pantone numbers in an attempt to get everyone on the same page, but even though the dye house uses the same dye and same process, different dye lots can produce slightly different shades.

When working with factories overseas, they are often in charge of confirming colors and will usually provide swatches from different dye lots to ask for preference. As a production manager in the America you may have little to no interaction with the dye houses and textile mills. Many overseas factories handle the sourcing, dyeing and finishing, which means this part of the supply chain is left unseen. 

Like I mentioned in my last post, dyeing is extremely water intensive, and depending on the dye, can be very harmful to those working in the factories and those living in nearby communities. What is the global environmental impact of using so much water? How can these communities recover from being exposed to toxic chemicals from dye run-off?

The last stage of a textile is finishing. This includes chemical washes to decrease flammability (which is mandatory for children’s clothing), mechanical shrinking, water resisting treatments and an array of techniques for altering fibers for better hand feel. Finishing has similar concerns to dyeing, water waste and chemical run-off. This part of the process can be virtually unseen in the finished product, but can be necessary for selling in any major retail store. For example chemical washes to decrease flammability are mandatory for all children’s wear. Is it good to expose workers and the children wearing the clothes to these chemicals?  

This all happens before a garment worker gets a hold of the fabric to start sewing the product, and I’m afraid it’s the most overlooked part of the garment industry. Granted, it can be challenging to find information on these stages of textile creation, many companies are not forthcoming about these processes. It never hurts to ask questions and express concern, consumer behavior can drive serious change in an industry. 

Today, on Labor Day, I thought it was important to call attention to those workers around the world who contribute to the products we wear daily and who are overlooked and often unseen. Labor Day is traditionally about the social and economic achievements of American labor workers, but I think it’s also our responsibility to be aware of the laborers abroad who make our American consumed products. Who are the workers behind the goods that we buy at Labor Day sales? And what is our responsibility to them? Should we be fighting for their rights and safety in the work place? I think the answer is yes. 

 

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