The History of Textile Production: Making Fabric

A step-by-step look at the textile production process

Circa 1750, an illustration showing the hand combing of woolen fleeces, prior to their spinning. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

The creation of textiles, or cloth and fabric materials, is one of humanity’s oldest activities. Despite the great advances in production and manufacturing of clothing, the creation of natural textiles still to this day relies on the effective conversion of fiber into yarn and then yarn to fabric. As such, there are four primary steps in the manufacturing of textiles which have remained the same.

The first is the harvest and cleaning of the fiber or wool.

The second is carding and spinning into threads. The third is to weave the threads into cloth. Lastly, the fourth is to fashion and sew the cloth into clothes.

Early Textile Production

Like food and shelter, clothing is a basic human requirement for survival. When settled Neolithic cultures discovered the advantages of woven fibers over animal hides, the making of cloth emerged as one of humankind's fundamental technologies drawing on existing basketry techniques. From the earliest hand-held spindle and distaff and basic hand loom to the highly automated spinning machines and power looms of today, the principles of turning vegetable fiber into cloth have remained constant: Plants are cultivated and the fiber harvested. The fibers are cleaned and aligned, then spun into yarn or thread. Finally the yarns are interwoven to produce cloth. Today we also spin complex synthetic fibers, but they are still woven together using the same process as cotton and flax were millennia ago.

The Textile Production Process, Step-by-Step

1. Picking: After the fiber of choice was harvested, picking was the process that followed. Picking removed foreign matter (dirt, insects, leaves, seeds) from the fiber. Early pickers beat the fibers to loosen them and removed debris by hand. Eventually, machines used rotating teeth to do the job, producing a thin "lap" ready for carding.

2. Carding: Carding was the process by which the fibers were combed to align and join them into a loose rope called a "sliver." Hand carders pulled the fibers between wire teeth set in boards. Machines would be developed to do the same thing with rotating cylinders. Slivers (rhymes with divers) were then combined, twisted, and drawn out into "roving."

3. Spinning. After carding created slivers and roving, spinning was that process that twisted and drew out the roving and wound the resulting yarn on a bobbin. A spinning wheel operator drew out the cotton by hand. A series of rollers accomplished this on machines called "throstles" and "spinning mules."

4. Warping: Warping gathered yarns from a number of bobbins and wound them close together on a reel or spool. From there they were transferred to a warp beam, which was then mounted on a loom. Warp threads were those that ran lengthwise on the loom.

5. Weaving: Weaving was the final stage in making textiles and cloth. Crosswise woof threads were interwoven with warp threads on a loom. A 19th century power loom worked essentially like a hand loom, except that its actions were mechanized and therefore much faster.