Fabrics and Material Used in Boys' Clothing: Raw Material

Figure 1.--This little American boy wears a fancy one-piece velvet suit with lace trim. These suits were particularly popular during Christmas season. True velvet was a silk fabric, but often made as a blended fabric with cotton.

Materials are the raw material fibers used to make clothing. While there are numerous fabrics made from these materials, three are relatively few fibers from which cloth fabrics are made, including both natural and synthetic fibers. The most important raw materials used in the production of clothing, including boys' clothing, are cotton, flax, and wool. There are also several other materials that have been used. The use of these materials even as late as the Renaissance varied geographically. Today with moderninternational trade, there used is common around the world. In addition to plant and animal fibers in the years leading up to World War II, a number of synthetic fibers were developed and are today widely used--most commonly in blended materials.

Artificial Fibers: Regenerated and Synthetic

For almost all of human history, even recorded history, man used used natural fibers for clothing. Thee included cotton, flax, fur, wool, and other materials available in nature. Corporatiins in the mid-20th cntury, in part because of World war I shortages began working om regenerated and sythetic fibers. Regenerated fabrics are natural materials that have been processed into new fiber structures. The raw material was primarily cellulose and wood pulp was the primary source, but there were othersources such as milk. Important regerated fibers include acetate, paper, rayon,and terryln. Also important are sythetic fibers, primarily polyestwrs. These unlike the regenerated fibers are made from chemicals, primarily petro chemicals. Important polyester fabrics include materials such as nylon and polyesters. Research on artifical fibers began in the 19th century, but actual commercial products did not appear until after World War I in the mid 20th century. Advabces in chemistry were involved as well as the ipetus created by shortages during World war I. Arificial fibers today re a huge portion of fiber production, including fibers used by the clothing industry. Since the production of Rayon in 1910, many other articial fibers have been introduced to produce clothing and have in many ways revolutionizing the clothing industry. Dupont was the single most important company producing synthetic. Dupont spokesmen triumphed the potential enviromental benefits. "Consider our natural resources," the president of DuPont insisted, "The chemist has aided in conserving natural resources by developing synthetic products to supplement or wholly replace natural products." DuPont's scientists were the world's leading researchers into the processes of nitrating cellulose and were in fact the largest processor of cellulose in the nation in this era. There ere, hwever, significant enviromental consequences. DuPont patented Nylon in 1937 and the polluting wood-pulp paper sulfide process.


Cotton is the most widely used natural fiber in the manufacture of clothing. It has a number of qualities making it ideal for making textiles and clothing. It is a natural vegetable fiber--the most important texttile raw material. As it is a plant it can be cultured in much larger quantity and at much less cost than producing animal fibers as in raising sheep for wool. The extensive use of cotton around the world as a textile fabric owes primarily to the fact that individual cotton fibers have a natural spiral twist, giving it a strength and reiliancy unmatched by other palnt fibers. This allows te spinning of extremely fine yarns. Cotton is a soft, white, downy substance consisting of hairs or fibers attached tonthe seeds of plants belonging to the genus Gossypium of the mallow family. Cotton is used in making fabrics, thread, wadding, etc. A large number of fabrics are made from wool, including corderoy, denim, drill, madras, searsucker, and many others. Cotton fabric has been used since ancient times and the development of cotton agriculture was an important step in the advance of civilization among ancient civilizations. Cotton also played a major role in the Industrial Revolution that has so changed modern life. American slavery was decling in importance. Many though that in the South it would eventually disappear as it was in the North. The Industrial Revolution, however, led to Ely Whitney's cotton gin. The resulting efficiences changed the economies of cotton cultivation. New plantations were founded on King Cotton as Southern planters moved west into Alabama and Mississpi and eventually Texas. The revitalization of the South's slave-based economy began a process that was to laed inexorably to Civil War. Cotton today continues to be the most important natural textile, still widely used in the production of clothing.

Fur and Animal Skins

Fur and animal skins since the stone age has been a valued material for clothing. Fur and animal skins were surely the first clothing. We suspect that furs were the first to be used and gradually early man learned to use other skins. Two factors were involved here. First, unlike most other raw materials, there was no complicated weaving technology required. Of course leather required tanning technology. Second, the most important need was the need for warmth in cold weather. Here animal skins were an obvious assett as early humans scavaged dead animals or animals killed by preditors. Animal skins were thus first used and slowly tanning technology develooed to produce learher. Fur became a valuable trade commonidty. In historical times the fur trade became not only important ecomomically, but has a major impact on histoty. The Scandavian search for furs played an important role in founding the Russian nation. And subsequentky the Russin search for furs led them into Siberia and eventually Russia. The European search for fur led them into North America, especially Canada. Furs also played an informant role in the early American expansion into the West.

Flax (Linnen)

One of the earlist plants used in the manufacture of clothing is flax. The flax plant has very small leaves, blue flowers and stems about 0.5 meters tall. The flax plant was extensuvely used for the production of linen in aincient Greece and is still used today. The Egyptians pulled out of the ground, not cut. The backbreaking labor was done mostly by men. Half-ripe flax stems made the best thread. If the stems were too ripe, they were used for mats and rope. Flax stems were soaked for several days. The fibers were separated and then beaten until soft. The spinner would attach flax fibers to the spindle which would then twisted into strong thread. The actual weaving of linnen fabric was done on a loom. A loom is a frame made of two beams held by four pegs in the ground. White linen needed constant washing. It was washed in the river or canal, rinsed, then pounded on a stone, and, bleached in the sun.


Jute is a strong, coarse plant fiber. It is made from two East Indian plants of the linden family. It can be used for clothing, but is most associated with bags/sacks (burlap and gunny) and cordage. The word entered the English language in the 1740s suggesting that this is when the material reached England. The use of the plant was used muchg earlier in the East Indies. Jute has been called the 'Golden Fiber'. It is a versatile fiber that is also widely used in handicrafts. Next to cotton, jute is the cheapest and most important of all plant fibers used in the manufacture of textiles. Jute is the cheapest lignocellulosic, long vegetable bast fibre available in the world. Jute cultivation provides work for millions of farmers, landless laborers, industrial workers and provides jobs for many others, indirectly. It has been a fabric of minor importance in Europe and America in the manufacture of children's clothing. We do not yet have information on the extent to which jute was used for clothing in East Asia. In recent years, however, jute usage has been expanded to include an increasing variety od clothing. Spinning of high quality yarns and weaving of light-weight fine-textured fabrics of uniform structure in exotic colors and designs are made in both jute factories and hand loom sectors. With vastly improved bleaching, dyeing and finishing processes and by blending jute with other natural or synthetic fibers, the finished jute products now ensure feel, luster, abrasion resistance and aesthetic appeal.


Early man began using animal skins for protection in cold weather. Surely furs and skins were the first clothing items. And this ineviatably led to the development of tanning orocesses and leather.


Rubber is a highly elaticsubstance polymerized by the dryinging and coagulation of the milky juices or latex of various plants, especially the tropical rubber plant. Rubber is now thought of primatily in connecton with automobile tires. The first uses of rubber were in fact associated with the clothing industry. Rubber was known to native Americans in Central America and brought back to Europe in the 16th-17th centuries where its unique properties, especially its elaasticity were noted. It was not until the early-19th century, however, that practical uses were found for it, launing a financial bubble. The reaction of rubber to hot weather, however, made it difficult to use until Charles Goodyear invented the vulcanization process. Besides its uses in clothing, rubber became a major industrial product. Japanese seizure of Mayaysia and the East Indies during World War II closed major suppliers to the Allies leading to the development of stnthetic rubber in America.


Silk is the soft lustrous fiber obtained as a filament from the cocoon of the silk worm. Silk was first produced in China. As it is an expensive material, silk fabrics were only used in high quality garments for wealthy families. Silk was commonly used for accesories such as the bows for sailor and Fauntleroy suits or sashes. Sime boys summer suits, including sailor suits, were made from Shantung silk. This was a plain weave silk fabric made from less expensive yarns with irregular or uneven texture. Fabrics made of silk include satin and velvet.


Straw is dried grass. There are many different grasses with a wide range of characteristics. There are different uses for straw in the manufacture of clothing. The best known noder usage is in the making of hats. For HBC's study og\f boys' fashion, straw hats are especially important. Several boys' hats were made from straw, including the rounded crown hat, the sailor hat, and the boater. These are all 19th century styles, although the boater has survived into the 20th century to a limited degree. A substantial portion of the demand for straw hats was supplied from Eduador and incorrectly called Panama hats. The straw hat industry in Panama predated the Inca and Spanish bu milenia. Straw can also be used for insulation (stuffing) by low-income people as it has many disadvantages. Another usage dating from pre-history was in the manufacture of sandals. This also survived to the 19th century. The style of grass used depended on the use intended. Buntal is one of the best known grass used in the manufscture of straw hats. This is a different plant than the hemp used in the ropes and mats manufacturing process. Buntal is a high quality material with a natural golden color and durable for a grass. The grass used by Ecuadorian Indians is Carludovicia palamata.


Next to coton, sheep's wool is the most extensively used of all natural fibers. Wool is the fine, soft curly hair that forms the fleece of sheep and certain other sheep-like animals (alpacas, casmere goats, vicu˝na, various goats, and others). Wool, like hair, is chiefly composed of keratin; the cuticle of the of the wool fiber or wool "staple" is covered with rough , scakly plates, and the shaft of the stple is somewhat twisted, causing the fibers to interlock during spinning and weaving, in part explaining its great value in clothing. Wool was especially appreciate in the manufacture of warm clothing in the days before central heating. Fashion and health experts promoted the use of wool in children's clothes. A vast number of fabrics are made from wool, including cassimire, cheviot, serge, flannel, and plaid, serge, tweed, velour, and many others.


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Created: April 5, 1999
Last updated: 10:16 PM 10/4/2017