By Alyssa Shirley Morein, ATHM Volunteer and Writer at Final Word Consulting
With this third and final blog post on the Ciba Review, a periodical held by ATHM’s Osborne Library, we conclude our series on this richly deserving resource. CIBA, a Swiss textile dye company established in the mid-1800s, published its journal from 1937 to 1975, covering a comprehensive array of textile industry subjects from ancient to modern times. Our last post paid homage to CIBA’s founding as a dye company by exploring natural dyes. However, the Review focused many, many more of its issues on a subject of even greater variety: fabric types.
Throughout history, humans have created textiles out of an amazing range of fibers, from the spun wool of sheep and silk of moths to cotton, flax, hemp, and jute. We’ve even scraped the insides of coconuts to weave together their fibrous inner strands, creating a material known as coir. Browsing through just a few issues of the Review instills a sense of amazement at the breadth of human ingenuity and resourcefulness when it comes to fabric making. Since the industrial era began, of course, our creativity has known even fewer bounds, and today we can produce in a lab strands of fiber with whatever physical properties we might desire for our cloth.
However, even before the age of science, in the quest to create new fibers, humans experimented with some surprising materials. One of these—the tinkering with which has resulted in a number of “accidental” technological advances—is glass.
It’s hard to imagine glass in any form being envisioned for use in textiles, but thanks to our species’ never-ending pursuit of novel decorative effects to dazzle the eye, it was. It took many thousands of years, however, to refine the material into thin enough strands for textile use. A 1965 Review article, “Glass Filaments and Textiles,” explains that the ancient Egyptians created the first glass filaments around 1600 BC. They did so by drawing out rods of glass to about the thickness of a pencil, then re-heating them and thinning them out again into tiny filaments. As the Review notes, their contribution was seminal—not just to the refinement of glass but to synthetic fiber production itself: “Although coarse, these filaments are without a doubt to be regarded as the first synthetic fibres made by the hand of man.”
In ancient times, glass filaments were used to decorate vases and other glass vessels. Venetian glassmakers of the 16th and 17th centuries refined them even more, and by the early 18th century a French scientist named Réaumur had found a way to make glass filaments “finer than those of silk but… only very short.” They were intended for use in imitation heron feathers. One of the first uses of glass filaments as textile fibers is reported in 1842. Their production employed a mechanical spinneret—possibly the first use of this technology that later became “basic for all synthetic fibres,” according to the Review. By and large, however, their use was still limited to lace-work, ladies’ hats, lampshades, and wall coverings (though thanks to the already well known insulating properties of glass, they were also at this time being incorporated into garments used to treat rheumatism and gout).
The first—and practically last—pieces of regular clothing to use glass fibers were created by a Toledo, Ohio, glassmaker named Edward Drummond Libbey. His famous glass dress, made for Georgia Cayvan, an American stage star, featured a silk warp and a glass thread weft. Shown at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, it created a brief worldwide sensation, though unsurprisingly it was too stiff and fragile to be wearable in everyday life.
Today, fiberglass is put to many industrial uses thanks to its insulative and other unique physical properties. The processes used to make glass fibers not only resulted in that innovation, but also were highly instrumental in the development of modern synthetic fiber manufacturing in general.
The term “textile,” of course, broadly refers to woven materials. But humans have also made great use of naturally occurring sheet-like materials to cover themselves and their surroundings. While the most obvious of these is the wide-ranging category of animal skins, another, lesser-known category comprises the many varieties of tree bark.
The Ciba Review focuses a number of its issues on this category of material. Along with clothing made of leaves or strips of leaves (usually aprons and the like), bark fabrics originated among the native peoples in areas where the warmth of animal skins was not needed, but protection from rain sometimes was. This includes the islands of the South Pacific and North America’s Northwest region, as well as parts of Africa and Central and South America.
In general, it was not actually bark but bast—bark’s inner layer, thinner and more flexible—that was used (although bark itself was sometimes used for protective wear and war clothing). Not all trees had an internal structure with a suitable bast: mulberry, ficus, lime, birch, cedar, and sycamore trees were among those that did. In Hawaii, several of these varieties were cultivated in large numbers especially for use in clothing. The production of these fabrics was slow and labor-intensive. First, the bast was soaked in water. Then it was scraped and pounded until it was very thin and flexible. Finally, it was decorated. Various techniques were used, including dyeing, painting, and printing, often resulting in very elaborate patterns.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this small selection of points of interest within the Ciba Review. Though we’ll soon turn our attention back to other items in ATHM’s collection, the core message of this blog series bears re-emphasizing: simply put, the usefulness of this journal to textile researchers can’t be overstated. With its broad coverage of subjects, eras, and regions of textile production—from ancient tanning methods through 20th-century technological advances—the Review offers thorough and consolidated expertise to those lucky enough to thumb through its pages.