Open and Curious Minds


Aerospace applications of tomorrow. Nano medical scaffolds of today. Project Runway’s designs of yesterday. Paris haute couture. Kevlar, nylon, rayon, modern computers (why computers?). American Industrial Revolution, Samuel Slater, Joseph Marie Jacquard, Eli Whitney, knitting machines. Treadles on the flyer wheel, knitted cotton socks in Egypt, woodblock printing on silk, and “needle” knitting in Peru. Iron Age, Late Bronze Age, Middle Bronze Age, Early Bronze Age, Neolithic, Mesolithic/Incipient Neolithic, Upper Paleolithic, and Magdalenian.

We are talking more or less 20,000 years B.C., and just recently archeologists have found prepared flax fibers in a Georgian cave dating to at least 30,000 years ago. Some research (Current Biology, Volume 13, 2003) contends that using a molecular-clock approach, the origin of human body lice and – by inference – the origin of human clothing is perhaps some 107,000 years ago.

What are we talking about? Textiles. Yes we are talking textiles, but while textiles are the common threads found in many of the world’s civilizations, textiles have always walked hand in hand with their brother in arms, INVENTION!

It’s amazing to think that according to the research, a mere 39,081,750 days ago is when the clock might have started ticking on what we consider today as textiles. Maybe as migration took people into colder climates, one mate said to another, “I’m cold. Do something about it!” Whenever it was, wherever it was, however it was done, a marriage between invention and textiles took place.

As many of you know, we have a small Cessna aircraft in the museum. When I’m giving tours, people often ask, “Why do you have an airplane in the exhibit?” (My first wisecrack answer is, “It’s just a prop.”) But then I ask the visitor if we’d have flight today were it not for textiles? That very fateful December 17, 1903 when Wilbur and Orville Wright sent shockwaves through the aeronautic world, textiles played a key role in the birth of flight.

The fabric for their first aircraft, flown in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina that day, was prepared well in advance. Using the family sewing machine, they stitched up the wing coverings in the front parlor of their Dayton, Ohio home before travelling to the Outer Banks. The fabric they chose was the “Pride of the West” muslin, a tight woven cotton cloth used, as often described, for “ladies undergarments.”

When the Wright Company opened for business in 1909, the Wrights employed several full-time seamstresses to follow the patterns, cutting and stitching the wing panels together for the aircraft in production, including Model “B” and Model “C” Flyers. How about that! Textiles right smack dab in the middle of the very significant invention of flight. Fast forward 100+ years and textiles are revolutionizing aeronautics again. Boeing’s brand new 787 “Dreamliner” aircraft is soon to hit the commercial tarmacs. After numerous delays this aircraft of the future is slated to begin commercial flights late 2010/early 2011 when All Nippon Airways takes delivery of the first of the 55 aircraft it has on order. Why so revolutionary? About 50 percent of the aircraft by weight is comprised by CARBON FIBER composites. What’s that, you ask? A carbon fiber composite is a structure whose base is textile. In the simplest terms, it’s a woven (can be knitted or other preparations) carbon fiber fabric to which a resin (sticky polymer) is added. When the resin cures, you have a strong and lightweight “composite.”

Airplanes were first comprised with cotton fabric, evolved into metals, and now – textiles again! Dreamliner engineers are discovering that their composites are even tougher than they initially imagined. So Boeing says they are able to guarantee customers that maintenance costs will be 30 percent lower than for aluminum planes, not to mention the 20 percent savings in fuel costs. We all know what 20 percent savings in fuel cost means in our pocketbooks.

The biggest savings will come on inspections. Because composite materials are more durable than aluminum, it is expected that government regulators may call for fewer inspections. After just six years in service, a normal plane undergoes a meticulous and costly check for corrosion. The composite 787, in contrast, may remain in service for 12 years before its first structural test. By staying out of the shed, the Dreamliner can make up to 113 additional flights.

Great invention! Great textiles!! Everywhere you go, the world is being revolutionized by invention and by textiles. From nanoscaffolding – check this link out at – to the latest invention/design in astronauts’ gloves, you can see it all here at the American Textile History Museum. And with invention and revolutionary textiles in mind, we will open our newest exhibit, Innovation Station. The exhibit, which honors many of the great textile inventors such as Eli Whitney, William Perkin, and Stephanie Kwolek, will be entirely hands-on, and we are hopeful some new inventors might become inspired by it.

We would like to thank Roger Milliken for making this exhibit possible. Roger contacted us when were completing Textile Revolution and asked if there were any exhibits that had to be cut because of budget. Of course there were a number of them, and when we gave Roger the list, he graciously chose to finance Innovation Station. It seems particularly appropriate as I’ve always heard Roger is a forward-looking man! What could be more forward thinking than invention?

Oh yes, why computers? Read Jacquard’s Web by James Essinger!

Jim Coleman
President & CEO

Leave a Reply

Back to top