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RTD info logoMagazine on European Research N° 45 - May 2005   
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TEXTILE INDUSTRY
Title  The synthetic past

Until the end of the last century, Europe was a key player in textile innovation. The technological excellence on which it built its strength and international reputation was largely rooted in the chemistry of the raw materials. We look at the birth, high point and decline of a saga that is drawing to a close. 

Poster presented in Nylon Blues, documentary by Françoise Levie (1991).
Poster presented in Nylon Blues, documentary by Françoise Levie (1991).
Beginning amid the flurry of scientific activity that marked the end of the 19th century, the saga of the modern textile industry was born of the obsession of a handful of experts who tried to go beyond nature – previously the sole provider of fibrous raw materials – by imitating it. The challenge of this time was to reproduce the ‘spinable’ qualities of natural silk, that most noble of textiles. In 1884, almost by accident   when chemically treating plant cellulose, the English chemist Joseph Swann(1) developed the first spinable yarn that he named artificial silk. 

The adjective caught on. The sustained efforts of other pioneers, in particular the Frenchman Hilaire de Chardonnet, finally resulted in the first genuine artificial textiles industry. This reached its pinnacle between the First and Second World Wars, in particular with rayon fabrics. 

Meanwhile, on the chemicals front, intensive fundamental research led to the discovery of the macromolecular nature and filiform chain structure of textile fibres. Beginning with superpolymers originating in the petrochemicals sector, the shift from artificial fibres to ‘synthetic’ fibres came about in the 1930s. The first product of this new industry remains a historical reference: it was called nylon.   

The synthetic age

The boom period that followed the Second World War was the golden age for developing families of innovative synthetic fibres, such as acrylic, polyester, aramids, chlorofibres and elastothanes. Each was used in a range of woven products and gave rise to famous brands –Dralon, Crylor, Orlon, Tergal, Kevlar, Rhovyl, Lycra, etc. – with their distinctive characteristics in terms of finish, waterproofness, feel, brilliance, elasticity and washability.

This inventiveness was the fruit of a sustained and major research effort by the big players in the chemical industry of the industrialised countries – and especially Europe – such as Rhône-Poulenc in France; Bayer, BASF and Hoescht in Germany; and Courtauld in the United Kingdom. This boom in synthetic textiles continued until the early 1980s. Sometimes mixed with natural fibres, they came to represent more than half of the world’s textile supplies. This development made a major contribution to the strong global position Europe occupies to this day.

An ebbing dynamic

The reality of the textile industry has changed. Due to overabundance and saturation, the dynamic based on innovation and the mass production of basic fibres – under the auspices of the chemicals industry – ceased to be the engine for growth.

Concentrating on the limited expansion of ‘primary’ characteristics, yesterday’s innovations have, in a sense, become commonplace and ceased to provide a competitive edge. One of the major concerns of Europe’s textile industry is that, over the past decade or more, it seems to have been lacking a new direction for innovation, this lack of impetus reflected in a considerable fall in investments in research and development.    

(1) He worked with the American Thomas Edison on the production of filaments that were used in the first incandescent lamp. 

    
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