Wovember Words: The Advent of Man-made Fibres

Today we reflect on why and when wondrous WOOL began to be blended with, or supplanted by, man-made fibres. We delve into K.G. Ponting’s important tome – ‘The Wool Trade’ – to find the key roles that cost and rayon-viscose played in these developments.

During the nineteenth century attempts were first made to cheapen wool so that cloth could be produced at a price which the new working classes could afford. This cheapening was effected by the use of reclaimed wool obtained by tearing up old cloth. References to the beginning of this trade are to be found in the 1828 Report but it was later that it became important and established as the Yorkshire low woollen trade. At the same time, and to some extent resulting from the use of reclaimed wool which had not sufficient strength to be used alone, the use of wool-cotton mixtures began. Two methods were employed; either a cotton warp was used with a woollen weft, or the cotton and wool were blended before spinning. Fibre blending is therefore not such a novelty as some appear to think, but with this exception of the use of cotton, the woollen trade was using wool only for most purposes until 1939 while the worsted section was almost entirely confined to wool.

Man-made fibres have only become of practical use this century and though their beginning is usually credited to the discovery by Cross and Bevan in 1891 that cellulose could be regenerated from a viscous alkali solution, it was not for another twenty years that a satisfactory process for extruding the filaments of viscose rayon was developed. Expansion was then rapid and by the end of the 1930s the total production of rayon was nearly as great as wool.

The second world war gave rayon its great opportunity. Until then the quantity that had been mixed with wool was small; negligible in those countries that had easy access to raw material markets; more in those which, preferring guns to butter, could or would not buy the necessary wool. Subsequently, the mixing of wool and rayon increased, blending being encouraged by the high cost of wool. By 1954, the total world production of rayon was nearly double that of wool, and although much of it was used by itself, the amount being mixed with wool or with cotton greatly increased, a fact evident from the growth in production of rayon staple which, since 1953, has exceeded that of filament.

The mixing of rayon stape with wool is done almost entirely for price reasons. Viscose staple, the most used form, is at 22 1/2d. the cheapest fibre on the world market, and it represents extremely good value. The wool trade, although it would not always admit it, owes a great deal to rayon. Without it, wool would have become even dearer than it did, perhaps finally pricing itself out of the market. Rayon acts almost as a stabilizer for wool. When wool is dear, more rayon staple is used with it and this to some extent eases the pressure on wool. If wool comes down in price, the tendency is for manufacturers to use more in place of the rayon, so increasing the demand and again stabilizing the price.

Rayon mixes well with wool; surprisingly so, considering how different are the two fibres. But it has not and has never been an attempted copy or a rival of wool. In physical and chemical properties, as in price, it bears closer comparison with cotton. Some of the newer man-made fibres have set out much more closely to copy and so to challenge wool’s place in the world market. Their success or failure provides the most interesting question facing the wool trade today.

Man-made fibres divide into two groups, the regenerated fibres and the true synthetics. As to the former, attempts have been made to produce a fibre nearer to wool on similar lines to the production of rayon, starting with a protein instead of a cellulose base, but these have not had any great success. The road is littered with the names of regenerated protein fibres – Ardil, Lanital, etc. – which have failed to establish a place for themselves.

Suggestions have been made that wool in the form of old rags might be regenerated in somewhat the same way. The wool could perhaps be reduced into its fibre-forming molecular structure and then re-constituted into a fibre. Whether such a scheme could be successful in practice seems doubtful; any kind of “artifical” wool made in this way would not resemble real wool closely. It might have the same chemical composition, but its physical properties would almost certainly differ from those of wool which are largely determined by the way the sheep produces the wool fibre. And it is on its physical properties that most of the outstanding characteristics of wool are founded.

-K. G. Ponting’s The Wool Trade past and present, Columbine Press, Manchester & London

A shoddy machine for pulling to shred woolen rags, stocking clip, hosiery, yarn, wool waste, old carpet etc., and reducing them to cotton or wool staple; image found here