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How Upholstered Fabric has been Made throughout History
To understand this history of upholstery fabric production, we must first turn our attention to the history of the fabric itself. The word itself has its roots in the Latin language, originally stemming from the word Faber, which refers to an "artisan who works with hard materials." Another name for fabric is textile, which stems from the Latin verb texere, "to weave."
Before we had the synthetic fabrics we're familiar with today, humans used leaves and animal furs to cover and protect themselves from the elements. The first clothes were worn around 70,000 years ago. Thanks to industrialization and modern manufacturing techniques, humans have greatly increased the rate and scale of textile production. No longer are we limited to using whatever we're able to find while we're hunting or foraging in the wilderness. Now, we have fast and easy textile production methods like weaving, knitting, spread tow, braiding, and more.
The first textiles as we know them today date back to around 5,000 BCE. The first step humans had to make was to locate a source for fiber (fibre), and we found three: vegetable fibers, animal fibers, and synthetic fibers. The pre-industrial production processes for each category differed depending on the fiber being used, so for your convenience, we've broken down each category to explain how each fiber was (and is still in some countries) produced.
Most vegetable fibers, like flax and hemp, are prepared for spinning the same way. The only exception to this is cotton, which is considered the plant's fruit instead of the stem. Flax is harvested a month after it initially blooms when the bottom part is yellow, and the seeds in the front are soft. Farmers pull it out of the ground in handfuls and tie them together with a string in a slip knot; as the plant dries, the string will tighten, and the seeds are removed and collected.
Using a corrosion-resistant container, the tied-up flax plants are placed in a pool of warm, standing water to complete the retting process. (It's important to use a corrosion-resistant container because the retting process produces an acid that could damage metal containers.) The warmer the temperature is outside, the less time the retting process takes. If it's 80 degrees Fahrenheit, the stalks will be done in four to five days. Farmers know the process is complete when the bundles feel slimy and soft. If the process is overdone, the entire stalk will rot, but the goal is only to rot away the inner stalk.
After retting is complete, the fibers need to be cleaned before they can be spun. This process is called "dressing." During this step, the fibers will be broken into small segments, scutched to remove some of the straw, and heckled to straighten and polish the fibers, removing impurities.
Finally, it's time for the flax to be spun. It's common to use a distaff in the spinning process, which is a tool that keeps the fibers separate and untangled. Spinners would keep their fingers wet during the spinning process and then wash the flax in boiling water afterward for a couple of hours to prevent a fuzzy texture. Today, many of the steps in this process are completed by machines, but in some countries, farmers still do each step of the process by hand.
To provide an example of animal fiber production, we'll look at the process of wool production. Wool is the name for a sheep's fleece coat; sheeps' coats are removed by a process called shearing. Ideally, the coat is removed in one piece to make the spinning process easier later on. Professional shearers are very quick at their jobs, able to completely shear a sheep within one minute.
After the sheep have been sheared, it's time for skirting, which is the process that involves getting rid of all the un-spinnable wool. Then, the usable wool is clean, removing lanolin (wool grease), sticks, twigs, and straw. If the wool is supposed to be water-repellant at the end of the production process, the grease is left in. Otherwise, it's removed along with everything else. The cleaning process is very tedious; some people clean it a little bit at a time while others try to wash the whole fleece at once.
It's possible to start the spinning process directly after cleaning the wool, but it's a lot easier to spin it if it's been carded first. The main goal of carding is disentanglement, and even though the process is done mechanically today, farmers have been using bow instruments since the second century AD.
Wool is hand-spun using a spindle or a spinning wheel, and then the strands of yarn are spun and twisted together to make a thicker yarn in a process called plying.
Putting it All Together
Once the fibers have been spun into yarn, the fabric is made using weaving, knitting, and crocheting methods. Weaving is done by interweaving two sets of yarn together at a right angle to form a fabric. The earliest weaving was done by hand, but today, most people use a tool called a loom, which is, at its most basic level, a wooden frame. Fabrics produced by weaving are usually what one associates with upholstery fabrics, while garments that have been knitted and crocheted are usually used as clothing.
It isn't uncommon to find upholstery fabrics with small embellishments; these are usually attached using embroidery, which is a process involving a simple needle and thread. There is proof that cultures all over the world have utilized the art of embroidery since as early as the 5th century BCE; the earliest embroidered garments have been found in China, which isn't surprising, given the amazing technological advances they've made since ancient times.
The fabrics you see on upholstered furniture today didn't come from nowhere; there's a long, rich history of the production methods of these fabrics, so make sure you take the time to appreciate all the hard work that has gotten us where we are today.
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