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Textiles: America’s First Industry

Jeffrey Syken

Cloth; produced in New England by water powered mills, was the first industrial product of colonial America and formed the industrial base of the independent nation to come. Food, shelter and clothing are the three essentials for human existence. The textile industry provided the latter on a large scale and by the middle of the 20th Century, was one of the nation’s largest industries employing 1.25 million people directly; from Maine to Texas. However, the modern textile industry would not have been possible had it not been for a ladies hair pin manufacturer named Eli Whitney whose Cotton Gin made cotton “King” by separating the cotton seeds from the fiber quickly and efficiently. Overnight, the value of cotton farmland tripled and mills rose to process the natural fiber. Other natural animal/vegetable fibers such as wool, silk and linen would be spun into fabric bolts at the mills and by the 20th Century synthetic fibers such as Nylon, Rayon, Dacron, Orlon, Acetate etc. began to appear. Nylon – a derivative of coal tar - found wide use as a strong but light material. It could be made into parachutes and/or ladies hosiery. Scientists looked to nature, in particular the silk worm and spider for inspiration in creating these artificial fibers. Whether it was a natural, synthetic or hybrid fabric, essentially the same processes are used in the textile mill to create dresses, blankets, suits, curtains, carpets etc. Few people realize the impact of textiles in our daily life. The conveyor belt that moves your luggage in an airport, the tires on your car and its upholstery are all products of the textile industry. The basic tool of the textile mill is the power loom which weaves the fiber into a fabric. From a raw material such as cotton, the many stages of production lead to a finish product that is of excellent quality and easily maintained. The introduction of stain and wrinkle-resistant fabrics and “wash ‘n’ wear” revolutionized the industry in the post-WWII years and the innovations that allow for high quality garments at relatively low cost continue to this day.

This course includes a multiple-choice quiz at the end, which is designed to enhance the understanding of the course materials.

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