What is Interdisciplinary Textile Research, Anyway?

When people hear that I have a degree in textiles, they usually assume that I’m a designer. Actually, I study practically everything about textiles except design–from the hands-on understanding of how to do each step of the process, to the material properties of the fibers, to the ecologies of fiber production, to the uses of textile metaphors in philosophical theory.

Starting a business has pushed me even further into the interdisciplinary tangle, as I now also need to learn how to navigate the import regulations and labeling laws. And in order to comply with them, I need to know the exact fiber content of all the materials I’m importing and selling. For a lot of it, that’s easy–it’s wool! I know because I’ve met the sheep, visited the carding mill, and chatted with the spinners as they cranked their charkhas. But for the commercial yarns that some of the weavers purchase, I need to conduct chemical tests to figure out what percent is wool, and what percent is something else. Time to put the “S.” of my “M.S.” to the test.

The basic idea is to take a sample of your fiber (yarn or fabric swatch), weigh it, dissolve away one component, and then weigh what’s left. In the case of a wool-acrylic blend, the wool is dissolved in an alkaline solution (lye or bleach). Pretty easy, but to get accurate measurements the fibers have to be completely dried out before weighing them, and you have to drain off the solution without losing any of the remaining fibers. The drying out I figured I could do in my home oven, but the filtering equipment was going to pose a challenge. As was finding a balance sensitive enough to register the minute changes in weight in a one-gram sample. I thought about who might have access to the equipment I would need, and contacted an old college friend who works in wastewater treatment. Yes, he said, he had it all–I should just bring my samples to his home lab and he’d help me out.

The industry standard method for getting a random sample assumes that I have multiple cargo containers full of identical merchandise, and can pull one garment out of each load and cut test swatches out of them. I have maybe one dresser drawer full of merchandise to test, no two alike, all precious to me for their sales or sentimental value. So I carefully snipped one strand at a time out of the fringe ends of the shawls, and trimmed the fraying edges from inside the seam allowances of some material I had started stitching into wrap skirts. I managed to scrape together enough fiber for three samples.

Handling the material brought back memories of my early trips to Himachal. During one of those trips, I sat side-by-side with the weaver of these shawls every day for a month and learned from her how to count off warp ends for the interlocking design, how to pull loops of contrasting colored yarns through each other to make a braid across the cloth, and how to tell her in Hindi that I had made a mistake and needed her to fix it for me. One of the shawls she sent me recently was a piece that I had worked on with her.

signal thread
The blue thread marks off the length of the shawl.

I examined the border to see if I could find the mistakes that I knew I had made–5 years later, I can’t find them (so I guess they weren’t as bad as they seemed at the time!). While snipping bits out of the fringe of another shawl, I found the colored streak that comes on the pre-measured warp that she buys, which is marked off in shawl lengths so she knows where to finish one piece and start a new one.

So when I brought the samples to the lab, I also brought along, embedded in them, those experiences. Being directly involved in every loop of the supply chain allows me to recognize and act on connections that are obscured in larger operations. For example, knowing how Kamla manages her warp allows me to understand how difficult it would be for her to weave a slightly longer or shorter piece of fabric. So that’s something I know not to ask of her–and if I want different sizes (like for the wrap skirts which I can currently produce only in size “skinny”), I’ll need to work things out in some other way.

But anyway, back to the chemistry! While I’m glad I don’t work in a textile analysis lab and have to do this all day every day, it was fun to learn. I look forward to practicing this new textile skill and bringing the information gained from it back to the weavers, so that they can better understand the requirements of the export market. For the true fiber nerds in the audience, below is a pictorial summary of the process:

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