fiber, threadlike strand, usually pliable and capable of being spun into a yarn. Many different fibers are known to be usable; some 40 of these are of commercial importance, and others are of local or specialized use. Fibers may be classified as either natural or synthetic. The natural fibers may be further classed according to origin as animal, vegetable, or inorganic fibers.
Animal fibers are composed chiefly of proteins; they include silk, wool, and hair of the goat (known as mohair), llama and alpaca, vicuña, camel, horse, rabbit, beaver, hog, badger, sable, and other animals. Vegetable fibers are composed chiefly of cellulose and may be classed as short fibers, e.g., cotton and kapok; or long fibers, including flax, hemp, Manila hemp, istle, ramie, sisal hemp, and Spanish moss. The chief natural inorganic fiber is asbestos. Fibers are also derived from other inorganic substances that can be drawn into threads, e.g., metals (especially gold and silver). Artificial fibers can be produced either by the synthesis of polymers (nylon) or by the alteration of natural fibers (rayon).
Fibers are classified according to use as textile, cordage, brush, felt, filling, and plaiting fibers. The largest volume is used for textiles and cordage. The chief textile fibers used for clothing and domestic goods are cotton, wool, rayon, nylon, flax, and silk. Coarse-textured fibers (principally jute) are used for burlap, floor covering, sacks, and bagging materials. Cordage fibers include most of the long vegetable fibers and cotton. Brush fibers include istle, sisal, broomcorn, palmyra, and animal hairs. The chief felt fibers are rabbit and beaver hair. Filling fibers include horsehair, wool flock, kapok, cotton, and Spanish moss. Plaiting fibers are used for braided articles (e.g., hats, mats, and baskets) and include Manila hemp, sisal, rushes, and grasses.
Flax, hemp, and wool have been used extensively from remote times; cotton, however, became the leading commercial fiber c.1800. The demand for fibers was greatly increased by the invention of spinning and weaving machinery during the Industrial Revolution. The artificial fibers (see synthetic textile fibers) have rapidly grown in diversity and extent of use since the development of rayon in 1884.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.