It’s a little before ten o’clock in the morning on a Monday in September. The backstage of the Lincoln Center is chaos in its true form. Cameramen, designers, and makeup artists run around, collide, elbow one other out of the way. The team is already running late. Everyone is working frantically to make sure that no detail goes unnoticed in preparation for the big moment.
The moment has been three months in the making. It cost at least one million dollars and will last fifteen minutes, max.
This is the reality of any runway show during New York Fashion Week, held twice a year. The season begins in New York, then moves to London, then Milan, and finishes in Paris. Over the course of the eight days of New York Fashion Week, 300 designer shows are compressed into a 25-page final schedule. Every aspect of a NYFW show is high-risk: determining the layout of the runway, the path the models walk, the music that sets the mood of the show, the attendees. The innumerable hours of meetings and preparation that go into a single show may seem unnecessary, but ultimately each detail works to set up the height of fashion for the next season.
The enormous amount of time, attention, and money that goes into producing NYFW is for the sole purpose of displaying the newest fashions of the season. But behind all the glitz and glamor, behind the high-minded concept designs and the artistry, is the making of fabric. Every piece in NYFW—from the sweeping Oscar de la Renta floor-length gown to Givenchy’s structured pantsuit—relies on the properties and possibilities of the fabrics from which it is made. While designers occasionally use unconventional materials like plastic or metal, most of the pieces on the runways are composed of simple fabrics that humans have been using for thousands of years. These fabrics have a long journey before they reach New York City, as they start out as plants or animal products in nature. To truly appreciate the newest pieces at NYFW, we need to understand where these materials come from and how they become the fabrics that dazzle audiences across the world.
- Cotton. Cotton is a shrubby plant of the Mallow family that grows cream-colored fluffy fibers surrounding small cottonseeds. The seeds must be removed from the fibers, a process that was greatly expedited with Eli Whitney’s 1794 invention of the cotton gin that established cotton as American’s primary export. The cotton then goes to the textile mills and is cleaned by carding, which aligns the twisted-ribbon-shaped fibers before they are spun in devices that rotate the fibers up to 2,500 revolutions to make yarn. Machines called looms, or handweaving frames from ancient civilizations, then weave cotton yarns into fabrics in much the same way the earliest handweaving frames did. The finished product is then bleached, shrunk, dyed, and printed before being turned into clothes.
- Linen. Like cotton, linen is of plant origin. Linen fabric is made from the cellulose fibers that grow inside of the stalks of the flax plant, one of the oldest cultivated plants in human history. In the woody multi-layered stem of flax, there are two vascular structures called phloem, which carries nutrients throughout the plant, and xylem, the woody core. Bast fibers are long, narrow support cells of the phloem that provide great tensile strength but allow flexibility of the plant stem, properties that translate directly to the textile. The xylem and phloem are bundled together by calcium ions and pectin protein, which must be broken down via water retting, exposing the stalk to moisture so the phloem cells swell and eventually lyse. The retted stalks, called straw, are dried and then processed more until they are ready to be spun into a fine, thin yarn that is later woven into sheets. Because mechanical processes damage the delicate fibers, fine linen is still processed in the laborious preindustrial method by hand.
- Silk. Silk production, or sericulture, was the most zealously guarded secret in history. The Chinese kept it from the Western world for more than two thousand years. While there are many wild silk moths grown in various countries, the Chinese selected specifically the Bombyx mori, a moth that has lost its ability to fly. The baby worms feed day and night on fresh, hand-picked mulberry leaves until they have enough energy stores to enter the cocoon stage, which begins when they spend three to four days spinning themselves into puffy, white balls. After eight or nine days, the cocoons are steamed to kill the worms and the pods are unwound onto a spool. Each cocoon produces a filament of fibroin protein of around 600 to 900 meters long, with each silk thread made by twisting around six of these filaments. Finally, the silk threads are woven into fine, lightweight cloth or used for delicate embroidery work.
- Wool. Even before 10,000 BC, wool cloth was spun and woven by the tribes of Northern Europe. They held the fleece of a sheep in one hand and twisted it with the other, forming a thick, uneven yarn. Later, the spindle was developed, which was able to create a finer and more ordered thread and is still used by communities in various parts of the world. The fiber is held in the left hand and the wheel is slowly turned with the right; holding the fibers at the correct angle gives them the proper twist to form smooth strong threads. These threads are then ordered into cloth on a loom. Wool has been and still is one of the most absorbent, fire-resistant, and naturally water-resistant fabrics. The chemical composition of wool shows that it is high in nitrogen and water, which means it requires higher levels of oxygen from the surrounding environment to burn. In addition, wool’s highly cross-linked cell membrane structure will swell when heated, forming an insulating layer that prevents the spread of flame, meaning that wool produces less smoke and toxic gas than other fibers.
Although mankind had to invent technology in order to produce each of these textiles, today making textiles is more scientific than ever. New textiles have emerged, many on the runways of Fashion Week, that drive the frontier of both science and fashion forward. In 2014, Designer Bradley Rothenberg used 3D printing for detailing for shirts, jackets, and dresses as well as 3D printing full items of clothing. Using materials such as thermoplastic elastomer and thermoplaster polyurethane, he was able to print these textiles and make them as comfortable and wearable as possible. Other scientific endeavors related to textile production include the extraction of fibers from other plant sources and studies to expand the properties of certain textiles, such as the ability to change color.
While the make-up brushes, hair spray bottles, and racks of flowing dresses may seem vapid and unnecessary, they represent much more than a hobby of the rich. Innovations in fashion have become linked to the science of clothing, exposing a trend of technological inventions and chemical advancements associated with the production of fabric. Perhaps one day, science will find a new fiber from a plant native to a developing country that could have a profound effect on that country’s economy. Who knows, but you should keep an eye out at the next New York Fashion Week.
Claire Kim is a sophomore in Timothy Dwight College. Contact her at email@example.com.
(Featured images from elle.com.)