Synthetic fibers, being plastics, have an environmental impact similar to other plastic products. Synthetic fibers are processed from nonrenewable petroleum-based by-products. Products made from these synthetic solutions may affect indoor air quality by emitting irritating or toxic gasses. When synthetic fibers are burned, the smoke and fumes can be toxic.
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Cellulosic manufactured fibers share some characteristics of synthetics and some characteristics of natural fibers. One cellulosic fiber, Rayon is particularly problematic because it is made from trees that are often clear cut from old growth forests, and waste water from processing rayon is often polluted.
The environmental impact of textiles is not fully explained by the environmental impact of the fiber itself. Hazardous chemicals may be used in the manufacturing and finishing process. For example, flame-retardant finishes may give off fumes that affect indoor air quality. The finishing and dying processes use large amounts of water. Chemicals discharged into water from the dying process include dye color, salt, and acids. Nomadic lives of early humans necessitated structures that could be easily dismantled and moved; consequently, almost no physical evidence of their existence remains. Even when the development of agriculture led to more permanent structures of wood, mud brick, or stone, objects and components of structures that were made of textiles were less likely to survive over time. However, information about human habitation in nomadic cultures can be assumed from the design of the dwellings of tribal cultures that had changed little when they were discovered by European explorers. In addition, evidence of early human use of textiles has been found in locations that have dry climate conditions or that provided protection from weathering, such as caves, or by accidental preservation, such as in the peat bogs of northern Europe. Thus, we can assume that people made clothing for warmth and protection from their earliest days, most likely sewing skins of animals together to create wearable garments. These skins would also have been used to enhance the comfort of an interior, adding insulation when applied to walls, such as when skins were hung on the interior walls of igloos.
The earliest method of producing a fabric was felting, a process of pounding heated animal hair into a matt of fibers that was used for bedding, whereas the process of weaving may have pre-dated the spinning of fiber into yarn. The earliest constructed shelters were most likely the wigwam or tipi form, created by tying tree branches together and covering the framework with a woven enclosure of twigs and branches, an early example of weaving. Plant materials were also woven to make baskets, which served as functional storage in ancient dwellings. Woven basket hats have been found on 25, 000-year-old Venus figurines, and imprints of woven nets have been found on 27, 000-year-old pieces of hard clay. Plant fibers, used for weaving and dyed in bright colors, have been found in caves in the Republic of Georgia and dated to 36, 000 b.c.e.
As early as 5000 b.c. e, Egyptians were making linen cloth from flax, used for clothing and as burial shrouds for Pharaohs. There is also evidence of use of flax in Iraq, the Mediterranean, Belgium, Netherlands, England, Ireland, and by the Aztecs in Mexico. Hemp was used in Southeast Asia and China in 4500 b.c. e. Wool fiber used to create fabric can be traced to the late Stone Age, 3000 b.c. e. Other animals, such as the alpaca, llama, and mohair goat, were used for fibers at least as early as several thousand years ago. Silk production in China dates to 2600 b.c. e. Cotton was harvested and converted to fabric in ancient India, also around 3000 b.c. e, and was also used in Egypt and in the Tigris and Euphrates area. By 71 b.c. e, Romans were using cotton to construct tents. In 800 c.e. Moors introduced the cultivation of cotton to Spain.
Ancient cultures developed the art of dying yarns to create patterns with multiple colors in woven rugs and blankets. Patterns had symbolic meanings unique to each culture. By the fourth century c.e. Egyptians were weaving tapestries, and people in India were printing textiles, and between 600 and 900 c.e. the Chinese were using tie and dye methods on silk. The ancient Persians developed sophisticated techniques for weaving luxurious carpets. Because rugs were an important source of warmth, color, and pattern in ancient dwellings, rug weaving developed globally, especially in what is now the southwest United States and in South America.