Principles of Textile Manufacturing | Energy in Textile Production

Last Updated on 14/03/2021

Textile Manufacturing:
Textile manufacturing or production is a very complex process. The range of textile manufacturing is so long. It starts from fiber to finished products. It is based on the conversion of three types of fiber into yarn, then fabric, then textiles. These are then fabricated into clothes or other artifacts. Cotton remains the most important natural fiber, so is treated in depth. There are many variable processes available at the spinning and fabric-forming stages coupled with the complexities of the finishing and coloration processes to the production of a wide ranges of products. There remains a large industry that uses hand techniques to achieve the same results.

Principles of Textile Manufacturing:
The machinery needed to produce textiles cannot be simple. Few portable pieces of textile production equipment exist today, with the exception of hand production equipment such as knitting needles, embroidery frames, looms and drop spinning equipment still used by craft workers or indigenous people. As a direct consequence of this, in the vast majority of cases textile production equipment is massive, complex, expensive and difficult to use effectively in its aim of manipulating millions of tiny particles of flexible units at a speed high enough to satisfy the demand for its products. From the ecological perspective, this has two major consequences.

First, textile production uses vast amounts of energy. The high demand and the large size of machinery forces the use of a lot of power in all parts of the world to keep the flow of materials going. Second, because of its complexity, the actual production of the machinery is environmentally very costly. The steel for stable framing, supports, protective covers, shafts, bearings and so on, has to be mined and refined. So too do the various non-ferrous metals used in reducing weight, improving electrical or corrosion resistance properties or providing more durable gears in the equipment. Plastic products used to enhance electrical, thermal or acoustic insulation have to be derived from oil, once it has been extracted from great depths below the surface of the ground or sea, by complex chemical reactions. All of these processes use energy, consume raw materials and produce waste matter as pollution discarded to the air, water or land once the intermediate product of the particular stage has been made.

spinning mill
Fig: Spinning mill

Energy in Textile Production:
As a result of this high environmental cost (and, even more of a spur, the cost of wasted energy), there have been many attempts to produce energy in less costly ways. The use of coal, oil, gas and electricity has been tried, in turn, over the 200 years or so that have elapsed since the Industrial Revolution first introduced the use of power in textile production.

Categories of pollution production
Fig: Categories of pollution production

Coal, the fuel that drove the Industrial Revolution, is rapidly disappearing from use for electricity generation in the developed nations. It creates too many problems, from those encountered during its extraction to those produced by its combustion. Miners working in risky underground locations are constantly in danger of mine collapse, fire, poisonous gases or lung problems and it is not unusual to read of major disasters in those places where coal faces are still worked. The residual piles of waste make a hideous mess of unsightly scars on the face of the Earth. Burning coal gives rise to smog or other atmospheric pollutants and to health problems induced by breathing the toxic by-products resulting from the combustion of impurities in the coal. However, there are still coal-powered energy generation plants in operation in many parts of the world, to the detriment of our environment and the health of people living on the planet.

The combustion of oil is currently a popular form of energy production. Oil itself is cleaner-burning than coal, but can cause major problems for the environment in its production. The oil wells that proliferate in those parts of the world where ‘black gold’ is extracted fill the air with fumes from the burning oil that appears at the top of each well. The scars on the land left after sinking a well are as ugly as those left by coal mining, and the pipes must often be sunk to a greater depth than these mines in order to reach the oil site. Drilling operations also produce ecological disturbances, from the displacement of wildlife and the arrival of unsightly equipment to the burning of the fuel used to power the rigs. When the oil is moved, too, the spills that are so common in our modern world can each kill or maim literally thousands of living creatures.

For reasons of cleanliness and economy, many textile factories have adopted gas as the source of at least a part of their energy. Coal gas, the original fuel in this category, merely transferred the pollution from the point of use to the point of production, since it was manufactured by burning coal. It was also notorious for its toxic nature. More recently, coal gas has been replaced by natural gas, extracted from the ground along with oil, which is cleaner burning and not toxic. Unfortunately, gas of any kind cannot be carried around easily, so pipe lines or pressurised containers are needed to be able to make use of this fuel. It also has to be refined to some extent to keep it clean and has an odour that can be objectionable to some people. More to the point, even if it is completely pure, it still produces considerable amounts of carbon dioxide when it burns, adding a significant contribution to the global warming problem.

All of this brings us to consider the most common source of energy in textile plants, electricity. At first glance, it is the ideal fuel. It is clean, convenient, and versatile and has all those other attributes that we seek to make our lives easier. Examine the situation more closely, though, and a different perspective begins to emerge. All those benefits, it is true, are experienced by the user, but the way in which electricity is actually produced is far from ideal. It may be the result of burning coal or oil, with the drawbacks already mentioned. It can also be generated by burning all kinds of waste material, much of which is domestic pollution, with the consequent release into the atmosphere of carbon dioxide and even more undesirable substances created as by-products of the chemical combustion process. In an attempt to give electricity generation a better image, modern production has relied heavily on hydroelectric generation techniques. These involve allowing a large quantity of water to flow from a higher to a lower level through a pipe in which turbines are caused to rotate by the rushing motion of the water. Apart from the need to produce the equipment, potentially an environmentally costly process in itself, there is often a need to create artificial height differentials so that the water has somewhere to flow from and to. This can mean diverting rivers or streams, building dams, flooding valleys and excavating tracts of land, ecologically expensive ways of providing a flow of water.

Nuclear Power
The proliferation of nuclear power plants over many parts of the world is an indication of how much promise this technique was once believed to have as an alternative means of producing energy. The unfortunate truth, of course, is that there are drawbacks to nuclear energy that were either not foreseen or were mistakenly assumed to be trivial.

The first of these to surface was the difficulty in disposing of spent fuel. Nuclear fuel rods contain highly concentrated radioactive elements. Their activity cannot just be turned off once the fuel is spent. At the end of its useful life in terms of an energy source, there is still a dangerously high level of radiation left in the atoms of the radioactive element. This is not enough to make it possible to take advantage by generating electricity, but certainly enough to kill off a few thousand people by radiation sickness if it were to be left lying about.

The solutions adopted to overcome this drawback include reprocessing and storage, but these, especially the latter, remain problematic in view of the costs involved and the risk of leakage over the enormous storage time needed. Even if the material is encased in concrete or stainless steel containers and buried in deep water, cracking or corrosion can occur, so that the nuclear waste can spill out into the sea. From there, fish and other aquatic life can become contaminated, or air currents, water flow and earth tremors can distribute the harmful material around the surface of the planet. Sadly, the radioactivity is likely to last for a much longer time than the encasing materials, so the results of our careless discarding of radiation are being bequeathed for future generations to inherit.

A second side-effect has been brought to our attention in a dramatic way. Sellafield, Pickering and Chernobyl are names that conjure up images of nuclear power plants that went wrong. The latter, especially, taught us that one careless act at a nuclear plant can bring about a disaster capable of destroying the livelihood, and lives in many cases, of thousands or millions of people. The margin of error between nuclear fuel that reacts fast enough to create energy at a reasonable pace, and that reacting fast enough to blow its container apart, spreading devastation over the face of the earth, is not all that great.

Even when the fuel cells are controlled properly, there are still undesirable consequences of the process. Electricity generation takes place because the nuclear energy heats water to steam, which is then used to drive turbines. The spent water is hot and has to be discarded somewhere, often into the nearest river or lake water. Although it has cooled down sufficiently to avoid boiling any nearby fish in the water, it is still warm enough to make the area uninhabitable for them. Other species, both fish and plant, can take over and change the balance of nature in the region downstream of the plant discharge site. The consequences for the environment and for the people living in the area are not yet understood, but the changes already occurring as a result of this nuclear warming give us cause to reflect that our energy comes at a tremendous cost to our planet’s natural health.

New Energy Sources:
One consequence arising from our realization of the risks of nuclear mishap is the effort to find new ways to provide energy. Solar, tidal and wind energy have all been proposed as ways in which electrical energy can be produced. The hydrogen cell has been suggested as a means of powering devices in place of intermediate electricity generation. At first sight, again, all these methods of providing supposedly unlimited energy seem impressive. They are natural, reliable (with certain fairly obvious limitations, such as location or time of day) and, more importantly, free. There will almost certainly be unexpected drawbacks, as the lessons of history have shown. Before we find them, however, there are obvious ones that can be predicted even without experiencing them, all resulting from the nature of energy supply.

Energy production is complicated. The natural source has to be collected, harnessed, converted into electricity and distributed to its point of consumption. In all of these steps, equipment is essential. This equipment, like that used to make textiles, is generally large, heavy, complex and made of many different materials, making it environmentally costly to produce. Its manufacture and operation produce pollution, because waste material is generated in the former case and lubricants are needed in the latter, contaminating the air, water or land. It also has a relatively short life, because materials subjected to heat and mechanical action from sun, weathering, water or wind will eventually corrode or suffer fatigue fracture. As a safety precaution if for no other reason, they will have to be replaced by new equipment roughly every 20 to 30 years, thus producing a continual environmental cost that never ends.

More importantly, perhaps, is the mental attitude that will be engendered by the use of these ‘revolutionary’ energy sources. If energy is cheap (free?) and appears to be clean, then we should be able to use it in unrestricted amounts. We can waste it without any qualms of conscience and need not concern ourselves with the consequences of our actions, because neither the environment nor our pockets are being harmed in the process. It is only when we look at the entire cycle, from starting to make the power generation equipment to the end results of using it, that we can begin to realize how wrong our assumptions might be. The actual energy consumed in making or using a product is a minor fraction of its overall environmental impact, because the extraction of materials to manufacture the equipment designed to make the energy or to use it, and the pollution resulting from such extraction, must also be taken into account. Unlimited energy use means unlimited equipment production and hence unlimited ecological degradation.

So the textile industry, like most others, is unlikely to find any sop to its collective conscience with respect to power consumption in the foreseeable future. Unfortunately, this is not the only way in which the environment suffers for the sake of the industry. Every stage of manufacture, from fiber production or harvesting to shipping, inevitably involves damage (considerable in some cases) to the environment. In addition, the way in which textiles can themselves be harmed by the environment in the process of degradation will be considered.


  1. Environmental impact of textiles by Keith Slater
  2. Textile Engineering – An Introduction Edited by Yasir Nawab

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