The search for an alternative to the 'white gold' called cotton is nothing new; and nor is humanity's efforts at innovating with natural fibres. Subir Ghosh talks alternative.

Scouring through old journals and magazines can throw up fascinating snippets about the past, and many of those can catch you by surprise, and set you thinking all over again. Scraping websites for cotton alternatives, at some point, can well take one to a particular report from the proceedings of a textiles-related event that would make for interesting reading. It goes thus:

  •       Speaking at the annual meeting of the Bradford Dyers' Association, recently, Sir Milton Sharp, observed that the deplorable condition of the cotton trade was chiefly due to the high price of raw material. He expressed the opinion, however, that the prospect of freeing the cotton manufacturing industry from entire dependence upon the cotton crops of the world was not impossible of realisation. It was within the range of possibility that properly directed scientific research would find means of producing a fibre which, although not exactly offering a substitute for cotton, would supplement the supply of cotton just as artificial silk had supplemented natural silk. Besides the possibility suggested, he thought it was certain that someday an alternative plant would be discovered equally capable of yielding suitable fibre in adequate quantity and which could be cultivated with less skill, care, and risks than were associated with cotton cultivation.

At first glance, the quote would appear to be from a report about an event organised last month, or probably last year; except, that it is not. Sir Milton, a wealthy dyer from Yorkshire, in fact died in May 1924. And, the extract in question is from a 1923 issue of the Journal of the Textile Institute Proceedings. The headline of the report too is telling: High Cost of Cotton: Alternative Fibres. Sharp was not prophetic in the sense that he did not predict what would happen in the future; but yet, he had outlined the need for a fibre that would be an alternative to cotton. Twisting this around, the quest for an alternative fibre is nothing new: it has time and again cropped up in the discourse for close to a hundred years, possibly more if one could keep digging into the past.

What has perceptibly changed since Sir Milton expressed his concerns about the problems of cotton roughly a century ago is that terminologies have interminably changed. Today, the quest is that for a sustainable product, be it in the form of a natural fibre or a smart textile.

A Twist in the Tale

In the last week of August this year, the announcement about the discovery of a new yarn sent the textiles industry into a tizzy. An international research team led by scientists at the University of Texas at Dallas and Hanyang University in South Korea were reported to have developed high-tech yarns that generate electricity when they are stretched or twisted. In a study published in the August 25 issue of the journal Science, researchers described 'twistron' yarns and their possible applications, such as harvesting energy from the motion of ocean waves or from temperature fluctuations. When sewn into a shirt, these yarns would serve as a self-powered breathing monitor.