Textile chemistry is primarily an applied form of chemistry. It is a highly specialized field that applies the principles of the basic fields of chemistry to the understanding of textile materials and to their functional and esthetic modification into useful and desirable items. Textile materials are used in clothing, carpet, tire yarn, sewing thread, upholstery, and air bags, to name a few examples.
Some textile chemists are less oriented toward manufacturing processes and more focused toward fiber technologies. The study of textile chemistry begins with the knowledge of fibers themselves-both natural and synthetic. Because synthetic fibers are such an important part of today's textile business, the field includes many who are trained as polymer chemists. The interaction between textile chemistry and materials science is also increasing. Textile chemistry includes the application of the principles of surface chemistry to cleaning processes and modifications such as dyeing and finishing. It encompasses organic chemistry in the synthesis and formulation of the products used in these processes.
"Traditionally, textile chemists have been trained to have an in-depth understanding of the structure and properties of natural and synthetic fibers," says Norman Nemerov, professor of chemistry at the Philadelphia College of Textiles and Sciences. "They have also been taught the post-treatment chemistries, which impart properties such as dyeability, wash freshness, and permanent press. But today there are new demands, such as recyclability. One thing we're looking at is how to make fibers degradable over time," he says. "And, in a relatively new area called biotextiles, fibers are being developed for drug delivery systems," Nemorov adds.
"Weaving, dyeing, and finishing cloth is an ancient art, but it's also a modern science," says Fred Miller, vice president of Hickory Dyeing and Winding Company. Jim Hammond, a senior research associate in nylon research and development at DuPont, comments, "I often say that if I took a two-year trip around the world, my knowledge would be obsolete by the time I came back." Miller adds, "The field is exciting because there's still so much to know and to learn." After many years in the business, both Hammond and Miller still find their work creative and intellectually challenging.
While new technology abounds, the most commonly used fibers have been around for a long time. But, chemists working with these materials are often focused on modifying them for new applications.
Sushma Kitchloo, a polymer chemist at Globe Manufacturing, is responsible for new product development and troubleshoots problems associated with modification of polymers. "We conceptualize modifications, give the specifications to our process team, and discuss the conditions that will affect the chemistry of the modified polymer. After the process team produces a batch of polymer material in the pilot plant, we perform physical property testing using instruments such as an Instron. We also utilize gas chromatography; gel permeation chromatography; and IR, UV, and viscosity testing to characterize the modified polymer."
Miller's expertise is in the interaction between fibers and the dyes that give them color and luster. Modifying traditional polymers requires adjusting the chemical processes for downstream functions, such as dyeing the fiber. "For many years, it was thought that acetate fibers could not be dyed with naphthol dyes because the naphthols had to be applied under alkaline conditions, which destroyed the synthetic acetate fiber," says Miller. "But, by changing the dyeing procedure and dyeing the fiber in an acid bath, we accomplished what was thought to be impossible. Innovations and changes can be made when you understand what you are doing."
Hammond's work is focused on the chemistry of polymers from which synthetic fibers are made. He is involved in understanding the complex chemistry surrounding the degradation of nylon so that he can find ways to inhibit its occurrence. Hammond explains, "If the nylon is not properly stabilized with additives to minimize the thermal, photo, and oxidative degradation, the strength of that product will decrease over time, and it will not function properly." This is especially important for the nylon fiber used in parachutes.
Sometimes, new applications for a fiber do not involve changing the polymer itself. Ken Ehrhardt, a technical manager for the cellulose acetate filament business at Hoechst Celanese, explains: "Cellulose acetate fiber has generally been used in the apparel business for fashion and linings, but Hoeschst Celanese has developed an antimicrobial acetate that is being used in curtains, meat-packing gloves, pillows, and bedding applications. This has involved testing anti microbial agents and finding the one that is most compatible with our acetate fiber."
"In textiles, you are working with something you can hold and feel." says Ehrhardt. "The skill set for this field includes understanding process manufacturing, being familiar with physical testing of fibers, having knowledge of weaving and knitting, and understanding the evolution of a product through garment form.
Specializing in the field of textile chemistry can provide opportunities for dynamic and creative applications of chemistry. A textile chemist relates knowledge of the organic structures of both fibers and the chemicals used to modify them to specific chemical, physical, and esthetic properties. The combination of the theoretical and the practical makes possible the development of the thousands of textile chemicals necessary for the production of the finished articles of commerce.
Textile chemistry can generally be divided into three major areas: dyeing and finishing chemistry, fiber and polymer chemistry, and a newer area that intersects with materials science and involves the blending of textile materials. In the textile business, chemists work in R&D, process development, process modification, technical services, environmental testing, and dyeing and finishing operations.
The application of textile chemistry is always business and product oriented. Chemists may work in the lab, in the plant, in multidisciplinary teams, or with customers, finding out about their needs and developing new products. As the business becomes more global, scientists in this field must be willing to travel and to adjust quickly to different cultures and different markets.
Chemists are employed globally by chemical companies that manufacture the basic polymer from which synthetic fibers are made. They are employed by small dyeing houses that dye yarns, fiber, fabric, and carpets. Chemistry is important in all functions, but the technical content tends to be more challenging in the polymer chemistry side than in the dyeing and finishing end.
Textile chemists are generally persons interested in the intersection between chemistry and the kind of engineering that goes into textile marketing. They enjoy the modification and improvement of basic polymers and like using their knowledge of materials to solve problems.
Many chemists in the field are trained as polymer chemists. Although a number of schools specialize in textile chemistry, a textile degree is not a prerequisite for employment in the field. Important courses of study include organic chemistry, analytical chemistry, and colloid chemistry. Understanding the manufacturing process and familiarity with chemical engineering are important prerequisites to employment.
The job outlook is mixed for textile chemists in the United States but is more promising internationally. Some significant positions for bright students still exist today. Materials science is an example of an area offering excellent and challenging new opportunities. Harder to find are jobs at dye companies; there are still a few U.S.-based companies, but many have moved offshore.
American Association of Textile Colorists and Chemists
P.O Box 12215
Research Triangle Park, NC 27709-2215
Because textile chemistry encompasses many related disciplines, it is important that students gain a broad perspective of the field by maintaining a varied course of study. Familiarizing yourself with the textile field through summer employment may be crucial in locating a job after college.
Copyright 1994, 1998 American Chemical Society