About one century ago, when the world population was estimated at 1,5 billion persons, the fibre production was practically limited only to natural fibres; cotton represented a production of 3,160.000 tons and wool production only 730,000 tons. In addition to these quantities, the production of silk (small quantities) and of other natural fibres (mainly hard or bast fibres) has to be taken into account.Man-made fibres were still at their dawn; in fact historical data mention also a small production of artificial cellulose yarn (1,000 tons).
The present scenario has of course changed considerably owing both to considerations of general nature (demographic growth combined with economic development) and to the coming of new man-made fibres.
Even considering possible deviations within the data supplied by different sources (mainly due to the exclusion or not of some types of fibres or of some application sectors), in 2005 (see Table 1, source Assofibre/Japan Chemical Fibers Association/Saurer AG) 60,5 million tons were produced, with a 56,5% participation of man-made fibres and 43,5% of natural fibres.
To complete this picture, also polypropylene fibres (about 3 million tons) and other natural fibres as bast fibres (flax, hemp, jute, ramie and others amounting to total 5,7 million tons) should be added;; in such case we reach a total figure of about 70 million tons, which corresponds to an average pro capita consumption of almost 11 kgs per year.
The development of the various types of fibre
Figure 1 and Table 1 show clearly the development in terms of percentage and of absolute figures of the world production of textile fibres (Source: Assofibre) for the various groups of fibres, starting from the 50’s and the 70’s.
From the early twentieth century, cotton production increased eight times and accounts now for 39,6% of the global fibre production (25,1 million tons in 2005).
The years 2004/2005 recorded exceptional crops (all-time peak in 2004 with 26,4 million tons produced) and at the same time very high consumptions. Apart from the short-term production fluctuations due to political, economic and climatic reasons, which are anyhow typical of raw materials of agricultural origin, cotton is of strategic relevance for many producer countries and still shows an upward trend (11,8 million tons in 1970; 13,6 in 1980; 19,4 in 1990) and stands for the most important fibre (along with polyester), in a position to influence prices of concurrent man-made fibres (polyester staple fibre, viscose staple fibre). The major producer countries are at present China, USA, India, Pakistan and the Central Asiatic countries (exUSSR).
In the space of a century, the production has almost doubled (from 730,000 tons in the year 1900 to 1,222.000 tons in 2005).
We must however emphasize the fact that the production, apart from normal fluctuations, increased slowly till end of the 80’s (reaching its peak in 1989 with 1,955.000 tons), when it began to decrease, with a consequent inexorable reduction of the percentage share of wool on the fibre total (10% in 1960; 1,9% in 2005).
The major wool producers are at present Australia, China and New Zealand.
Artificial cellulose fibres
Artificial cellulose fibres can be considered as a group of fibres situated in-between natural and synthetic fibres; their importance, which was considerable from the 30’s to the 70’s, was eroded to a great extent by the advent of synthetic fibres.
In fact, apart from their intrinsic lack of properties, they also suffered the consequences of remarkable ecological and environmental problems connected to the production processes.A separate consideration is necessary for Lyocell, a newly introduced fibre which technology overcomes above mentioned limits; it has however to be considered today as a niche fibre (in staple form) with limited applications.
The global production of cellulose fibres amounts to 2,6 million tons (excluding 550,000 tons of acetate tow for cigarette filters) and confirms a slow decline starting from the 80’s (3 million tons in 1980); in the last years a slight increase can be noted, due to the contribution of the Chinese production.
The industrial production attains a considerable level from the 60’s upwards (702,000 tons in 1960); from this moment on, these fibres showed an overwhelming growth and gained market shares to the detriment of all other fibres (Fig. 2).
Various problems, such as unrestrained growth, excess of production and energy crisis, slowed down their development for some years from 1973; their growth began again later on in a convincing way thanks mostly to polyester and polypropylene fibres.
We may consider as reference points the year 1968, when the production of synthetic fibres (3,75 million tons) exceeded that of cellulose fibres and the year 2002, when in only twelve years the production (32,0 million tons) doubled that of 1990 (16,2 million tons). High development rates continue to take place in China (in 2005 its share on the global market reaches 45%), thus widely offsetting the production losses of the other areas (Europe, USA, Korea, Taiwan).
This is the most important man-made fibre, with a production of 24,5 million tons in 2005 (58% continuous filament-42% staple fibre), which competes with cotton production. The number of plants installed today in the world is estimated to be more than 500 sites.
Another aspect of considerable importance under the geographic-economic point of view is the fact that over 80% of the production is located in Asia (50% of which in China)
Polyester wrung the record of most produced synthetic fibre out from the polyamide fibre already in 1972, when it reached a share of 79% on the synthetic fibre market. Its success is due to its particular characteristics, to its versatility in the various application sectors and to the relatively low costs of raw materials and production.
This fibre category practically opened the textile market to fibres which have no connection to the world of nature. The production, performed world-wide by about 300 plants, amounts to 3,9 million tons (2005) and is distributed into polyamide type 6 and polyamide type 6.6; it is composed mainly of continuous filament (85%, against 15% of staple fibre).
The major producing areas are USA (28%), China (19%) and West Europe (14%).
The production of this fibre is estimated at 2,6 million tons (2005), and West Europe is still today the area with the highest production (30%). This fibre found its main use in the traditional wool sectors and is produced in practice only in form of discontinuous or staple fibre. It shows negligible production increases and consequently its share in the man-made fibre market fell from 20% in 1970 to 9% in 2002.
This is the last-born man-made fibre and, as it is used also in near sectors (as in the plastic industry), its importance in the textile sector was not always adequately monitored. In fact, even excluding such sectors, the production for merely textile uses (carpeting, clothing, technical uses) can be estimated at 3,0 million tons and shows steady growth rates. The most significant producer areas are Europe and USA.
Other synthetic fibres
Other fibres Other fibres within the group of fibres with high-tech performance, the elastane fibre (spandex) stands out for its characteristics of elongation and elasticity, while aramid fibres are appreciated for their mechanical and fireproof properties and carbon fibres are used in composite materials for hi-tech applications. Elastane is produced mainly in Korea and in Taiwan (other producers: USA, Japan, Germany); aramid and carbon fibres are mostly produced in USA and in Japan.
The Italian production of man-made fibres shows between 1990 and 2005 a global 38% drop (from 727,500 down to 456,700 tons). This decrease is due mainly to the displacement of the world production to the emerging Asiatic countries., China on the top.