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Textile engineering course expands foundational fiber skills

Two students look at a microscope. The one closest to the camera adjusts the plate. The one furthest from the camera looks into the lens.

By Mary Giuffrida

When second-year textile engineering (TE) students walk into TE 201: Fiber Science, they have already built a foundational knowledge of basic polymers. By the time they walk out for the last time at the end of the semester, they will have built the skills and knowledge to turn these polymers into fibers which will later become yarn and fabric. 

“It’s processing, structure and properties,” Professor Xiangwu Zhang says. “If you know these three things, you know how to create and use these fibers.”


“If you go back more than 100 years there’s only one class of fiber — natural fiber,” Zhang, who is also the Associate Dean for Research, explains. “But today we have another class — man-made fiber.”

Students in TE 201 start the course by learning how to make these man-made fibers, such as nylon, acrylic and polyester. They study the chemicals and processes involved, then take this knowledge to their lab where they are able to put it to practice.

“We got to go to the lab downstairs and watch them make polypropylene fibers,” Kaylee Andrievk, a sophomore in textile engineering, says. “That was my favorite lab, watching them make the polypropylene fibers and spinning it.” 

Polypropylene is just one example of a fiber the students study throughout the course. The same thermoplastic is often used in food packaging, plastic furniture, films, automotive parts and medical devices, but it is also commonly turned into a soft and lightweight textile which can be used for upholstery, industrial and manufacturing applications.


After learning how to create their own man-made fibers, the students dive into the structure of the fibers.

“We’re really getting into the fibers, looking at what they look like under the microscope, how they function, the shape and then we’re drawing them out ourselves,” Molly Barnes, a sophomore in textile engineering, says.

Xiangwu Zhang stands in the middle of a group of students holding a spool of fiber to explain it to the class.
Professor Xiangwu Zhang explains the steps of an upcoming lab on fiber properties to students in TE 201.

The different shapes and morphologies they identify under the microscope and draw tell them important information about the fiber — how it can be used, under what circumstance it best functions and its basic properties.


Throughout the semester the students will learn to identify the mechanical, thermal, electrical and frictional properties of different fibers, along with a variety of other properties. These different characteristics help them make decisions about what fibers work best in different situations. 

“Let’s say your engineer comes up with this new fiber,” Zhang says. “Based on what the students learned in this class, they will know what kind of properties this fiber will have. Then they’ll know where it can be used, and how to market it and find the right customers.”

Bringing it together

By the end of the course, the students will be able to take these three topics and put them into use together.

“If the students are working for a company that wants to develop a new product, for example a garment that you can wear in space or the deep sea, they will know what the requirements are,” Zhang says. “They will be able to take the knowledge they’ve learned in this class and make some fibers or designs of fibers that meet those requirements.”

They’ll carry this skill set with them as they move forward, building on the foundation of knowledge they built in TE 201. 

“After this class, they’ll never see a fabric and not know what fibers they have, what properties they have and how they can be used,” Zhang says.

This post was originally published in Wilson College of Textiles News.