Curating Proteins and Fibers

Scanning electron microscope image of a wool fiber from a Romney Marsh breed of sheep, 2008. By CSIRO. CC BY 3.0,

No 3
Fiber: An Elastic Concept
How do scientists define fibers, and why does the study of their properties matter for historians of science?

Motivated by our group’s shared interest in the critical examination of scientific practices, we engaged with Industrial Applications of Natural Fibres: Structure, Properties and Technical Applications (ed. Christian V. Stevens, 2010). This edited volume by materials scientists allowed us to explore how, and how not to construct a transdisciplinary language about fibers useful for historical analysis.

The chapters we focused on described, in encyclopedic breadth, the range of different animal- and plant-based fibers, which in turn helped us to articulate the significant differences between natural and human-made fibers. Through our discussions, we noticed that “fiber” encompasses varying definitions from diverse scientific fields and includes non-scientific bodies of knowledge. We reached the conclusion that “fiber” is an expansive and adaptable term that should be used as an analytic category. Doing so encourages our inquiry into animal and plant fibers to carefully consider the multifaceted cultural perspectives beyond scientific empiricism.

Beyond semantic nuances, the group explored the practical applications that emerge from analyzing the physical properties of fibers. The information about these materials has a significant role in conservation, as environmental conditions and usage patterns inherently influence the maintenance of natural fibers. In addition, the text highlighted the historical connection between natural fibers and the different ways they have been used in nature or processed for human purposes. We were particularly interested in learning more about industry’s tendency to develop new materials that are inspired by natural fibers and how synthetic materials are envisioned to overcome the problems posed by the organicity of natural materials. The specificity of natural fiber properties discussed in the book underscores the relevance of their material characteristics for historical analysis.

The reading allowed us to raise a number of provocative questions, including:

  • What other knowledge systems define fibers? And how can we aggregate indigenous and non-scientific knowledge in constructing our common transdisciplinary language?
  • How can we contemplate the physical characteristics of materials while considering the human agency that appropriates and transforms natural resources?
  • Would combining methods from different disciplines, such as archaeology and materials science, be a fruitful way to connect materials and their properties with human agency?
  • In which ways do natural fibers inspire the development of synthetic materials?

Isabela Dornelas


Stevens, Christian V., ed. Industrial Applications of Natural Fibres: Structure, Properties and Technical Applications. Chichester, UK: Wiley, 2010.


Back to Curating Proteins and Fibers