Raw asbestos can be woven and spun into textiles, due to its fibrous nature. This allows the material to become fire retardant, and resistant to corrosive substances. However, they aren’t indestructible, as they can still be cut.
These fire retardant properties made it a common component in protective equipment for firefighters and factory workers. Weaving asbestos fibres with other fibre materials will also improve the tensile strength of the whole product.
Asbestos cloth can be traced back to around 2500 B.C., but it wasn’t until the 19th century that it was common commercially. As the demand for asbestos textiles rose, textile mills that were originally designed for processing cotton were converted into asbestos textile factories.
To create asbestos textiles and garments, the fibres were first added to a fibre blender. These fibres were then combed to produce a fibre mat. The mat was then layered and pressed with other mats, to produce a lap. Roving, i.e thin ribbons, were created from the laps. It’s at this stage that other fibres can be added, like rayon and cotton. This is then further spun to create yarn, which creates thread; it’s this thread that was used to make fabrics.
When the integrity of the asbestos textiles lowered due to wearing, the fibres that were woven would get released into the surrounding air. The percentage of asbestos in garments and cloth varied depending on its purpose, but it some circumstances it could be as much as 100% asbestos. The garments were normally not friable when in good condition, but as soon as they were damaged, they would become friable. However, asbestos cloth in its basic form will be friable.
Workers in factories, such as steel plants and glassworks, often wore asbestos infused garments to protect themselves from the extremely hot materials they would have been working with. These garments ranged from gloves, coats, aprons, and even leggings.
Air analysis conducted in these plants and factories showed that clothing infused with asbestos regularly released fibres. When clothing was not in good condition, there was a higher chance that the released fibre levels would be excessive. Firefighters also used similar gloves and jackets to protect them from the extreme heat that their job exposed them to.
However, it wasn’t the users of these textile garments that were most at risk; it was the mill workers. Milling and spinning raw asbestos almost every day contributed to extremely dusty conditions in these mills, which resulted in a large amount of workers contracting asbestos related diseases.