With the resurgence of organic food and handcrafted goods, many fashion suppliers pride themselves with using natural materials such as cotton, linen and wool. There is still something to be said for synthetic fibres, however, and with the latest advancements in science they can be made lighter, tougher and in some cases even better for the environment than farm-grown counterparts. Read on to learn more!
What is a synthetic fibre?
All textiles are treated and processed by humans. Man-made fibre, however, is any fibre whose chemical composition has been significantly altered during manufacture. They are often divided into two groups:
- Semi-synthetic: Naturally occurring fibres which are significantly modified by humans. Examples include rayon (also known as viscose) and acetate.
- Synthetic: «True» synthetic fibres which are wholly produced by artificial means. Examples include nylon and polyester.
The first man-made textiles sprang from rapid advancements in chemical industry in the late 19th century, as a part of what has been dubbed "The second industrial revolution". The earliest forms were semi-synthetics produced from wood. Wood pulp yields cellulose fibre which to this day forms the basis of most semi-synthetic fabrics. Later, innovations in carbon chemistry around 1930-1940s lead to the development of the first fully synthetic fibres made from coal and oil.
By either altering the chemical structure of existing fibres or creating new ones from scratch the producer can tailor characteristics appropriate for the intended use, such as tear-resistance, water-repellency and breathability.
Types of synthetic fibres
Since man-made materials can be patented and marketed, the developers usually give them a trade name which persists long after the original trademark has expired. Trademarks such as Nylon and scientific terms such as polyamide are used interchangeably, so pay close attention!
Most terms you see on a washing label are generic "family" names, meaning that there is a whole range of different variations of that particular material. The most technical jacket in the world can say "100% polyester", since many important properties depend on the specific type of polyester being used.
Rayon / Viscose (VI)
The first commercially available man-made textile material, originally dubbed viscose and later named rayon. Rayon is a semi-synthetic fibre made by dissolving wood pulp in lye and then treating it with carbon disulfide. The carbon disulfide is extracted during manufacture, so the rayon in your shirt is basically pure cellulose. This makes it clean to use and very biodegradable, even more so than cotton. The carbon disulfide can be harmful to workers, however, putting a premium on rayon from reputable sources. Tencel (also known as lyocell) is a trademarked type of rayon made without using carbon disulfide at all.
Rayon is very comfortable to wear and can be made to imitate the texture of silk, wool and cotton. Most often it is used as either a silk substitute or to alter certain properties in wool blends. Rayon is soft to the touch and has great heat dissipation, making it well suited for light summer clothing. The fibres are rather delicate, so dry cleaning or gentle cycle wash is generally recommended.
Cellulose acetate (AC/CA)
Another early semi-synthetic, gaining wide popularity after WWI. Made by subjecting cellulose to an acetic anhydride reagent. The solvents used are recovered during manufacture, and cellulose acetate was recently discovered to be biodegradable in the right soil.
Acetate quickly became popular due to low cost and great wrinkle-resistance, making permanent pleats a possibility. This is why you see pleated dresses and pressed pants popping up after WWI. When blended with other fabrics acetate breathes well, wicks moisture and dries quickly. Most acetates have a slight satin sheen which combined with the silk-like feel make it an excellent liner. Unlike rayon it melts from heat, so avoid tumble-drying and ironing. Besides clothes acetates are commonly used to make frames for eyewear.
Nylon / Polyamide (NY/PA)
Nylon was launched by chemical giant DuPont in 1935 as the world’s first fully synthetic fibre. Originally used for toothbrushes and women’s stockings, Nylon quickly became the material of choice for military supplies during WWII. Nylon is a type of polyamide. Polyamides are plastic polymers formed by combining adipic acid and diamines under heat and pressure, producing water as a byproduct. The ingredients are primarily drawn from oil and natural gas, but Nylon can also be made from natural sources such as castor oil.
European Nylon production is calculated to have a smaller carbon footprint than wool. Being a strong polymer Nylon takes decades to decompose, but is thankfully easy to recycle, leading to recycled nylon starting to appear in garments.
Nylon is a very strong and abrasion-resistant material, making it a natural choice for bags and workwear. It is often blended with other fibres such as polyester or cotton to increase elasticity and durability.
Nylon is spun into threads of different thicknesses measured in deniers (d). Thicker threads make the textile heavier, stiffer and more durable. Standard outerwear might use 40-80d Nylon while bags and heavy-duty gear might employ 210-410d Nylon. Specialist Nylon weaves such as Cordura and Ripstop can offer advantages for certain applications. Normally you don’t need to take any extra care when washing or drying Nylon.
Any polymer which is produced from esters, a family of compounds derived from acid and alcohol, can be called a polyester. The raw material is PET (same plastic used in bottles) drawn from mineral oil. Polyesters are the most-produced fibres in the world and make up 18% of all plastic production. They form a huge group of materials with wildly different properties. Polyester sheds microplastics during washing, leading to environmental concerns for seawater habitats. Polyester-blended cotton releases only a fraction of microplastics compared to pure polyester.
Polyester is a soft, strong and stain-repellent material. Natural fibres are often blended with polyester to reduce shrinkage as well as increase resistance to tears and wrinkles (enabling wool trousers to be pressed into shape, for instance). Polyester has good insulating properties, and special heat-retaining polyester is sold under different trademarks such as PrimaLoft. We recommend washing polyester fabrics not hotter than 40 and avoid tumble-drying. Thankfully polyester dries very rapidly on it’s own.
Acrylic fibres are synthetic fibres made from polyacrylonite polymers (PAN), the same polymer used to make carbon fibre. The raw materials are drawn from oil. Acrylic sheds the greatest amount of microplastics in wash so we recommend washing acrylic garments as seldom as possible, much like wool or denim.
Acrylic fibres resemble wool and are spun into yarns in the same way. Acrylic is soft and warm and is often blended with wool to make the finished garment colour-fast and machine washable. The fibres repel moisture, enabling it to wick moisture away from the body. Generally you wash acrylic on gentle cycle. It is highly flammable, however, so keep away from fire.
Polyurethane is a plastic made by linking carbon chains together using urethane. In garments it is most often not used as a fibre, but as a coating: Usually polyester fibre is laminated with a thin film of polyurethane. The resulting material is windproof and waterproof without requiring maintenance, making it a staple for rainwear, bags and other technical applications. Since the coating makes the textile very slippery it resists staining, but pay close attention to the label before washing as too much heat can break down the polyurethane.
Elastane / Lycra / Spandex (EL)
Elastane a type of polyurethane spun into fibres instead of being used as a coating material. These fibres are made from flexible polymers, making them extremely elastic. In Europe it is mostly known by the chemical term elastane or the trademark Lycra, whereas North Americans primarily use the trademark Spandex.
Elastane is three times as stretchy as rubber and only one third as heavy. Other fibres can be wrapped around a thin elastane thread to give greater stretch to regular clothes, such as trousers. By using only a few percent of elastane such a garment can have a tighter fit and still retain mobility. Higher elastane concentration is used for completely form-fitting applications such as sportswear. Elastane is very colourfast and washable. There is little use in ironing elastane blends since they just snap back to their original shape afterwards.
We hope this guide was helpful to you!