What are Synthetic Fabrics? - A Guide to Man Made Fibers
Rayon was the first synthetic fiber, and originally consumers hated it. It wasn't until the invention of nylon, which made women's nylon stockings a possibility that the world became obsessed with synthetic fibers and faster fashion.
Today synthetic fibers are wreaking havoc on the environment and scientists are even finding synthetic fibers in food we eat!
But, how did we get here?
How did one little fiber change the fashion world forever? We'll get to that. And, talk about different types of synthetic fibres and their uses.
But, before we get started
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A quick guide through the history of synthetic fibers
First, let's define synthetic fibres. Synthetic fibers are made fibers. They do not exist naturally in nature. Examples of natural fibres would be cotton and hemp.
In 1924 rayon made using the viscose process hit the market, with acetate (also a viscose process fiber) following closely behind. It became the first commercial synthetic fiber on the market. The thing was, they were a total flop. People had no interest in these new man-made fibers. Natural fibers were premium.
This was probably because one of the main uses for synthetic fibres was to cheaply replace natural fibers. And, consumers weren't having it.
So how did we as a society go from shunning artificial fibres to loving them so much that we are now in an environmental crisis?
Image credit - Science History Institute
Well, 10 years later, in 1938, nylon made its first appearance at the World’s Fair. And with this introduction, and the ability to make cheap affordable women's stockings with better performance, there was a shift in consumers mindset. Synthetic fibers became popular to the masses and people could not get enough of them.
technology and the invention of the x-ray machine
The invention of x-ray machines was actually the key to developing synthetic fibers. Now scientists could see inside fibers. Before, because they did not understand natural fibres internal structure, it was impossible to duplicate them in a synthetic material. With the x-ray machine in the 1920s, fiber scientists learned that fibers are made up of long and narrow molecules. And, were then able to get to work on inventing properties of synthetic fibres that would mimic what was already found in nature.
synthetic fibers replace natural fibers
Image credit - Click Americana
Advancements in the textile industry come from advances in fibers. Fiber development happens to fill a need in the market. There are extensive trend and market analysis studies before developing a new fiber.
100 years ago when synthetic fibers were first starting to hit the market they were developed to replace natural fibers. For example, rayon was a cheaper alternative to silk.
Today, the consumer market wants natural fibers, because they are more sustainable. So, instead of or replacing natural fibers, synthetic fibers are currently trying to solve sustainability and environmental issues that the first generation of fibers left behind. An example of this is fibers made from recycled PET plastic polyester.
How does a synthetic fiber get its name?
Synthetic fibers get confusing because of all the different names they have. Let’s take a quick moment to break down why the same thing can be called so many different things.
Kleenex vs tissue is the best example of a generic vs trademark name.
The Rules and Regulations of the Textile Fiber Products Identification Act (TFPIA) control the naming of new synthetic fibers. A generic fiber (or tissues in our example above) represents a type of fiber with a unique chemical makeup and physical properties.
Corporations have ownership of trademark fibers (like Kleenex). But, all trademark fibers must fall into a generic fiber group.
What do synthetic fiber names have to do with transparency?
Generic fibers are commodity fibers. Commodity fibers are the cheapest fibers on the market. Legally, they are sold without transparency as to where they came from or who made them. An example of a commodity fiber is polyester.
Fiber producers will create their own spin on a generic fiber and trademark the name.
Producers that use trademarking will strive to create a product that produces a better fiber than what is already in the commodity market.
By using trademark suppliers are distinguishing their product from market products, and they hope to attract brands by promising supply chain control and quality. For example "polyester, INVISTA" is a type of polyester by INVISTA. It is exclusive to the INVISTA company.
A fiber with a trademark ensures we know where the fiber is coming from exactly.
Controlled Trademark fibers
A controlled trademark takes it one step further. Like a trademark, we know where the fiber is coming from, but now the company that owns the trademark is able to dictate and help design the final product.
A control trademark ensures correct fiber use. Because, what is the point of having an optimal fiber that costs, you, the consumer more, without having the proper design. Only brands that pass stringent testing and receive certification are given the right to use and advertise a controlled trademark legally.
Here is where it gets even more confusing. US law prohibits something from having a trademark and a certification at the same time. To get around this, fibers get a trademark and fabrics get a certification. For example, Thermolite is a certified fabric made of Invista trademarked polyester fibers. This special fabric uses Invista fibers with hollow cores for increased insulation.
I know, it's confusing.
how to ensure your fibers are transparent
Commodity fibers have no transparency by definition, this is how the market was set up, legally.
If transparency is important to you, I hope it is, look for fibers with trademarks or fabrics with certifications. Brands spend a lot of money protecting their intellectual property and maintain tight control over production.
Without changing laws we will never really be able to bring transparency to the commodity market. Sorry guys, that is just the reality of it. The system is rigged. So if you want to make real change in fiber regulation, advocate for law and policy change. But, in the meantime opt for traceable trademarks instead of generic commodities.
Cellulosic vs petroleum-based synthetic fibers
There are two different classification of synthetic fibres the first is made out of plants and called cellulosic, the second group is made out of petroleum. Some people argue that because cellulosic fibers come from plants they are not synthetic, but instead semi-synthetic. Personally, I think it's a bit of greenwashing, man-made cellulosic fibers go through serious chemical processing.
For the most part, stainable fashionistas go after petroleum synthetic fibers. But, did you know that plant synthetic fibers can also be extremely destructive to the natural environment? This is because processes like viscose fiber production use harsh and toxic chemicals. Many of these chemicals end up in natural waterways polluting ecosystems and the people who live nearby.
First came cellulosic synthetic fibers
There are three major categories of rayon (technically there are a lot more types). Each category or rayon basically describes the manufacturing process.
The first is viscose, this was the first synthetic fiber creation process that is still around today. The second category is Modal, this fiber development system was the first attempt to clean up the synthetic cellulosic fiber supply chain. Lastly, the third and most current generation of rayon is lyocell processing. You may be familiar with the trademark Tencel, which is the most popular of lyocell process fibers.
Viscose rayon was the first synthetic fiber made public in 1939 with the intent to replace silk. But, viscose rayon was actually invented before that in 1910 by the American Viscose Company. At this time there were two different types of rayon in production. They were viscose rayon and cuprammonium rayon.
Because it is made of wood pulp on a chemical level viscose rayon resembles cotton ( which is not a synthetic fiber ). This is why rayon and cotton have many of the same properties.
Cuprammonium is also known as cupro. Cupro is also made using the viscose process, but instead of using tree pulp, cellulose from cotton plants is made into pulp for processing. Many brands argue that cupro is more sustainable than viscose rayon because its production repurposes the cotton industries waste. But, at the end of the day, cupros processing is just as damaging to the environment as viscose rayon.
On a chemical and physical level cupro and viscose rayon are almost identical. Cupro does have an advantage though - because of its chemical composition, cupro creates much finer yarns. And, finer yarns create more luxurious fabrics. Because of this cupro is also more expensive than viscose.
Have you heard of HWM rayon? HWM rayon is "high wet modulus" rayon. This type of rayon has a higher strength when wet than traditional viscose. This means that HWM rayon will last longer (read, not end up in a landfill) during home laundering. This type of rayon also feels much nicer on the skin and mimics the feel of high-quality cotton.
Can it be argued then, that HWM rayon is more sustainable than viscose rayon because it holds up better and creates longer wearing clothing?
Modal uses a very similar process to viscose. But, modal production is in a closed loop system so chemicals do not pollute the environment. Lenzing Modal is made out of sustainably-sourced birch trees in Austria. This means that the production of Lenzing Modal does not lead to deforestation. Modal might be new to consumers, but, did you know it is actually 50 years old?!
The newest rayon production system is lyocell. Lyocell uses less harmful chemicals then viscose and modal. Lyocell is also generally made from fast-growing cellulosic sources. For example, Lenzing Tencel is made from eucalyptus trees which grow quickly and require few chemicals to cultivate. Bamboo lyocell can also be made using this process.
But, be careful for bamboo fabrics that are made using the viscose processing method, they are not green or sustainable. If you don't know how your bamboo fabric was made ask to see mill certification.
Then there were petroleum synthetic fibers
Photo credit - 1 Stop Retro Shop
The invention of nylon created a totally different class of synthetic fibers. Commercial production of nylon began in 1939 by DuPont, after making its debut at the World's Fair. Overnight, women became obsessed with nylon stocking because they were cheaper and got fewer holes than silk. Nylon stockings were so popular that Four million pairs sold out in four days. At first, they were only available in black. Later, scientists found a way to dye nylon other colors.
During World War II parachutes, were made from silk. Silk parachutes were expensive and cultivating enough silk to keep up with the demands of the war was almost impossible. Nylon was able to cheaply replace silk parachutes. The downside was that all nylon stocking production became parachute production.
There was a stocking shortage.
“Women were not happy about this. During the “nylon riots” of 1945 and ’46 women stood in mile-long lines in hopes of snagging a single pair. In her book, Handley writes: “On the occasion when 40,000 people queued up to compete for 13,000 pairs of stockings, the Pittsburgh newspaper reported ‘a good old fashioned hair-pulling, face-scratching fight broke out in the line."
If women could not get their hands on a pair of nylons they would wear leg makeup, painting a line down the backs of their legs to resemble the look of stockings.
Nylon became a craze
And, today, nylon is everywhere. It's the bristles in our toothbrushes, the cover in our umbrellas, and yes, what stockings are still made out of. Did you know that Kevlar, the stuff that protects officers from bullets is actually a type of nylon? This special nylon group is aramids.
In 1941 British scientists John Whinfield and James Dickson invented polyester. In 1945 DuPont bought the rights to make polyester in the states. And, by 1950 Deleware had its first polyester factory.
Then, in 1953 polyester was in our clothing. To date, it is the most popular synthetic fiber. Polyester rose to fame because of its permanent press capabilities, and easy care washing instructions.
A brilliant marketing strategy
DuPont knew the fabric was cheap to make but also a bit uncomfortable on the skin, and sometimes smelly. Because of these cons, they would need a way to manipulate shoppers into loving polyester as much as nylon. That is why public promotion began, pushing polyester as a “magical fabric”. Because, during home laundering, it does not wrinkle and can be worn without ironing. Magic. Right? And, as an additional bonus, polyester made permanent press pleats possible.
fashion first mentality
Because nylon paved the way for synthetic fibers in the mainstream, polyester was an easy sell. Times were changing. People no longer put a priority on natural fibers like cotton, silk, and wool, instead, they were wanting fashion and trends, like poodle skirts.
Hoechst Fibers Industries were responsible for various studies from 1981 to 1983. They found that 89% of people were not able to tell the difference between polyester and other natural fibers like cotton, wool, and silk. So, brands made the switch from naturals to cheap polyester and began increasing their bottoms lines.
Polyester was so popular, each fiber producer came out with their own version. Dacron (DuPont), Trevira (Trevira), Fortrel (Wellman) and the defunct StayGard, etc.
But, there was still the issue that the first generation of polyester was very itchy on the skin and stinky. So, after a few years, the fabric became thought of us tacky.
By the 80’s polyester was a major fashion no-no, like smoking. This was in huge part thanks to the natural hippie movements in the ’60s and '70s. In 1981 filmmaker John Waters titled his film about suburban America with the title "Polyester".
At the time Waters states, “It was the dirtiest word you could say in fashion,”
How did poly make it's way back into our clothes?
But, some polyester suppliers, especially ones in Japan kept on developing polyester. And, with the invention of microfibers and other technological improvements, polyester took off again. New microfiber polyester feels much more like silk and is more comfortable on the skin then first generation polyesters. But, it still tends to get smelly.
And, by 2012 polyester made a serious comeback on the spring runways. Here are some quotes from designers chatting about why they chose to use polyester.
Photo credit - Glamour - Marc Jacobs Spring 2012 collections for LV
When questioned about the synthetic clothes in his line, Marc Jacobs replied - “There’s always that strange thing in fashion when something’s so hideous, it’s great,”
“I just love the feel of it and the volume, but had no idea initially it was polyester,” Elbaz of Lanvin says. “It’s amazing what new technology brought to the fabric.”
And there you have it, folks, the global fashion industries dependency on polyester and other synthetic fabrics came from couture fashion trends, not fast fashion.
PLA fibers are fairly new to the textile world (2002). PLAs are from corn and beat polylactic acid sugars.
Nature Works fiber is an example of a PLA. The company used plants to convert greenhouse gases into fermented lactic acid sugars. The lactic acid is then, through polymerization, made into fibers.
Is a new subclass of polyester. Approval for the new fiber came from the Federal Trade Commission in 2002. Elasterell-P is actually from two different polyesters that offer both stretch and recovery. You might know elasterell-P under the trademark Lycra. The new fiber, though similar to polyester offers low shrinkage, excellent shape retention, and chlorine resistance. It is most commonly in products that require some stretch like denim and athleisure wear.
From a consumer standpoint polyester and Lycra are very different, but on a chemical level, they are actually extremely similar.
Bio-lycra is lycra made from plants, not oil. Here is what Invista has to say about the new fiber technology.
"YCRA® T162R fiber is the only globally available commercial offering of a bio-derived elastane. Approximately 70% by weight of this general-purpose fiber comes from a renewable source made from dextrose derived from corn."
In 2018 Invista also came out with this new improvement on T400.
"LYCRA® T400® fiber with EcoMade technology is made in part from a combination of recycled materials such as PET bottles, as well as renewable plant materials. This means less waste is going into landfills, which appeals to Millennials and other environmentally-conscious consumers."
DuPont was the first to market with spandex. Spandex is an elastomeric fiber. This means it can stretch at minimum 100 times its original length, and then snap back to its original size. Spandex must be in filament form to be stretchy. Elastane is the generic name for spandex. And, is generally cheaper because it does not offer manufacturing transparency.
Acrylic made by DuPont first hit the US market in 1950. The inspiration for the invention of acrylic fiber was a cheaper, non-itchy alternative to wool. Another benefit of acrylic is that it is machine washable. Because of the low price and ability to home launder, acrylic fibers have seen much success in stealing market share of the wool industry over the years. One of the downsides to acrylic is that there can be a lot of static build-up and pilling that you would not normally see in wool.
Modacrylic means just what it sounds like, modified acrylic. While acrylic mimics wool, modacrylic mimics another animal fiber, fur. It has long been a cruelty-free replacement for vegans who want the look of fur without harming animals.
Modacrylic is actually fairly expensive to produce. For this reason, many garment manufacturers will label coats as modacrylic but actually use cheaper real fur from dogs. If you are conscious about not hurting animals do your research before buying modacrylic to ensure it is the real thing and not cheaper animal fur.
If microfibers from your yoga pants getting into water systems are one of your main concerns, then you are going to want to avoid all microfibers. Some examples of fabrics with microfibers are faux suede and high absorbency towels.
Microfibers are just regular fibers like acrylic, nylon, polyester, lyocell, and rayon, but with a much, much finer in diameter.
Microfibers were first seen in Japan in the '80s. They have the exact same chemical properties as regular fibers except they have better performance capabilities. For example, fabrics feel softer, drape better, and are able to wick more efficiently. Microfiber/natural fiber blends are also possible.
The one downside to microfibers is that they are much more expensive, this is because they are more difficult to work with and require special machines and processing.
Microfibers where the beginning of nanotechnology. Nanotechnology works by manipulating individual atoms to change the performance of a fiber. Advances in polymer chemistry and molecular engineering are what make nanotechnology possible. See, I told you textiles are science. Benefits of nanotechnology include better water and oil repellency for moisture control, more wrinkle resistance, and other performance benefits. Nanotechnology improves a fabric without affecting its final feel and look.
Synthetic Fibers in other industries
When we think of fibers we often think of the fashion industry. But, fibers and fabrics are in so many different industries! Industrial, medical, and laboratory workplaces all use special fibers.
For example, electrical mesh implants can help people with heart failure.
And, cigarette filters are actually fibers, and they are seriously polluting our oceans. Maybe, even more than plastic straws!
Yes, we want to make a sustainable and ethical change in the fashion world, but what about the other industries that use synthetics fibers and fabrics? Should we hold them accountable? Before you pick up your pitchforks, I ask this not to incite a mob, but to encourage people to think beyond what is in front of them.
Industrial application fibers. I bet a lot of them you haven’t even heard of!
Did you know that glass is a fiber? Well, it is.
And, so is metal. Who knew?
a few other obscure textile fibers include...
And, to learn more about how synthetic fibers are made and process likes extrusion and melt spinning, check out this virtue + vice lesson.