The 3 Main Fibre Groups Used By The Fashion Industry. Part 3: Synthetic Fibres.
By Mariana Kirova
This article is the final part of a three part series which covers the most common textile fibres used in the fashion industry.
Part one discusses Natural Fibres such as cotton, wool, silk, flax (known as linen), hemp, bamboo and few other sustainable alternatives. In part one you can also find definitions of terms, such as fibre, yarn and fabric that are useful for a better understanding of what lies behind textiles. Part two is about Regenerated Fibres, like rayon, viscose, acetate, lyocell (tencel), soya and bamboo.
This last part of the series talks about Synthetic fibres, this includes polyester, acrylic, nylon and elastomerics (known as elastane or spandex).
Do you remember that summer blouse in your wardrobe? It is very likely that is made from synthetic fibre. Now you can read more about it. This final article goes into detail about fibers made purely from chemicals.
For a variety of reasons the last few decades have seen the use of this group continue to grow and if now if you buy new clothing at the lower price range, it is very likely that it will be made from synthetic fibres. Synthetic polymer fibres are also man-made, but contrary to regenerated man-made fibers, synthetic ones are formed entirely by chemical synthesis – usually derived from by-products from petrolium or natural gas.
Demand for polyester has doubled over the last few decades and now overtakes cotton as the single most popular textile (Kate Fletcher, Sustainable Fashion and Textiles. Design Journeys, 2008, p.6).
Polyester is obtained from petroleum products by a complex manufacturing process and the use of various chemicals. In general, the raw material is melted, spun into a yarn, processed again and then made into a textile.
Polyester synthetic fibre is durable and resistant to shrinkage and stretch. The fabric is washed easily, and dries quickly. Additionally it is wrinkle and mildew resistant – properties that most common natural fibres do not have.
On the down side, however, along the petrochemical origin, polyester fabrics have a “plastic” handle. This means they are water repellent which makes them your last choice for summer clothing. Technology development can overcome some of polyester’s disadvantages and in future of the fashion industry there will be better options of synthetic fibres.
For example, terivoile is a type of polyester that is woven to have similar properties as silk. The cloth can “breath” better than common polyester and thus has a cool feel on the body and it is comfortable in hot weather. Although, it is more common for polyester to be mixed with other natural fibres in order to create fabrics with better properties.
Check your shirts and blouses that feel like cotton and look on the label inside. It is very likely that the cotton is blended with polyester for cheaper manufacturing, but also durability and easy-care.
From sustainable point of view though, blends of natural and synthetic fibers have a detrimental environmental impact. They are hard to recycle and often end up on the landfills as too expensive to rework, if not impossible. Unfortunately, polyester does not break in the landfills and lasts in the environment for a really long time.
There is a type of polyester, PLA (Polylactide) that is biodegradable, however, this is not the one that is widely used. The fact that there is no information on clothes labels about which polyester is used for that particular garment does not help. Hopefully, future developments will offer better sustainable alternatives to the fashion industry for implementing an environmentally friendly clothing production.
If you or your daughter have a plastic doll with nice long hair, look closer. It is likely the doll’s hair is actually a nylon fibre.
Nylon is another synthetic fibre and the generic term for a family of synthetic polymers (also known as polyamides). They are synthesised, like polyester, from petrochemicals. In some countries nylon is called polyamide.
There are different types in that group, but generally nylon is obtained when the raw material is melted, spun and then drawn after cooling to manufacture the desired fabric.
Widely used in variety of industries, in the fashion industry nylon was firstly used for making women’s hosiery before World War II. This started the beginning of further innovative development and great use of that fibre during following decades of 20th century. Nylon production is known as energy and water intensive, with generally a big environmental impact.
Nylon fibre is durable, but a loosely woven knit fabric is more likely to distort and wrinkle more easily than compactly / heavier woven or knit one. Nylon tends to yellow and does not “breath”, which means it has poor heat conductivity and low moisture absorbency. That is why when you put on a nylon shirt in the morning you feel cold, but soon after you start feeling hot and clammy.
Apparel production from nylon fabrics includes blouses, dresses, tights, lingerie, underwear, raincoats, ski apparel, windbreakers, cycle wear and swimwear.
To avoid its disadvantages, nylon is often blended with other fibres, such as cotton, wool, viscose, acetate and so. It is a win-win from fabric point of view, because adding nylon makes these other fibres more durable which intern overcomes their own disadvantages.
Acrylics form another big group of synthetic fibres. Their raw material does not occur in nature. They are made from mineral oil or other hydrocarbons and the manufacturing process involves a lot of hazardous chemicals, such as dimethyl-formamide, vinyl acetate, ammonium persulphate, iron and others.
Acrylic fiber is very soft, bulky and you will often find your new winter sweater is made from 100% acrylic instead of wool. A knit acrylic fabric is easy to care for and drys very quickly (so convenient for winter!). On the down side, however, with time the garments from this synthetic fibre tend to become shapeless and sloppy.
Woven acrylic fabrics abide by the following rule: the lighter the fabric the greater tendency to wrinkle and distort than a closely woven or heavier one. Acrylic garments should be laundered on low temperature and on a gentle / hand wash cycle.
Generally, acrylics and other modified acrylic fibres (known as modacrilics) are durable with a soft handle. Therefore they are used for different texturised fabrics, such as fleecy textiles, cardigans, pullovers, socks, but also – synthetic fur and blankets. Synthetic acrylics can be avoid simply by purchasing wool garments alternatively. You can read more about wool and other natural fibres here.
Elastomeric is the generic name of elastane (in Australia and other countries) or spandex (in the United States). The manufacturing of this synthetic fibre is the most complex compared other synthetic fibres manufacturing.
Elastomer is a combined term from elastic polymer, also known as rubber. Composed of polyurethane, elastomeric fibre stretches up to three times its original length and when released, recovers rapidly and fully to its original length.
Elastomeric fibre is very durable and more elastic than rubber. This physical property of elasticity is very important for fashion and textile production (however, not limited to it at all). Elastomerics are usually blended with other fibre to achieve permanent elastic effect. It is included to make knit fabrics for swimwear, lingerie, dresses, shirts, T-shirts, underwear, trousers, jeans and so on.
The fibre is sensitive to heat, so if at all necessary, should be ironed on a lower temperature. After wearing, garments, especially lingerie and underwear, tend to yellow. To prolong their life use washing powder or liquid for sensitive/delicate wear and at the end wash them thoroughly and dry in shade.
Often synthetics are taken incorrectly for other fibres. Most people, including me, mistaken polyester for silk and, I admit, it really is a very tiny difference. Especially for untrained eyes. However, one can teach themselves to distinguish the different textiles. And if so, bear in mind it takes time and practice, therefore don’t be let down easy! Yet believe you can develop that skill, because it’s possible.
Let me tell you what I often do. I have a little training game, I named “Guess what the fibre is”. You might like it too.
Here’s what it is. When I enter a shop to have a look I enjoy checking my tactility. First I look at the garment and touch it to see how it feels like. I give it a go and lets say, I guess it is a polyester. Only then I check the care label inside to see if my guess was right or not. Sometimes I win (yay!), but many times not:( However, I learn from practicing. It really is fun! ?
It could be very handy to train your tactile sensation for distinguishing silk from polyester (or why not recognizing other textiles too just by touch!). So next time in the op-shop you’ll be able to decide much faster what the fibre is and is it worth to check further and consider it for your project.
However, this is just one reason among many why the fibre should be recognized only by touch. Of course, it is approximate guess and there are more reliable fibre identification methods. But this one I find the easiest and the quickest when looking garments or materials in the shop.
Natural or cheaper, regenerated or made from petrochemicals, organically grown from sustainable fibres or else – the informed choice about what’s the fibre of our clothing is what matters, right?
But really, is that what we do in our every day life? I must admit, I don’t like how polyester feels on the body and that when thrown on the landfills doesn’t break. However, it is hard to avoid it and when I really like it in a charity shop, I consider buying it and sometimes I do purchase. How is it for you, do you pay attention what’ is the fibre when you purchase a garment? And of course, first comes the price… yet is there anything else important for you when investing in your wardrobe?