The clothes you wear every day are likely made from synthetic fabrics. Synthetic fibres make up most of the global textile market thanks to their useful properties and low cost. But how are these human-made materials created, and why have they become so popular compared to natural fibres like cotton or wool? To understand the science behind synthetics, one should examine the key benefits that make them a top choice for clothing and other textiles and discuss some disadvantages.
We will start by explaining how synthetic fabrics differ from natural fibres. Unlike cotton, silk, or wool, which come directly from plants or animals, synthetics are produced entirely through chemical manufacturing. The most common types, including nylon, polyester, acrylic, and spandex, are petroleum-based. Polymers derived from petroleum are turned into long, flexible plastic polymer chains that can be spun into yarn or thread through complex chemical processes. Synthetic fabrics have become ubiquitous in modern apparel and textiles. Unlike natural fabrics like cotton or silk, synthetics are made from chemical compounds and polymers.
While this completely artificial production process might sound unappealing, synthetics offer many performance advantages over natural textiles. Their practical benefits help explain why synthetic fibres now account for over 60% of all fibre usage globally. Polyester alone makes up 52% of all fibre production! Let's examine the key reasons and uses of synthetic fabrics that have become a go-to choice for clothing, upholstery, carpeting and more in the 21st century. While natural fabrics have been used for centuries, synthetics offer durability, wrinkle resistance, stretch, and other qualities that appeal to consumers and manufacturers.
What is a Synthetic Fiber?
Synthetic fabrics have become integral to our daily lives. These manufactured fabrics are made from synthetic fibres derived from petroleum instead of natural sources like plants or animals. Synthetic fabrics provide certain advantages over natural fabrics - they are durable, affordable, easy to maintain and can be engineered to have desired properties.
Synthetic fibres are manufactured fibres that are produced through chemical synthesis. The first synthetic fibre was nylon, invented in the 1930s. Some common synthetic fibres include nylon, polyester, acrylic, rayon, spandex etc. Synthetic fibres have the following characteristics:
- They are derived from petroleum-based chemicals, unlike natural fibres.
- They can be engineered to produce fabrics with desired properties.
- Synthetic fabrics are generally cheaper to produce than natural fabrics.
- They are durable, wrinkle-resistant and retain their shape well.
Characteristics of Synthetic Fabrics
Some general characteristics of synthetic fabrics are:
1. Strength - Synthetic fabrics are very strong compared to most natural fabrics.
2. Durability - Synthetics can withstand wear and tear and have a long lifespan.
3. Wrinkle resistance - These fabrics are engineered to avoid wrinkles.
4. Weather resistance - Synthetic fabrics are unaffected by mildew or mould.
5. Colorfastness - The colours remain bright for a long time.
6. Easy to clean - Many synthetic fabrics can be machine washed.
Synthetic Fibers vs Natural Fibers: Which is Better?
Clothing and textile materials are made from either synthetic fibres or natural fibres. Synthetic fibres are manufactured, while natural fibres come from plants or animals. Both fibres have their pros and cons for durability, cost, environmental impact, and more.
1. Synthetic Fibers
Synthetic fibres are made from chemicals and petroleum-based compounds. Common types include polyester, nylon, acrylic, and spandex.Benefits of synthetic fibres:
1. Durability - Synthetic fibres are generally more durable and wrinkle-resistant than natural fibres. It makes them well-suited for items like outdoor gear and athletic apparel.
2. Affordability - Synthetic fabrics are cheaper than natural fabrics, keeping costs down.
3. Versatility - Synthetics can be engineered with specific properties like stretch, water resistance, and flame retardancy. It allows for innovative textile applications.
Drawbacks of synthetic fibres:
1. Environment - Most synthetics are not biodegradable, contributing to plastic pollution and landfill waste. Some release microplastics when washed.
2. Comfort - Synthetic fabrics are less breathable than natural fabrics, leading to sweatiness and odour retention.
3. Sustainability - Synthetics are made from non-renewable resources like petroleum. Production requires substantial energy and crude oil.
2. Natural Fibers
Natural fibres come directly from plants or animals. Cotton, wool, silk, linen, hemp, and cashmere are common.
Benefits of natural fibres:
1. Sustainability - Natural fibres are renewable resources that avoid petroleum and microplastic pollution.
2. Comfort - Natural fabrics like cotton and linen are breathable, soft, and moisture-wicking.
3. Biodegradability - Natural fibres will biodegrade rather than sit in landfills. It enhances their environmental friendliness.
Drawbacks of natural fibres:
1. Durability - Natural fabrics wrinkle easily and are less durable than synthetics.
2. Affordability - The production of natural fibres like silk and wool tends to be costlier than synthetics.
3. Resources - Cotton farming, in particular, requires substantial water consumption and land use.
- Blends that mix natural and synthetic fibres provide a balance of their different attributes.
- Technological advancements are improving the sustainability of synthetic fibre production.
Natural fibres tend to be more sustainable, renewable, and comfortable, while synthetic fibres are more affordable, durable, and versatile. Consider how you will use the fabric when choosing between the two options. Blending natural and synthetic fibres allows designers to engineer fabrics with specific qualities. As technology progresses, synthetics may become greener options. However, natural fibres remain the most eco-friendly choice currently available.
The Common Types of Synthetic Fabrics
Polyester is the most used synthetic fibre, making up about 90% of all synthetic fibres produced worldwide. Features excellent wrinkle resistance and shape retention. Commonly used in clothing, home furnishings, and industrial applications. First developed in the 1940s, it is highly durable and made from petroleum.
Polyester fabrics have the following properties:
- Wrinkle-resistant, quick-drying and lightweight
- Provides high strength and durability
- Retains its shape well
- Resistant to most chemicals
- Low moisture absorbency
Nylon was the first synthetic fibre produced in the 1930s. It is made from petroleum and is exceptionally strong and stretchy. Used to make women's stockings and lingerie, swimwear, parachutes, ropes, and more. Resists damage from insects, fungi, animals, water, mould, and chemicals; it is strong, smooth and flexible.
Key properties and uses include:
- High strength and abrasion resistance, so useful for sportswear and socks
- Dries quickly and absorbs little moisture
- Resilient and elastic
- Resistant to damage from oils, greases and many solvents
- Used in women's hosiery and lingerie, swimwear, parachutes, ropes, and more
Acrylic fabric is made from acrylonitrile and has wool-like properties. It is lightweight, soft, and warm, used to produce sweaters, tracksuits, blankets, and carpets. Acrylic fibre resembles the characteristics of wool.
It has the following properties:
- Provides insulation and can mimic the feel and texture of natural fibres.
- It is Lightweight, soft, and warm
- Machine washable and dries rapidly
- Resistant to moths, oils and chemicals
- Retains heat and provides weather resistance
It was developed in the 1950s; spandex or elastane provides incredible stretch and recovery.
It is blended with other fabrics to impart stretch. Spandex provides freedom of movement and comfort.
- Spandex contains long polymer chains that give it impressive elasticity and strength.
- Can be blended with other fibres.
- Lightweight fabric with very high elasticity
- Retains its shape and remains tight-fitting after the stretch
- Resistant to oils, grease, lotions and detergents
- Commonly used in activewear, swimwear, leggings and more
Rayon is a regenerated cellulosic fibre made from wood pulp or cotton waste. It imitates silk, wool and cotton fabrics. Used in clothing, home furnishings, and industrial purposes. Lower priced than silk and can be produced in a variety of textures. Absorbs moisture well.
Properties and uses:
- Possesses a gentle, velvety sensation
- Exhibits excellent absorption, breathability, and wear comfort
- Drapes well and easily dyed in various colours
- Used in clothing like blouses, dresses, jackets etc.
6. Olefin Fabric
Olefin is a synthetic fabric made from polypropylene and polyethene fibres.
Its characteristics are:
- Extremely strong, rugged and abrasion resistant
- Resistant to staining, fading, mildew and chemicals
- Dries quickly and easily washes clean
- Used for sportswear, ropes, furniture, carpets and more
Microfiber fabric is made with microfiber yarns that are even finer than silk fibres.
It has the following qualities:
- Extremely soft, smooth, lightweight and breathable
- Durable and wrinkle resistant
- Effectively traps dirt and moisture particles
- Commonly used for sportswear, towels, linings and more
Fleece constitutes a manufactured insulating textile produced using polyethene terephthalate (PET).
Key attributes are:
- Lightweight, breathable and quick-drying
- Soft, insulating and pill-resistant surface
- Durable, machine washable and retains its shape
- Used for jackets, sweatshirts, blankets, outdoor gear etc.
So those are the major types of synthetic fabrics and their characteristics and uses. Synthetics make up over half our fabric consumption today. With advanced engineering, synthetic materials continue to provide improved functionality, durability, easy care and comfort. While natural fibres have an appeal, synthetics have revolutionized textiles and opened up new design possibilities.
Each synthetic fabric has unique strengths suitable for different uses. Polyester and nylon are highly durable, spandex provides stretch, and rayon mimics silk. New synthetic technology developments will continue to benefit our clothing, homes, and industries.