A to Z of Synthetic Fibers for Fashion

A fiber is defined as any product capable of being woven or otherwise made into a fabric. (See educational site).

Fibers created for the textile industry through:

Agricultural products: cotton or wool

Units: such as nylon or polyester manufactured in a chemical plant

The first commercial production of a manufactured fibre was achieved by French chemist, Count Hilaire de Chardonnet, who in 1889 caused a sensation in the Paris Exhibition when he showed his ‘artificial silk’.

Chemists have been responsible for creating many synthetic materials since the 19th century. The acceleration of environmental harm caused by chemicals began during the Industrial Age. Such was the innovation and perceived brilliance of polymaths since Robert Hooke in the two centuries earlier, that these minds were hailed and sought after by those who wanted to build industries based on their ideas.

Hooke determined that if proper liquid were squirted through a small aperture and allowed to congeal a fiber can be produced. This is how the life of man made fibers begins. They are a sticky liquid which is ‘spun’ or extruded through spinneret holes, forming streams that are solidified into fibers. Just as we know the Spinning Jenny transformed cloth production, so engineers have advanced the making of materials in the textile industry. As humans, we constantly marvel at these machines and systems and the constant improvements, innovations and intricacies of the manufacturing process. After all, the fashion industry is clothing us all, to suit all types, to suit all climates, often breathable fabrics without movement restrictions, fitting close to our skin or hanging elegantly to keep us cool. Now the textile industry is having to find alternatives to the seductive oil based resources, and this is a tall order.

During the last century oil has been the main resource for creating fibers. Our dependence on oil has sounded the death knell for the Planet, a major contributing factor of which we are all aware and have been for over a century. But corporates continue to expand and invest in ‘brilliant’ innovations which utilise oil based fibers in everything we humans deem is vital to our immediate, short term, survival. There is a view that we can intensify our use of fossil fuels in order to escape our dependence by building ‘green’ solutions such as wind turbines and solar panels. This is not a circular plan, it is a linear plan; and that is why it is hard to see the logic.

The Fashion Industry seeks cheap solutions with Fast Fashion churning out thousands of items marketed as wear and dispose. Companies like Zara are one of the biggest Fast Fashion suppliers most of us have heard of. If Fast Fashion encourages plastic based clothing into landfill, then it has to come to a Fast Halt.

Man Made Fibers we all recognise as being part of our wardrobe:

  • Acrylic: Cheap to produce, can be used to make fake fur, cloths and furnishings. It’s warm and resistant to dirt but can pill and get bobbly when rubbed.
  • Polyester: Strong and holds a pleat well. It can melt if heated too high. It is easy to wash and dry. Suitable for sportswear, sheets and curtains.
  • Elastane: A very stretchy fabric which is easy to care for. Washes and dries well, highly flammable. Used for leggings and tights, can be blended with other fabrics to make them stretch.
  • Microfibres: Microscopic fibres are knitted or woven into tight, strong materials which are warm and easy care. (Tactel, Tencell).

Here are some fabrics, many we have known as made from wool, cotton, silk but now are blended with oil based fibers:

Bunting is traditionally made from a lightweight wool, but alternative materials include plastic, synthetic fabrics, and paper. To find eco friendly bunting search online.

Challis is a lightweight woven fabric. It can be made from cotton, silk, or wool (or often a blend), but is now sometimes produced from man-made fabrics, such as rayon.

Chiffon is a lightweight and sheer fabric. Can be made from cotton, silk, or synthetic fibers

Elastane is a synthetic fiber that is stronger and more durable than rubber, while still retaining exceptional elasticity.

Faux-leather is a synthetic fabric that replicates the look of real leather.

Fleece and microfleece are made from PET, a plastic. Not to be confused with the fleece of a sheep or goat.

Gabardine is a tough fabric with a tight weave. Traditionally worsted wool, but can be cotton, polyester, or a blend. Used for suits, overcoats, uniforms.

The allure of these amazing materials which influenced us such as Lurex, with Elvis making his famous lurex suit the memorable image of the 1950s, is why it is so hard to turn ourselves away from purchasing items like lurex (made from a polyester fiber with a vaporized layer of aluminium applied).

For a more detailed alphabetical list of fabrics, see this glossary by the NY Fashion Center. So many times you will read of a familiar fabric which is now blended with a synthetic fiber. These blends bring improvements and advantages to the cloth, (such as durability, stretch, stain resistance and cost efficiency) but the introduction of oil based fibers has brought us to the endgame for our beautiful planet.

Looking down the list of fabrics we still have some recognisable material which has not been blended with synthetics, but so often it originates as cotton or wool, and previous blogs explain why there are environmental issues with those most popular sources. We have seen animals driven to extinction when they were our first choice for clothing, so oil based yarn developments have rescued many from the edge of extinction. Now we are all threatened with extinction with our dependence on oil.

The Fashion Industry is going to have to lead us out of this mess where we dispose of our clothing into landfill, where it will not biodegrade ever. Oil is a forever chemical. As consumers we have to educate ourselves about alternatives and biodegradable Everything. We can support all companies which are working to offer us a way forward, but we must not be fooled by marketing lies.

About borderslynn

Retired, living in the Scottish Borders after living most of my life in cities in England. I can now indulge my interest in all aspects of living close to nature in a wild landscape. I live on what was once the Iapetus Ocean which took millions of years to travel from the Southern Hemisphere to here in the Northern Hemisphere. That set me thinking and questioning and seeking answers. In 1998 I co-wrote Millennium Countdown (US)/ A Business Guide to the Year 2000 (UK) see https://www.abebooks.co.uk/products/isbn/9780749427917
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