10 Synthetic Fabrics and Fibers Used in Daily Life

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When you invest your hard-earned money into new clothes for your wardrobe, you want to make sure they’ll last a long time and fit you comfortably. There’s nothing more frustrating than realizing you’ve chosen the wrong fabric after you’ve already made your purchase. This decision is made even more difficult when you have natural and synthetic fibers to choose from.

Synthetics are man-made fabrics created as alternatives to naturally occurring products like cotton or silk. These fabrics are created using special manufacturing processes that blend chemicals made from coal, oil, or natural gas. These products are then molded into fibers that are then woven into fabric.

Choosing your new clothes can be much easier if you have a guide to explain the ins and outs of common synthetics you may see in your daily life. Keep reading to learn exactly what is a synthetic fabric, as well as the different types that are available to you as a customer.

Synthetic Fabrics Used in Daily LifeSynthetic Fabrics Used in Daily Life

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What is Synthetic Fabric?What are Synthetic Fibers Made Of?10 Examples of Synthetic Fibers and Fabrics1. Polyester2. Spandex3. Rayon4. Nylon5. Acrylic6. Microfiber7. Neoprene8. Acetate9. Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)10. Synthetic Fur or LeatherWhat is the Difference Between Natural and Synthetic Fibers?Synthetic Fiber PropertiesUses of Synthetic FibersHow to Tell if a Fiber is SyntheticWhat is the Most Common Synthetic Fiber?Which Synthetics Are Best for Clothing?Are Synthetic Fibers Eco-Friendly?Environmental Impacts of SyntheticsEarth-Friendly SyntheticsConclusion

What is Synthetic Fabric?

Throughout most of history, clothing has been made from naturally occurring fibers, including cotton, wool, leather, and forms of silk. However, while consumer demand for fabric has risen, the amount of these natural resources available has not. Because of this, many manufacturers have switched to man-made options that can mimic natural products while also adding features expected by customers.

In short, these fabrics are made using chemical processes. Different combinations of chemicals will produce the different types of synthetics on the market and the unique characteristics each one has. These chemicals will improve the wear, comfort, and longevity of the clothes you purchase.

What are Synthetic Fibers Made Of?

Most synthetic fibers are made from chemicals created from materials like coal, oil, or natural gas. However, these products must undergo an extensive synthesis process to become the fabrics we see in our daily lives.

Specifically, synthetic fibers are produced through a process called polymerization. This process happens when individual chemical monomers are joined together to create chains called polymers. The liquid chemical polymers are then forced through molds to form strands or fibers, which can then be twisted into threads to weave clothing.

The individual chemicals used are what give these fibers and fabrics unique properties that aren’t typically found in natural products. Many synthetics, as a result, are waterproof, stain-resistant, wrinkle-resistant, or even flame-resistant.

10 Examples of Synthetic Fibers and Fabrics

Examples of Synthetic FibersExamples of Synthetic Fibers

Chances are, your home and wardrobe contain many different synthetics, whether or not you realize it! Browse this list to see the most common options available and use it to better understand the products you purchase. Keep in mind that many products will contain a blend of these different fibers within them.

1. Polyester

PolyesterPolyester

Polyester is probably the most well-known of all the synthetics available to you as a customer. It is made from a polymer known as polyethylene terephthalate. This chemical is known for being strong and stiff, creating fabrics that hold up well to wear and tear.

Polyester was originally developed during World War II as a new fabric that could be used for parachutes and other wartime supplies. After the war, manufacturers began finding consumer markets for this new material. Since then, polyester has been used in all sorts of clothing, household linens, upholstery, and even in ropes and cording.

Polyester fabrics hold their shapes well and are durable. They are known to be easy to wash, which is useful since they can be prone to staining easily. Polyester is particularly well-loved in the clothing industry since it resists wrinkling while being soft to wear.

2. Spandex

SpandexSpandex

Spandex is a fiber commonly found in clothing because it creates elastic, form-fitting outfits that are stretchy and comfortable. It goes by multiple names, including lycra or elastane, and is usually blended with other fibers to give them added stretch.

Spandex first hit the market in the late 1950s after it was discovered while searching for a replacement for rubber products. At the time, there was high demand for alternatives to natural rubber, which is only available from certain types of trees. Natural rubber trees take a long time to grow, and the limited amounts available are quickly used.

Specifically, spandex was created using polyester and polyurethane polymers. These chemicals allow it to resist moisture, making it perfect for sportswear or athletic clothes that won’t absorb sweat as you wear them.

3. Rayon

RayonRayon

Rayon is a unique fabric made from cellulose, which comes from chemically processed cell walls of plants and vegetable fibers. It is used in all sorts of clothing and has similar properties to silk.

Because of this, many fabrics that are 100% rayon are dry clean only, much like true silk is. Rayon by itself will usually shrink, fade, or bleed dye if washed.

The technology for making rayon was first created in the late 1800s, as manufacturers looked for cheaper alternatives to natural silk. Rayon has been a staple fabric, and these technologies have gradually improved.

Today, rayon is often blended with other fibers like spandex. This helps to reduce the stiffness of the fabric and allows the clothes to be washed in a regular washing machine. Rayon blends still keep their absorbency and are usually much more comfortable to wear than rayon alone.

4. Nylon

NylonNylon

Nylon is another synthetic that you have probably encountered in your day-to-day life. You may find nylon in any of your clothes that seem to repel water since it is excellent at not absorbing liquids. These clothes will tend to be staticky and lightweight, and the fabric is strong and resistant to tears.

Nylon was originally marketed during World War II as a replacement for silk and hemp parachutes. Before the war, 80% or more fabrics were made with natural fibers. But by 1945, nylon had risen in popularity and amounted to as much as 25% of fabrics being produced.

Nylon is easy to wash and is very quick to dry. It is naturally stretchy but often mixed with other fibers to give blends that offer better wear and feel. Nylon by itself can be staticky and will melt when exposed to high temperatures or flame.

5. Acrylic

AcrylicAcrylic

Acrylic is a synthetic fiber created from the chemical acrylonitrile, which comes from petroleum or coal-based resources. It is a very lightweight fabric and strong and sturdy for daily wear and tear. It is commonly used in clothing for winter wear since it is warm like wool. You may also find acrylic in blankets and other home linens.

Acrylic was first produced in the 1940s and quickly began rising in popularity with customers around the world. By the 1950s, many manufacturers used acrylic as an alternative to wool. It has since been refined and used in clothing, carpeting, upholstery, and many other household fabrics.

You may recognize acrylic by its uneven surface, which can easily pill after long-term use. Since it is designed to keep in the heat, it isn’t very breathable. However, acrylic is an excellent fabric to buy if you live in colder regions of the world.

6. Microfiber

MicrofiberMicrofiber

Microfiber is an extremely fine fabric made of fibers such as polyester, polyamide (nylon), or rayon. These fibers are woven so tightly that the fabric often becomes weatherproof, especially against rain. Because of this, microfiber is a popular fabric for sports and outerwear.

The journey to creating microfiber first began in the early 1950s when textile makers began looking for new lightweight fabrics to produce. Microfiber quickly became a favorite fabric across Europe for both clothing and home cleaning products. By the 1960s, manufacturers began mass-producing microfiber to meet consumer demand,

Today, you can probably find microfiber in your kitchen in the form of washcloths, kitchen towels, mops, and other fabrics for cleaning. You may also find it in some of your clothing, especially in jackets, athletic wear, and products that use imitation suede.

7. Neoprene

NeopreneNeoprene

Neoprene fabric is a waterproof, synthetic alternative to rubber or other natural products. It is made from polychloroprene, which is stretched into fibers and woven to create highly stretchy fabrics that retain heat.

Because of this, neoprene is often used to create wetsuits, scuba gear, and swimsuits. By using neoprene, these products will all keep you warm while you swim while stretching to your shape to be form-fitting. Chances are your favorite beachwear contains neoprene.

Like many other synthetic fibers, neoprene was created to help replace rubber when the supply ran low worldwide. In 1930, a chemistry professor at the University of Notre Dame successfully developed the early chemicals to make what would become known as neoprene. The synthetic material quickly hit the market after this early discovery.

8. Acetate

AcetateAcetate

Acetate is another synthetic fiber that is derived from cellulose. It is particularly popular because it is woven into fabrics that are wrinkle-proof and resist shrinking. Acetate helps give fabrics an elegant feel when worn and is frequently used in dress clothes or formal wear.

Acetate is one of the oldest synthetic fibers produced, following only after rayon. It was first used in the 1920s in military applications until chemists figured out how to dye it for consumer use.

Acetate is fairly inexpensive to produce, though its makeup means that it is often dry clean only. It rarely shrinks and doesn’t pill after long-term wear. As a bonus, it is known to repel moths, mold, and mildew.

9. Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)

Polyvinyl Chloride, more commonly referred to as PVC or vinyl, is a waterproof and rubbery fabric. It is stiff to the touch and glossy, making it easy to wipe clean. Its exterior is coated in a shiny plastic covering, while inside, it has a polyester backing.

PVC was first created in the 1920s when scientists tried to develop new chemicals to bind rubber and metal. The leftovers from these experiments were discarded, and eventually, a scientist by the name of Waldo Semon mixed them with chemicals and heat to create PVC.

In your daily life, you probably see PVC in your raincoats or any protective wear you might have. It is also commonly used to make heels on shoes, fabric banners, gym mats, or even outdoor tents and shelters.

10. Synthetic Fur or Leather

Synthetic furSynthetic fur

Synthetic fur or leather, often referred to as ‘faux’ fur or leather, was created as an alternative to natural animal products. These fabrics are often more sustainable and ethical alternatives to these animal products. Because of this, many clothing designers have abandoned animal products in their designs altogether.

These synthetic options were created to be affordable to average customers. The idea was to create clothing that imitated upper-class styles without the same expense. The industry took off between 1919-1928 when the US government implemented a 10% tax on natural furs, making them available to only the wealthiest customers.

You’ll probably see faux fur or leather in your clothing, especially winter jackets, hats, and clothing. You might also see these products in faux fur rugs, faux leather wallets, synthetic car upholstery, and any other products you’d expect to find natural products in.

What is the Difference Between Natural and Synthetic Fibers?

The main difference between natural and synthetic fibers is that synthetic products are man-made through chemical processes. They are often created as affordable alternatives to natural fibers, which occur in nature and can be limited in quantity.

Natural fibers usually require less processing to achieve a final product that can be woven into clothing. These fibers often include cellulose-based products like cotton, flax, hemp, or jute. Other natural options include animal products like wool, leather, mohair, or silk.

Synthetic fibers require extensive chemical processes to produce before they can be woven into cloth. The polymers used in their creation do not occur naturally and are instead derived from oil, petroleum, coal, or natural gas.

Synthetic Fiber Properties

Synthetic Fiber PropertiesSynthetic Fiber Properties

The exact properties of synthetic fibers can vary from type to type. But as a whole, they tend to be smooth and shiny while also making stronger fabrics than many natural alternatives. Most synthetics melt easily at high temperatures and, when burned, let off chemical fumes.

Beyond this, the individual properties depend on what the fibers were created to do. Many synthetics are excellent at absorbing moisture before drying quickly. Others are designed to be waterproof, meaning that liquids run off the surface.

Many synthetics are designed to be stretchy or elastic, while others are stiff and rigid. Regardless, most synthetics are long-lasting and take a long time to break down, even when discarded.

Uses of Synthetic Fibers

With the wide variety of synthetics available on the market, these fibers are used across various industries. These industries include apparel, of course. But synthetics are also widely used in military, aerospace, and medical products, as well as construction, automotive interiors, and marine products.

Many manufacturers create their own unique synthetics to meet their needs. One manufacturer could blend nylon and elastic to make comfortable athleticwear, while another could use nylon alone to make coarse ropes or fishing nets. The beauty of synthetics is that they can be combined in limitless ways to create new products for consumers.

How to Tell if a Fiber is Synthetic

One of the easiest ways to tell if a fiber is synthetic is to do a burn test. With a burn test, you can carefully set a small piece of fabric on fire to determine if it contains synthetic fibers. Synthetic fibers will burn in specific ways and leave behind distinct ashes afterward.

In particular, you can ignite one corner of your fabric piece and pay attention to the odor and color of the smoke. Synthetic fibers will have dark smoke that smells like chemicals or burning plastic. The ashes of synthetic materials will often be a hard lump of melted plastic-like material.

Cotton fabrics will smell like burning paper and leave behind soft ashes. Other natural fibers like wool will smell like burning hair and will leave brittle ashes that can be easily broken apart by your fingers.

If you do a burn test, always be sure to do it outside, away from other flammable materials. Burn only a small piece, and keep away from children and pets. Only burn inside a flameproof container like an ashtray or metal bowl. Keep water or an extinguisher handy to put out flames,

What is the Most Common Synthetic Fiber?

While there are many synthetic fibers available, the most commonly available synthetic is polyester. If you peek into your own closet, you will quickly spot at least one garment containing this popular material. So much polyester is used that some predictions say that as many as 63 metric tons will be produced by 2023.

Polyester has grown in use so quickly that it has led to a decrease in the use of several other synthetics on the market. The use of acrylic has especially decreased due to the popularity of polyester and polyester blends.

Polyester is now found in all types of apparel, especially shirts, pants, and underwear. It is also found in many household products like kitchen and bath towels, blankets, rugs, and furniture upholstery.

Which Synthetics Are Best for Clothing?

The answer to this question isn’t always straightforward since it depends on what you want for your clothing. Each synthetic fiber will have its own unique properties that can be useful in different situations. This can include water resistance, stretchiness, heat retention, and flame resistance.

Spandex blends are excellent clothing choices that stretch and fit your body shape. Polyester is a good option if you’re looking for clothes that stand up well to wear and tear. Rayon, on the other hand, is a good choice if you’re looking for silk-like material.

Ultimately, which fabrics you choose for your clothing will depend on how you want your clothing to fit, feel, and stand up to wear and tear. Be sure to look back at the list we’ve given here to see the different properties of many of the synthetics you can expect to see as you shop.

Are Synthetic Fibers Eco-Friendly?

Most synthetics are not eco-friendly, and their production creates many forms of pollution. However, there is some benefit to using synthetics since they reduce the need for certain limited natural resources to be used. They can also reduce the need for some animals to be slaughtered to make fabrics for consumer use.

Environmental Impacts of Synthetics

One of the most common criticisms of synthetics is that their production leads to air and water pollution worldwide. Every year, enormous amounts of oil, coal and natural gas are mined to produce synthetics. These industries are responsible for a wide range of environmental destruction, including oil spills, carbon emissions, and the overall reduction of these limited natural resources.

Synthetic fibers, once discarded, take a long time to decompose in landfills. Some synthetic fibers may never degrade once their use is over. Those that do can often take forty years or more to finally break down.

Small plastic particles produced by discarded synthetics can end up in waterways, directly harming the animals and plants that call the water their home. There is growing concern that these microplastics can end up harming you and your family if you eat fish or seafood that has been exposed to them.

Earth-Friendly Synthetics

Many manufacturers have realized that synthetics are not eco-friendly. They have begun to create new synthetics that still have all the benefits while helping care for the environment.

In particular, many companies are now creating biosynthetic fibers and fabrics as new options. These fibers are made from biological sources like sugarcane, plant oils, seaweed, starches, or even agricultural waste. This is an earth-friendly alternative to the typical oil, natural gas, or coal products.

Other manufacturers are recycling and repurposing existing synthetics to avoid creating new sources of pollution. Instead, they take plastic bottles and used clothing and rework them into new products. You’ll likely see recycled synthetics made from polyester and nylon.

Conclusion

When choosing new clothing, it may seem like there are endless options to choose from. Synthetics are growing in popularity and come with all sorts of added benefits that natural fibers may not have. As you choose your next outfit, refer back to this list to give you all the information you’ll need to make the best choice!