When you take a look at the label on your favourite shirt and it says “made with synthetic fabric”, do you know exactly what that means?
Manmade or synthetic fabrics have been created using artificial non-living fibres, produced from polymers which are often derived from petroleum. Polymers are strong compounds that make plastics.
Most artificial fibres are made using polymerisation. This is a condensation process whereby reactants, usually an acid and an alcohol (derived from a petroleum base) are set to react upon a polymer at very high temperatures inside a sealed vacuum. Either the fibre can be spun immediately or is set aside in the form of plastic chips, before being ‘melt spun’ into a fibre at a later stage.
Created for durability and low-absorbency, nylon is mainly used in swimwear, sports gear, stockings and in weather resistant fabrics, as needed in tents and outdoor gear.
It was invented originally for use in army gear during World War II, to reduce expenses and increase outdoor resistance. Today, nylon is still used to much the same effect.
Polyester fabric is used in linen, clothing, upholstery and other textile products for extra stretchiness, durability, resistance to weather and anti-shrinking properties. It’s also more oil absorbent than water absorbent.
The most commonly used polyester for fabrics is PET (polyethylene terephthalate), the same plastic substance cool drink bottles are made from.
Spandex (Lycra or Elastane)
Also known as Lycra and Elastane, Spandex was invented in Germany in 1937 for its remarkable elasticity properties, able to stretch 4-7 times its length.
Spandex also allows other fabrics to hold their shapes better, being less susceptible to creasing. It can be found in swimwear, tights or leggings, athlete gear, underwear, corsetry and many cheap clothing items that can stretch (trousers, shirts, etc).
Acrylic and Modacrylic
Acrylic and Modacrylc fabrics are used in sweaters, socks, knitwear, sportswear, as well as in rugs, blankets, luggage and upholstery. They allow knitwear to retain their shape after being washed. They’re also moth resistant, dry very quickly and are often added to wool (sometimes cotton) to enhance its properties.
Kevlar and Nomex
Both of these fabrics are distant cousins of nylon and used more for industrial purposes such as fire fighter suits and rope. Very tight-knit bonds make for maximum durability as well as extreme resistance to high temperatures.
Race car drivers also need fire protective gear, usually made from Nomex, in case they crash in a race. Nomex is also non-conductive and protects against electrical heating and hazards associated. It’s also sometimes used in upholstery and household goods.
The benefits of producing man-made fabrics and fibres, is that the fabric itself is far more durable than natural fibres, more able to take on dyes and thus there are more options as to how to how the fabric could look.
Synthetic fabrics can also be 100% recycled back into industry by splitting up the fibres from old fabrics and re-using them to make new ones.
This means that once produced, synthetic fibres have almost eternal lifespans.
Being made from petroleum and other non-renewable resources like coal, the manufacture of synthetic fibres is not sustainable.
Aside from this resource depletion, the process harms our Earth in several different ways.
During polymerisation, nitrous oxides are released into the atmosphere in large volumes. This is classified as a greenhouse gas emission and contributes to destroying our ozone layer, perpetuating climate change and creating the perfect conditions for acid rain.
When the product finally becomes a fabric, it gets treated, dyed and finished off – in other words it becomes heavily imbued with toxic chemicals and heavy metals to modify the fabric further and change its colour. The left over wastes, like bleach, are often just left to drain into our oceans, lakes or rivers, killing marine life and circulating toxic chemicals inside our global ecosystem.
These fabrics are also so durable that when we throw them away, they don’t decompose. Instead they release more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, like methane or allow toxic groundwater to surface in landfills.
The last concern about these fabrics is in regards to human health. Polymer fibres and fabrics are known to be carcinogenic (cancer causing) to our bodies due to the large amounts of chemicals used to treat them. Workers in synthetic fibre production plants are continuously exposed to these harmful substances.
Synthetic fibres have both pros and cons in their production and consumption lifecycle. Being aware of these facts can help us make better purchase and maintenance decisions when it comes to our textiles.