A polyester scarf.

Fabric focus: synthetic fabrics

Our latest fabric focus looks at synthetic fabrics. Find out about the different kinds of man-made fibres and how to care for them.

What are synthetic fabrics?

Synthetic fibres (man-made fibres) are produced by joining chemical monomers into polymers using a chemical reaction called polymerisation. The chemicals used are usually sodium hydroxide and carbon disulphide (derivatives of coal, oil, or natural gas).

The liquid from chemicals are forced through tiny holes called spinnerets to produce a filament. As the liquid comes out of the spinnerets and into the air, it cools and forms into tiny threads of continuous filament fibre. A twisting process twists the filament into a yarn. Dyes are added before they are woven together to make fabric.

Other chemicals can be added to make the fabric softer, wrinkle free, flame-resistant, water resistant, stain-resistant or moth-repellent.

Advantages of using synthetic fabrics

Synthetic fibres often have increased durability, strength and resistance compared to natural fibres. They can also:

  • Dry very quickly
  • Be extra absorbent
  • Be made into waterproof fabrics, and
  • Be made into elastic/stretchy fabrics for swimwear and lingerie.

Disadvantages of synthetic fabrics

At the end of their life, the waste produced by synthetic fibres is generally not very good for the environment.

  • When burnt, they can produce poisonous gases.
  • When landfilled, they take a long time to degenerate as they are non-biodegradable and the chemicals used in their manufacture can leach out into the environment.

Synthetic fabrics should not be worn in kitchens or laboratories (unless they are specifically designed for this purpose) as the fibres melt on heating which makes them very dangerous.

Types of synthetic fabrics

The most commonly used synthetic fibres are:

Acetate: Derived from cellulose. It does not wrinkle and also resists shrinkage, moths and mildew. It has a luxurious appearance, a soft crisp feel and drapes well. Pure acetate is usually dry clean only. It is generally used for dress linings and special occasion wear.

Acrylic: Made from a petrochemical called acrylontrile. It is lightweight and strong but has an uneven surface. It has the warmth and softness of wool but does not absorb water. Garments made from pure acrylic can easily pill. Mainly used for making warm clothing such as blankets and jumpers.

Lyocell: A type of rayon made from cellulose. It has a similar soft feel and drape to rayon, but is much more durable and has a much stronger wet strength. Therefore it is usually machine washable and dryable. It has a subtle sheen, is very breathable/absorbent and also shrink/wrinkle-resistant. Many types of garment are made from lyocell including dresses, suits, sportswear and trousers. Lyocell is also used for home furnishings, such as curtains, upholstery and table linens.

Microfibre: Made from extremely finely woven acrylic, nylon, polyester or rayon filaments. It can be woven so tightly that the fabric cannot be penetrated by wind, rain or cold so is popular for raincoat manufacture. It has a wicking ability so is also popular for sportswear. It is also used for hosiery, swimwear and underwear. It is washable.

Nylon: Made of polyamide. It is exceptionally strong, elastic, lightweight, resistant to abrasion and also drapes well. It is easy to wash (as dirt does not cling to it) and quick to dry. It blends well with natural fibres to give durability and stretch. It can be very static, melts when exposed to high heat and is also uncomfortable to wear in warm weather as it does not absorb moisture. Uses include hosiery, underwear, swimwear and sportswear.

Polyester: Made of polyethylene terephthalate. A durable, soft and strong, quick-drying textile that does not wrinkle and that holds its shape well. It blends well with natural fibres such as cotton or wool or with artificial fibres, to make the fabric more durable and easier to wash. It is used in most types of clothing as it is so durable and cheap to produce. However, it does attract static electricity and can stain quite easily.

Polypropylene: A very lightweight fibre that is strong, abrasion resistant and also resistant to stains, static, sunlight and odours. It has high insulation characteristics and effectively wicks moisture. Used in high performance active wear for backpacks, mountain climbing apparel, swimwear etc. It is washable at low temperatures and fast drying.

Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC): A waterproof, rubbery textured fabric that usually consists of a backing woven from polyester fibres with a surface coating of shiny plastic. The plastic layer itself is typically a blend of PVC and polyurethane (PU). 100% PVC produces a stiff fabric with a glossy shine and 100% PU produces a stretchy fabric with a silky shine. PVC fabric does not ‘breathe’ so can be uncomfortable to wear. It should also not be stretched. It is usually wiped clean but can be hand washed with a mild soap if necessary. Generally used for garments such as raincoats and protective clothing, but can be used for trousers, tops, skirts etc too.

Rayon (also known as viscose): Made from regenerated cellulose. It has similar properties to silk - a lustrous appearance, drapes well, highly absorbent, and gives no static or pilling problems. It is used for blouses, dresses, jackets, lingerie, linings, sportswear, suits, ties etc. It is very important to read a rayon garment care label. Originally rayon was a ‘dry clean only’ fibre. Fibre producers then discovered that they could create washable rayon by putting finishes on the surface of the fabric after it was made. However, this made the fabric expensive so many rayon fabrics in the marketplace remain untreated, and are ‘dry clean only’. This means that if they are washed, they can shrink (sometimes as much as two or three sizes) and fade, or the colour may bleed. The fabric can also become stiff and harsh.

When rayon is wet, it loses up to 50% of its strength and it has poor resistance to abrasion, so hand washing in cool water and drying the garment flat or on a washing line is best.

Spandex (also known as lycra or elastane): A polyester-polyurethane co-polymer. It is lightweight, strong, very elastic and non-absorbent to water and oils. It is stronger and more durable than rubber and it always reverts to its original form after stretching. It is usually blended with natural fibres, but it can also be mixed with nylon. Spandex is used to make garments where a lot of permanent elasticity is required, such as tights, sportswear, swimwear and corsetry. It is used in garments that are intended to cling to the body, while at the same time remaining comfortable. It is washable.

Caring for synthetic fabrics

Many synthetic fibres are chemically unstable and discolour, degrade or simply fall apart as they age. Exposure to light will accelerate these problems, so keep them away from sunlight.

Always refer to the garment care label to understand how your garment can be cleaned.