Synthetic Fibers Defined for the Apparel Industry

Synthetic means made by chemical synthesis, especially to imitate a natural product.   In other words, something resulting from synthesis rather than occurring naturally.

Advantages of Synthetic Fibers:

Synthetic fibers are more durable than most natural fibers and they readily pick-up different dyes.  In addition, many synthetic fibers offer consumer-friendly functions such as stretching, waterproofing and stain resistance.  Sunlight, moisture and oils from human skin cause all fibers to break down and wear away.  Natural fibers are much more sensitive than synthetic blends.

Disadvantages of Synthetic Fibers:

Most of synthetic fibers' disadvantages are related to their low melting temperature:  Synthetic fibers burn more readily than natural.  They are prone to heat damage and melt relatively easily.  Although we are not certain, we believe many of them are non-biodegradable and are not as good for the environment in comparison to natural fibers.

Synthetic fibers or fibres are the result of extensive research by scientists to improve on naturally occurring animal and plant fibers.  In general, synthetic fibers are created by extruding fiber forming materials through spinnerets into air and water, forming a thread.  Before synthetic fibers were developed, artificially manufactured fibers were made from polymers obtained from petro chemicals.  These fibers are called synthetic or artificial fibers.  Some fibers are manufactured from plant-derived cellulose.

This category of fiber is also sometimes referenced as man-made fibers.

Synthetic fibers are made from synthesized polymers or small molecules. The compounds that are used to make these fibers come from raw materials such as petroleum based chemicals or petrochemicals. These materials are polymerized into a long, linear chemical that bond two adjacent carbon atoms. Differing chemical compounds will be used to produce different types of fibers.

Synthetic fibers account for about half of all fiber usage, with applications in every field of fiber and textile technology. Although many classes of fiber based on synthetic polymers have been evaluated as potentially valuable commercial products, four of them - nylon, polyester, acrylic and polyolefin - dominate the market.

History of Synthetic Fibers:

The first successful commercial process was developed in 1894 by English chemist Charles Frederick Cross, and his collaborators Edward John Bevan and Clayton Beadle. They named the fiber "viscose", because the reaction product of carbon disulfide and cellulose in basic conditions gave a highly viscous solution of xanthate.  The first commercial viscose rayon was produced by the UK company Courtaulds Fibers in 1905. The name "rayon" was adopted in 1924, with "viscose" being used for the viscous organic liquid used to make both rayon and cellophane.

Nylon was developed by Wallace Carothers, an American researcher at the chemical firm DuPont in the 1930s. It soon made its debut in the United States as a replacement for silk, just in time for the introduction of rationing during World War II. Its novel use as a material for women's stockings overshadowed more practical uses, such as a replacement for the silk in parachutes and other military uses like ropes.

The first polyester fiber was introduced by John Rex Whinfield and James Tennant Dickson, British chemists working at the Calico Printers' Association, in 1941. They produced and patented the first polyester fiber which they named Terylene, also known as Dacron, equal to or surpassing nylon in toughness and resilience.   ICI and DuPont went on to produce their own versions of the fiber.

Man-made fibers include the following:

Synthetic Polymer: Acrylic, Aramid  (Twaron), Kevlar, Technora (Nomex), Microfiber, Modacrylic, Nylon, Olefin, Polyester, Polyethylene (Dyneema, Spectra), Spandex, Vinylon, Vinyon, Zylon

Semi-synthetic: Acetate, Diacetate, Lyocell, Modal, Rayon, Triacetate

Above is a partial list, and new are created on occasion.

Not all fibers are appropriate for the apparel or footwear industry.

Visit our synthetic fiber research section for additional resources.

Learn more in our textile fiber definitions section.

Learn more about textile fibers and suppliers for the apparel industry.

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