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Synthetic fabrics

Synthetic fabrics are man-made and produced entirely through chemical processes.Semi-synthetic fibres are also created through chemical processes but from natural raw materials.

Synthetic fibres are entirely man-made from chemicals derived from fossil fuels. The word synthesise means to produce something chemically or biologically – in others words, it is the exact the opposite of a naturally occurring product.

Regenerated cellulosic fibres are a combination of natural plant fibres (cellulosic fibres e.g. bamboo/wood pulp) and chemicals. They are a halfway house between natural and synthetic, also referred to as semi synthetic.

Advantages & disadvantages of synthetic fibres

Advantages:

  • Often less expensive than garments made of natural fibres
  • Easier to care for
  • Can be engineered to have certain qualities (e.g. useful for sportswear)

Disadvantages:

  • Chemicals used in processing may irritate the skin
  • Often less breathable encouraging sweating and bacteria growth
  • Environmental issues surrounding synthetic fibres
  • Water consumption and pollution (particularly nylon and viscose)
  • Air pollution
  • High energy use for production
  • Synthetic fibres are not biodegradable
  • Synthetic fibres are made from fossil fuels, a non-renewable resource

Synthetic fibres are often not biodegradable and remain in the environment infinitely. Some are recyclable and new clothing can be made out of old ones. Unfortunately, this is not the case currently, and it's also an expensive and energy-consuming process. In addition, harmful chemicals used in the processing and manufacturing stages are released into the environment.

Types of synthetic fabrics

Acetate

  • Function: Cooling
  • Wrinkle-resistant
  • Machine wash
  • Breathability: 3/5
  • Comfort: 4/5

Acetate is a form of rayon which covers a whole range of manufactured fibres made from regenerated cellulose fibre. Acetate is made from biodegrading naturally occurring wood pulp, making it a semi-synthetic fibre. Pure acetate fabric has a luxurious feel and appearance (very similar to silk), but it’s also very delicate.

Where to wear it:

Acetate is often blended with other fibres - most commonly silk, wool, and cotton, to give these fabrics better wrinkle recovery, and good draping quality, at a lower price.Since acetate imitates silk, it is often used to produce soft garments like blouses and dresses, as well as wedding and party attire. Frequently, it is also used for lining.

Advantages:
  • Drapes well
  • Quick drying
  • Resists stretching & shrinkage
  • Resistant to moths & mildew
  • No static & pilling
  • Dyes & prints well
Disadvantages:
  • Weak fabric
  • Sensitive to heat
  • Not colourfast
  • No elasticity
  • Wrinkles & creases easily
  • Must be hand washed

Acrylic

  • Synthetic fibre
  • Function: Warming
  • Wrinkle-resistant
  • Machine wash
  • Breathability: 2/3
  • Comfort: 3/5

Acrylic is a fully synthetic fibre made from a polymer. Acrylic fibreclosely resembles the appearance and feel of wool. The fabric is lightweight, warm, and soft to the touch. It is therefore used as a cheaper alternative to wool or blended with sheep wool or cashmere.

Where to wear it:

Since it is mainly used as a wool-substitute, common end products of acrylic fabric include jumpers, hats, and socks. Due its low absorbency properties - meaning it would not soak up perspiration on hot summer days, it is only really useful for winter clothing.

Advantages:
  • Durable
  • Colourfast
  • Resists shrinkage & wrinkles
  • Resistant to oil & soil
  • Moisture wicking
  • Quick drying
  • Resistant to mildew & insects
  • Easy to clean
Disadvantages:
  • Static & pilling
  • May be clingy to the skin
  • Can irritate the skin
  • Water-repellent (encourages bacteria growth)

Lyocell

  • Semi-synthetic fibre
  • Function: Cooling
  • Wrinkle-resistant
  • Machine wash
  • Breathability: 3/5
  • Comfort: 4/5

Lyocell is another type of rayon. It is also produced from wood pulp which makes it a semi-synthetic fibre. Interestingly, this fibre is fully biodegradable, making it a more eco-friendly synthetic fibre.

Where to wear it:

Lyocell is very similar to cotton, and is often used as a substitute for the latter.Hence it is used to make everything from shirts to underwear.While some garments are made entirely from lyocell, it is more common to see this fabric mixed with other types of fabrics like cotton or polyester.

Advantages:
  • Drapes well
  • Strong & durable
  • Resistant to wrinkles
  • Quick drying
  • No static & pilling
  • Biodegradable
Disadvantages:
  • Does not dye well

Modal

  • Semi-synthetic fibre
  • Function: Cooling
  • Wrinkle-resistant
  • Machine wash
  • Breathability: 4/5
  • Comfort: 5/5

Another type of rayon, modal is also produced from wood pulp, but specifically from beech trees.

Where to wear it:

Modal is stronger and more stable when it is wet than other types of rayon, yet has a soft feel, similar to cotton. It is also moisture wicking making it an excellent choice for activewear. It’s also used in the manufacture of underwear, pyjamas, and bathrobes, and more generally as a cotton substitute.

Advantages
  • Lightweight
  • Smooth, soft & comfortable
  • Drapes well
  • Very strong & durable
  • High resiliency
  • Absorbent & dries quickly
  • Hypoallergenic & non-irritating
  • Dyes & prints well
  • No static or pilling
Disadvantages:
  • Prone to stretching
  • Pilling

Nylon

  • Synthetic fibre
  • Function: Warming
  • Wrinkle-resistant
  • Machine wash
  • Breathability: 1/5
  • Comfort: 2/5

Nylon is one of the most common synthetic fabrics. It is a tough, lightweight, elastic synthetic polymer with a protein-like chemical structure. Nylon is often mixed with other fabrics - such as polyester, spandex, or cotton.

Where to wear it:

To this day, nylon fabric is used as an alternative to silk stockings (its original application). Combined with other fibres, it can be found in everything from blouses to evening dresses and everyday clothing.

On its own, nylon isn’t the softest fabric, which makes it a better choice for stiffer outwear items like athletic shoes and sports jackets. However, it is not very absorbent, so not ideal for wicking away sweat. This is something to consider since nylon is often found in activewear.

Because it is tough and water-resistant, it’s also a popular material for handbags.

Advantages:
  • Lightweight
  • High resiliency
  • Very strong
  • Fast drying
  • Dyes & prints well
  • Resists shrinkage & wrinkles
  • Resistant to abrasion & mildew
Disadvantages:
  • Low absorbency
  • Prone to tears & rips
  • Can have an unpleasant sheen
  • Prone to static
  • Produced from fossil fuels
  • Not biodegradable

Polyester

  • Synthetic fibre
  • Function: Warming
  • Wrinkle-resistant
  • Machine wash
  • Breathability: 1/5
  • Comfort: 1/5

Polyester fibres are obtained by mixing the two chemical substances ethylene glycol and terephthalic acid. In less scientific terms, polyester is a type of plastic and hence a fully synthetic fibre.

Where to wear it:

Polyester is ubiquitous and used in all types of clothing, either alone or blended with other types of fibre. It's not a great choice for summer clothing though because it is not a breathable material and will make you feel hot. It is, however, a great wicking fabric that can be used to draw sweat away from the body and allow it to evaporate much more quickly. When blended with another fabric it can make an effective choice for athletic wear.

Advantages:
  • Lightweight
  • Crisp, but soft
  • High resiliency
  • Abrasion resistant
  • Strong & durable
  • Quick drying
  • Dyes & prints well
  • Colourfast
  • Resists stretching & shrinkage, wrinkles & creases
  • Resistant to mildew
Disadvantages:
  • No breathability
  • Static & pilling
  • Very low absorbency
  • Can have unpleasant sheen
  • Stains are difficult to remove
  • Tends to be slippery
  • Not biodegradable
  • Not eco-friendly

Spandex / Lycra / Elastane

  • Synthetic fibre
  • Function: Stretching
  • Wrinkle-resistant
  • Machine wash
  • Breathability: 1/5
  • Comfort: 1/5

Spandex, Lycra or elastane is a fully synthetic fibre known for its exceptional elasticity or stretch. It is made from the polymer polyurethane, making it a type of plastic.

Where to wear it:

Spandex fabric can stretch to five to eight times its normal size, and this is typically used to make other fabrics stretch beyond their natural abilities. In most cases, pure spandex isn't used in garments. Instead, small quantities of this spandex are woven into other fabrics. It is mainly used to make form-fitting clothes, activewear, bras, and swimsuits.

Advantages:
  • Lightweight
  • Strong & durable
  • Resistant to perspiration
  • Excellent elasticity
Disadvantages:
  • No breathability
  • Clingy to the skin
  • Slippery on surfaces
  • Sensitive to heat
  • Not biodegradable

Viscose

Rayon Fashion Fabrics - the concept wardrobe
  • Semi-synthetic fibre
  • Function: Cooling
  • Wrinkle-resistant
  • Machine wash
  • Breathability: 4/5
  • Comfort: 5/5

Viscose is a semi-synthetic fabric and part of the rayon family. As such it is made from purified cellulose fibres, which are typically created from wood pulp.

Where to wear it:

Viscose was originally created as a cheaper alternative to silk. However, it can take on many properties depending on how it is made and can also be similar to cotton. Readily penetrated by water and perspiration, the fibre swells and loses strength when wet. Since it’s not very breathable, it won’t wick away moisture well. Rayon is thus best used in dry heat and is a good choice for summer clothing. It can be used to make everything from shirts through to dresses.

It is also often used for coats, jackets, and other outerwear.

Advantages:
  • Soft & comfortable
  • Drapes well
  • Highly absorbent
  • Dyes & prints well
  • Colourfast
  • No static or pilling
Disadvantages:
  • Wrinkles & creases easily
  • Susceptible to mildew
  • Low resiliency
  • Sensitive to heat
  • Stretches
  • Weakens when wet
  • Fabric shrinks when washed
  • Not eco-friendly

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