Synthetic Fibers: Fabric 101 for Fashion Designers Without Degrees

synthetic fibers, designing with synthetic fabrics

Fabric 101: Designing With Synthetic Fibers

If you know anything about fashion design, you’re well-aware that the process revolves around the fabrications. The fabrics you choose literally make or break the intention of your design. Last week’s blog was all about natural fibers – so this week is dedicated to synthetic fibers. What makes them different from natural fibers? When might it be best to substitute synthetic for natural? We’ll let you decide!

What is a Synthetic Fiber?

Synthetic fibers are man-made fibers that were either made from regenerated natural sources or completely from chemicals.

Pros:

  • Strength and durability
  • Elasticity and resilience
  • Wrinkle-resistant
  • More cost-efficient

Cons:

  • Lacks comfort and breathability; clings to the body
  • More prone to heat damage (will melt when too hot)
  • Harmful to the environment (made from plastics and oil byproducts)
  • Often holds bacteria and odor

Most Commonly-Used Synthetic Fibers

Polyester (King of Durability)

Polyester is the second most popular fabric- right after cotton! Just like nylon and rayon, polyester was discovered in the 1930’s by a group of British chemists in Dupont Lab. Polyester fibers are essentially made up of coal and petroleum-based plastics. The plastics are heated, forced through spinnerets, and then stretched up to 5x their length before they are combined into yarn. The plastic-like nature and the rigorous stretching process grant this fiber with its most valuable asset- durability.

Assets:

Durability and Resilience

This fiber can carry up to 5x its weight. It has super-resilience and retains its shape after a fair amount of stretching. Unlike most natural fibers, polyester rarely suffers from shrinking and wrinkling either. It’s also mildew and pill-resistant, which are other natural fiber shortcomings.

Low-Maintenance Care

Polyester fibers form the most washable fabrics. Their resistance to shrinking, stretching, and wrinkling makes them washer and dryer-friendly. Polyester is also hydrophobic – meaning it can’t retain moisture. This is also applicable to most food stains – making them easy to wash out. Natural fibers and other artificial fibers are often blended with polyester fibers when more durability and washability is needed.

Limitations:

Lacks Absorbency and Comfort

This fiber lacks comfortability – especially when it’s not combined with natural fibers. Its hydrophobic trait prevents it from retaining moisture – so it clings to your body after perspiration. Polyester is more suitable for fall/winter clothing because of this.

May Cause Irritation

This man-made fiber consists of toxins that can potentially irritate the skin.

Popular Fabrics and End Uses:

Fall/Winter clothing, upholstery, floor coverings, insulation, outdoor clothing, outerwear.

Acrylic (The Wool Replacement)

Acrylic is made from a petrochemical called acrylonite. The acrylonite is combined with a comonomer (a material that facilitates dyeability and textile processing). Acrylic is then materialized by either wet-spinning or dry-spinning. Acrylic is used as a wool and cashmere substitute.

Assets:

Softness

Acrylic fibers come in many forms and qualities. Its best qualities can compete with the softest cashmere. This fiber’s wool-like weight results in a nice drape as well. Quality-made acrylic fabrics can be quite luxurious and less costly than natural wool/cashmere.

Warmth

Acrylic fibers are known for being warm yet lightweight.

Absorbent

The acrylic fiber is made for high absorbency, allowing these fabrics to dye rich and vivid.

Limitations:

Pilling

Just as wool pills, so does it’s acrylic substitute. However, pilling is less likely when acrylic is blended with less stubby fibers like silk.

Popular Fabrics and End Uses:

Knits, sweaters, socks, cold-weather accessories, rugs and carpets.

Rayon (The Silk Alternative)

Rayon is a regenerated fiber made from wood pulp. While it uses a natural-plant-based material, it’s rigorous chemical processing places it in the manufactured category. Rayon is a blend of natural and synthetic resources.

Assets:

Drapeability

High-quality rayon’s microfibers are fine and silky- allowing rayon to drape just as well as natural silk.

Absorbency

Rayon is also very absorbent like silk. The absorbency allows the fibers to take dyes very well.

Limitations:

Lacks Durability

Rayon carries extreme versatility with the cost of durability. It ages very poorly and quickly- changing colors and becoming rough where it’s most heavily worn.

Popular Fabrics and End Uses:

Silk apparel, lingerie, jersey, linings, etc.

Nylon (Jack-of-All Trades)

Nylon is a fabric made from petroleum-based plastic. The threads are made after the nylon chips are liquefied, pulled through a spinneret, and cooled. Nylon is known for its versatility and is sometimes used as another substitute for silk.

Assets:

Durability and Versatility

Nylon fabrics are durable yet lightweight. They are hydrophobic like polyester- meaning they won’t absorb dirt and stains.

Limitations:

Heat-Sensitive

Much like silk, nylon is heat-sensitive and melts when ironed on high settings. Nylon fabrics should be dried in cool settings.

Static and Clammy

Nylon doesn’t absorb or retain moisture, so it’s not the most comfortable fabric to wear against the skin. This quality is great for stain resistance but results in static cling and clamminess when worn- especially in warm temperatures.

Popular Fabrics and End Uses:

Apparel, hosiery, swimwear, luggage, carpeting materials.

Acetate (The Luxury Synthetic)

Acetate is made from cellulose taken from wood pulp. This fabric is known for its shine, soft hand-feel, and drape. It’s often used to substitute soft, luxurious fabrics like taffeta or crepe de chine.

Assets:

Luxury Qualities

Acetate has several silk-like qualities. It’s lustrous with a pleasant hand-feel and it hangs well. It’s also shrink-resistant, mildew resistant, static resistant, and pill resistant!

Durability

Acetate is often blended with wools and silks for added strength.

Absorbency

Unlike many synthetic fibers, acetate is also absorbent. It’s ideal for cost-friendly linings because it’s silky and it allows the skin to breathe a  bit. It also dyes well.

Limitations

Discoloration

Some acetate fabrics fade when exposed to pollutants or extensive heat/sunlight.

Popular Fabrics and End Uses:

Apparel, apparel/furniture linings, drapes, curtains, bedspreads, home decor.

Spandex (The Sportswear Superstar)

Spandex, also known as elastane, is very unique among the other common synthetic fibers. A range of materials are used to produce the elastic fiber- including pre-polymers, stabilizers for added integrity, and colorants.  I will also note that Lycra, a word commonly interchanged with Spandex, is just a specific brand of spandex or elastane that is specifically made by DuPont.

Assets:

Stretch and Resilience

Spandex is quite the concoction, but it results in a super-elastic fiber that can expand up to 600% and snap right back. The fabric loses resilience over time with heavy use, but it’s ideal for active wear.

Durability

Did you know that spandex is stronger than rubber? It’s also pill and abrasion resistant!

Sweat Resistant

Spandex resists moisture like sweat, lotions, and body oils- another important quality in active wear. This is when non-absorbency can be an asset!

Limitations:

Heat Sensitive

Spandex starts to deteriorate when exposed to high heat.

Popular Fabrics and End Uses:

Sports Apparel, activewear, leggings, swimwear, wetsuits, hosiery, lingerie.

So which do you prefer- natural fibers or synthetic fibers? Don’t forget to check out last week’s blog on natural fibers! And if you’re in the process of sourcing your fabrics, we encourage you to download our FREE Fabric Sourcing Guide here.

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