The Truth about Synthetic Fabric part one
Author: Clara Tuckey
The best thing that you can wear is clothing made of natural fibres such as cotton, linen, hemp and wool, but have you noticed how difficult it is to find clothes made purely out of this stuff? Synthetic fibres make up the bulk of our wardrobes but we have so little understanding about their material qualities and how they are affecting both our environment and the way we purchase our clothing. Let’s take a closer look at synthetic textiles in part one of this two-part post.
The Truth about Synthetic Fabric, Part One
Synthetically man-made fabrics are no new invention. They’ve been touted as a no-fuss, easy to care for textiles since around the 1950s and continue to be a staple in everything from car tires to designer athletic wear. You likely see some percentage of synthetic material in almost all of your clothing, whether it’s polyester, nylon, rayon, acrylic, elastane, viscose, lycra and many more. With so many different types and blends on the market, it’s important to know each material’s strengths and weaknesses, their environmental footprint, and how they’re used and abused by the fashion industry.
Before we dive into the overall environmental impacts and fashion industry uses, here’s a little cheat sheet to define what some of the most widely used synthetic fabrics are made up of (hint: it’s mostly plastic) and where they do their best work.
Synthetic Fabric Cheat Sheet:
Polyester: Made from highly refined petroleum (oil), better known as plastic. The most widely used synthetic textile to date because it is cheap and blends well with organic fibers (more on this later). Dries fast, does not wrinkle, fairly strong and cost-effective but can be staticky, stain easily and hold smelly odours well after laundering. The most commonly used fabric in clothing, upholstery and other industrial applications.
Nylon: A plastic incredibly similar to polyester. Elastic, lightweight, holds shape and blends well with organic fibers but can be staticky, does not “wick” and very fragile when not blended with other materials and stretched thin (think about “runs” in hosiery or stockings). Most commonly used as a blend in swimwear, athleticwear and undergarments because of its stretch and water-repelling qualities.
Rayon: Made from cellulose, usually derived from wood pulp—but don’t let this fool you. The wood pulp is often harvested using non-sustainable practices and is heavily refined and mixed with many chemicals before becoming rayon (there are companies making sustainable rayon too, make sure to read the label!). Imitates silk, is often very shiny and drapes well, resists static and pilling (to an extent). Requires chemical treatments to resist shrinkage and fade so make sure to read the care label. Used in almost all types of clothing, from lingerie to blouses to sportswear.
Acrylic: Made of plastic specifically called acrylonitrile. A common, cheaper substitute for wool. Used most often in cardigans, blankets, toques and cold weather apparel. It is durable and retains heat well because it is not breathable (like most synthetic fabrics). This fabric has an uneven, rough surface and therefore must be treated by chemicals and brushing to become soft. Easy to care for and dries quickly but is prone to pilling and breaking down after many laundry cycles and time.
Elastane: Made of plastic, specifically polyurethane, also known as Spandex or Lycra. Energy-intensive and uses many toxic chemicals in manufacturing. An incredibly strong, stretchy material mostly used as a structural fiber in socks, lingerie and athleticwear. Tight and form-fitting to keep garments in place. While this fabric has strong, elastic properties, it will permanently stretch and break down over time.
Viscose: The name of the wood pulp used to make rayon. See rayon for qualities and uses.
Modal: Another type of rayon made specifically from beech tree pulp. Usually more expensive, durable and flexible than viscose or rayon. Modal is a semi-synthetic fabric as it is blended with organic material and is considered biodegradable. Many believe that it is more environmentally friendly than traditional textiles and synthetic textiles because beech trees do not consume as much water as cotton or other textile bases. This is somewhat misleading because processing the pulp into fabric requires a lot of toxic chemicals, water and energy. See rayon for qualities and uses.
Now that you’ve skimmed through our cheat-sheet let’s talk about blends, which are what makes up the majority of our wardrobes today. Take a moment and look at the care/material tags in the clothing you’re wearing. Note how many materials it lists, if these materials are natural and/or synthetic, and what percentages of natural/synthetic materials are highest and lowest. On average, clothing should not have more than three different fibres making up the body of the garment, and the highest percentage should be natural. Fabric will degrade and unravel or break because of differences in thickness, finish, flexibility and strength between fibres, so more than three is a recipe for disaster.
A perfect example from my closet is a cardigan/sweater I bought about three years ago from a fast-fashion giant that I used to LOVE shopping at before I began my deep dive into the world of cheap fashion. When I purchased this cardigan, it was an incredibly soft knit and a nice, grey-blue colour. I remember feeling that it was better quality because the fabric was much thicker than normal and the price was higher than many other items I had purchased from this same shop. I wore this sweater a lot and received many compliments, but within a month or two I noticed pilling and discolouration pretty well all over the garment even after following the washing instructions. Looking at the care/materials tag, I realized that the fibre content was 52% viscose, 28% polyester and 20% nylon--now that I’ve done a little research, I realize that this entirely explains the issues I was experiencing with the sweater.
The pilling that I see on my sweater is a product of the three synthetic materials not bonding well together, ultimately becoming very fragile. When the fabric is rubbed against itself or the inside of a jacket, the fibres often break and separate from the garment, creating these small balls of fibre. This makes the garment look and seem more worn out than it really is, therefore shortening the lifespan and wasting the valuable resources used to create the synthetic fibres. I still have this sweater because I like the cut and colour and I would feel guilty getting rid of it. I wear it on occasion, but usually only after battling the pills with a fabric shaver for about 15-20 minutes. Most times, I just skip past it and choose something else that’s less maintenance. It all feels like such a waste, and begs the question WHY--why would the designer choose to make this faulty garment with so much cheap, synthetic material and what is the environmental consequence?...
Thanks for reading part one! Stay tuned for the second part of this series where I will discuss the important role of synthetic textiles in the fast fashion industry and where we can go from here to become more educated, conscious and sustainable consumers.