What are Synthetic Fabrics? | Polyester, Nylon, & Acrylic Explained

A video version of this post can be found here.

Fabrics play an indispensable role in human history. From natural fibers like linen and wool to the advent of synthetic materials, each new discovery and development has affected industries and cultures in profound ways. Synthetic fabrics such as polyester, nylon, and acrylic revolutionized the fashion and outdoor industries, offering durability, versatility, and affordability. However, as we dive into their production, uses, and environmental impacts, we uncover a complex web of concerns that rival their advantages.

Production Process of Synthetic Fabrics

Polyester, Nylon, and Acrylic are all derived from petrochemicals or fossil fuels. Once the raw materials are extracted, they undergo a series of chemical reactions that transform small molecules called monomers into long chains known as polymers. This reaction, called polymerization, results in granules or flakes which are the building blocks of synthetic fabrics.

After polymerization, the next step is fiber formation. There are various techniques used to convert polymers into fibers, including melt spinning, dry spinning, and wet spinning. During melt spinning, the polymer is melted and extruded through a spinneret, which produces solid fibers as the material cools and solidifies. Dry spinning involves dissolving the polymer in a solvent and then extruding the solution, allowing the solvent to evaporate and leave behind solid fibers. And lastly, wet spinning involves extruding the polymer into a coagulating bath, where it solidifies into fibers.

Synthetics Production Process

By understanding how these fibers are made, we can appreciate the complexity of this process and the ingenuity involved in creating synthetic fabrics. It also sheds light on the importance of sustainable practices, as the choice of raw materials and manufacturing techniques can greatly influence the environmental impact of these fibers. 

But, before we dive too deep into that, let's cover the technical advantages of synthetic fabrics. 

Technical Properties of Synthetic Fabrics

  1. Durability and Strength: Synthetic fabrics, particularly polyester and nylon, boast exceptional durability and strength. They can withstand rigorous wear and tear, making them ideal for activewear, outdoor gear, and heavy-duty applications. Because of how synthetic fibers are produced, their length and texture can be controlled. Smooth, long synthetic fibers will be very resistant to abrasion, and garments made from these materials will maintain their shape and appearance even after multiple washes and uses. 

    Note: Resistance to abrasion is found with polyester and nylon fabrics. Acrylic is more often used as a wool substitute. It is cut into shorter fibers that are textured and crimped to mimic the look of wool, which means it will be less durable and not as resistant to pilling. 

  2. Moisture-Wicking and Quick-Drying: One of the standout features of synthetic fabrics is their excellent moisture-wicking ability. They draw moisture away from the skin, keeping you dry and comfortable during physical activities. Additionally, their quick-drying nature prevents water absorption and reduces the risk of discomfort. 

    With that being said, synthetic fabrics are not very breathable. They are plastics after all! So, while they can wick moisture away and dry fast, this effect will vary from garment to garment. Generally speaking, close-fitting knit garments will wick moisture the best, and loose, woven garments will dry the quickest. However, a thick synthetic fleece or sherpa will create more of an air pocket around the wearer, which can trap moisture evaporating off your body and create a very sticky/sweaty effect. If you've ever slept in a synthetic sleeping bag, you know the feeling I'm referring to! 

  3. Lightweight: Synthetic fabrics are usually lightweight, contributing to enhanced comfort and ease of movement. This property is especially advantageous in activewear and outdoor gear, where reduced weight can be crucial for performance and portability.

  4. Colorfastness: Synthetic fabrics exhibit excellent color retention, ensuring that dyed garments remain vibrant and fade-resistant over time. This property is particularly valuable in swimwear and outdoor fabrics, where exposure to chlorine and/or sunlight can challenge color stability.

  5. Versatility in Design and Texture: The manufacturing process of synthetic fabrics allows for a wide range of design possibilities. Fibers can be sleek and shiny, textured and matte, short, long, and anything in-between! Because of this, synthetic fabrics offer versatile options for designers and manufacturers.

While the technical properties of synthetic fabrics make them desirable for many applications, it's crucial to balance these advantages with the environmental impact they pose. As consumers, understanding the trade-offs between convenience and sustainability can empower us to make informed choices and support initiatives that promote responsible fabric production and consumption. By encouraging eco-friendly manufacturing practices and exploring innovative solutions, we can work towards a more sustainable future for the textile and apparel industries.

Environmental Concerns Associated with Synthetic Fabrics

The main environmental concern associated with synthetic fabrics is their heavy reliance on non-renewable fossil fuels as raw materials. The production of polyester, nylon, and acrylic fibers involves a resource-intensive process that contributes to greenhouse gas emissions and exacerbates the global climate crisis.

Additionally, these synthetic fabrics are not biodegradable, leading to a persistent environmental problem. When polyester, nylon, and acrylic garments are discarded, they often end up in landfills, where they can take hundreds of years to decompose. Furthermore, the decomposition of these materials can release harmful microplastics into the environment, posing a threat to marine life, destroying ecosystems, and ultimately, affecting human health. 

To address these concerns, there is a growing need for more eco-friendly alternatives. Manufacturers are exploring options such as recycled polyester, bio-based nylon, and plant-based alternatives like Tencel or hemp. Additionally, promoting circular economy practices, such as recycling and upcycling old clothing, can help reduce the environmental impact of these fabrics. We started this Textile Talk series so that we can be a part of the conversation and hopefully encourage conscious consumption within the sewing community! 

When to Choose Synthetic Fabrics

Despite sustainability concerns, there are some instances where picking a synthetic fabric may be the best choice for your project. Let's look at some examples! 

  1. Swimwear/Activewear: Polyester and nylon are popular choices for these applications for their durability, quick-drying, ability to maintain their shape, and resistance to chemical and sun damage. There isn't a natural alternative that can fully replace synthetics in this regard, especially when it comes to swimwear. 
  2. Tents and Outdoor Gear: Polyester and nylon fabrics are favored for tents, backpacks, and other outdoor gear due to their lightweight and water-resistant properties. They can also be useful for outdoor furniture, awnings, and similar applications. Natural fiber fabrics can be coated and treated to possess similar properties, but they are not as lightweight, they are often much more expensive, and some of these coatings can make them just as environmentally concerning as synthetics. There are some great sustainable options (like beeswax-coated cotton) but they can't replace synthetics in all applications.

  3. Formalwear: While there are natural options for satin, chiffon, and organza, they are often more expensive than their synthetic counterparts. Because synthetic fibers can be produced with a lustrous sheen, they can make very attractive formal fabrics at an affordable price! This makes them a popular and practical choice for dressmaking. 
    Synthetic Fabrics Uses

As you can see, synthetic fabrics have woven their way into modern life, and for good reason! There are instances where these materials are a very beneficial resource to have. However, their environmental impacts are vast, and we hope that you'll lend a critical eye to synthetics moving forward. Choosing when and where to use a synthetic fabric is a personal decision, but we hope one you'll make consciously and with this information in mind. 

Happy Sewing Friends! 



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