Electrostatics – or why clothes release sparks
Electrostatic: Charged silk fringes of a Pavlovo Russian wool scarf resist gravity. They are orientated nearly parallel to the ground, and point towards a fur.
In this post
  1. Blue sparks
  2. Electrostatics and the physics of clothes
  3. Tips to reduce electrostatic charging of clothes
  4. Wrap up

Blue sparks

Yesterday evening, we came home from dancing to a live band. I took my key out of my dance bag and wanted to put it into the lock. There it was again. The typical winter phenomenon of the little blue spark in dry cold weather that sometimes even occurs when little twigs touch each other in calm wind. When I hit the lock with the key, electrical charge was released.

Electrostatics and the physics of clothes

Now what has this quite normal event to do with fashion and style? On the first view nothing, but on second view a lot. It makes any synthetic fabric clinch, and drives women loving and/or having to wear skirts/dresses despite of cold weather up the wall. Everyone who every used a dryer probably has come across that some fabrics stick to each other and electrical charge is released when one pulls them apart. The “key event” also reminded me of a comment by Aileen on 40+ Style’s interview with me, and that I had thought I should write a post about it. Well, let’s dwell down to the physics of these electric shocks.

The old Greeks already realized that some materials like to attract small, light particles after they have been rubbed. One of these materials, amber, they even gave the name electron (Greek ήλεκτρον). The materials, or in our case fabrics, act on each other by electrostatically induced forces between an electron and a proton. This force is about 36 orders of magnitude larger than the gravity force!

electrstatics why clothes release sparks post banner showing a spark in the dark

Rubbing two non-conductive fabrics can produce static electricity. This “rubbing” happens unintentionally between layers of clothes whenever you move. However, the build-up of static electricity is not alone caused by the friction. Two non-conductive fabrics also can become charged by being worn on top of each other. What actually happens is that a charge builds up on the fabric due to the contact with the other fabric. Thus, a charge exchange occurs always when two fabrics are separated that were in contact with each other. However, we only notice the effects of charge exchange (the little blue spark) when at least one of the fabrics has a huge resistance to electrical flow. Concretely speaking, the transfer of electrical charges from or to the hugely resistant fabric is sort on hold long enough for the effects of electrostatics to be audible and visible by little blue sparks. It even may happen when you pull off a sweater. When it happens the charges remain on the fabric until they either discharge producing these sparks or are conducted to ground. In both cases, the charge is neutralized. Some people may also have a body chemistry that leads to an access of ions. In summary, the familiar phenomenon of the static ‘shock’ is nothing else than the discharge due to the neutralization of charge built up in the fabrics from contact with non-conductive fabrics. It is a natural law.

Typically winter fabrics like, for instance, tweed or a knitted wool sweater,  have a relatively rough texture. Thus, charging through contact takes much longer than charging through friction among these fabrics. However, their rubbing on each other or on dry skin enhances the amount of adhesive contact between them or between them and the skin.

Now what to do about potential annoying discharge? Insulators, for instance, rubber, wood, or plastic are materials that do not conduct electricity, but can generate, and hold a surface charge. Thus, they rarely produce a charge imbalance. This means when wearing an insulating fabric the charge that is transferred during contact with another fabric stays on the respective fabric. Well, the above is the physical analysis and does not seem to be a perfect solution.

Tips to reduce electrostatic charging of clothes

Of course, one cannot change physical laws. However, one can try at least to minimize that their process occurs. Now translated into our fashion world the above advices for reduction mean:

  • Moisturize your skin as fabrics rubbing against dry skin lead to charging
  • Wear cotton, wool, or silk underwear instead of synthetic underwear
  • Watch your shoes soles as some synthetic rubber soles or synthetic heels generate a lot of static electricity. On dry cold days avoid wearing those shoes that you identified to cause sparks
  • Try to “discharge” by touching wood before you unlock the door/touch metal

Wrap up

Finally, something I never tested myself and never will test as I consider it a big mess. Anyhow, the story is at least fun reading. And you deserve a laugh after being so brave reading through all the physics related to clothes and sparks. One dry, cold 40 below winter day at a dance place, a dance girl friend (who was born and raised in Fairbanks) asked me, whether I have some skin lotion or hair spray. I looked quite irritated about these alternatives. She explained she wanted  “to spread it over her panty hose so the dress does not stick to it.” Unfortunately, nobody had lotion or hair spray (which I considered a hint that this method does not work). As I said, I never tried her trick, and therefore do not recommend it. However, I have to admit that I had wished I had had lotion or hair spray for her. Just to see whether it really works. 🙂

Photo: N. Mölders

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