Human-made fibers consist of polymers from petroleum (synthetics) or plants (regenerated fibers). This post covers what are regenerated fibers, which fabrics belong to this group, why they are also called semi-synthetics, and their production. Read to know what the tags in your garments mean.
Synthetic human-made fibers encompass acrylics, nylon, elastomeric fiber, polyesters, polyolefins, polyurethane, and vinyl. Their polymers stem from petroleum. In the case of man-made regenerated fibers, the polymers stem from the cellulose of plants. They can be cellulose ester fibers, protein or miscellaneous natural polymer fibers. Fabrics from regenerated fibers include acetate, bamboo, cellulose viscose rayon, Cupram-monium rayon, hydrolyzed acetate rayon, Modal, nitro-cellulose rayon, rayon, secondary acetate, Tencel aka Lyocell, and triacetate.
Georges Audemars created the first artificial silk fibers in the mid 1850s. Louis-Marie Hilaire Bernigaud de Grange, Comte de Chardonne invented viscose rayon in 1883 which became a cheap alternative to silk due to its similar drape and texture. In 1892, Charles Fredick Cross and Edward John Bevan received the patent in Britain. The invention of cellulose acetate dates back to 1918. In apparel, cellulose acetate has served alone or in blends for dresses, sportswear, shirts, ties, and underwear.
The production involves breaking down cellulose or wood pulp, followed by polymerization during the spinning process. Different chemicals serve to create fibers of various physical properties. Because of the involvement of chemicals some people call them semi-synthetics.
The production of acetate, for instance, involves adding glacial acetic acid, acetic anhydride, sulfuric acid, acetone and water to the purified cellulose. The result is white yarn. After weaving, acetate fabrics have very good drape, a soft, cool and smooth feel, and low absorbency.
There exist mechanical and chemical ways to create bamboo fiber. The mechanical process is time-consuming and labor-intensive. The preparation of the fibers namely is similar to that of flax, and the polymerization process is very slow due to mild chemicals. The chemical route is similar to that of synthetics except that the raw material stems from bamboo. Due to the natural source people often consider bamboo as a sustainable fabric for fashion.
Chemicals used at different steps in the process are a 20% solution of sodium hydroxide (NaOH) alkali, and carbon sulfide. Bamboo fabric is soft, breathable (high air permeability), very easy to dye, and moisture absorbing. Furthermore, it is anti-allergic due to its inherent anti-bacterial property.
The response to the health-adverse impacts on workers in the production, and consumer trend to buy environmentally-friendly fabrics, was the development of Tencel and Modal fibers in the 1990s. Their production production process includes the recovery and reuse of the amine oxide added to the wood pulp for polymerization. More on how environment-friendly fashion may be. Typically, Tencel, and Modal stem from birch or eucalyptus and beech pulp, respectively.
Tencel and Modal fabrics are soft with a leather-like touch, have good wicking property, very good breathability, and keep the skin cool and dry.
All fabrics from regenerated fibers are wrinkle-resistant. These fabrics have higher uniformity, a brighter luster, softer feel, and are anti-static and more absorbent than fabrics from natural fibers like for instance hemp fiber textiles, cotton, or wool fabric. More on why some clothes are electrostatic.
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