The Rise of Fashion's Obsession with Plastic Fibres

Olivia Gecseg Monday, 8 July 2019

Synthetic fabrics, particularly those made from virgin plastics, might not be how we envisage the sustainable future for fashion – but they offer a surprising source from which to learn from. With over 60% of all clothing manufactured from synthetics, they tell us what consumers want on a broader scale from their textiles and the history of their use in fashion can offer clues as to how to address the non-renewable, non-biodegradable qualities with more sustainable options.

Forming the basis of synthetic textiles are micro, plastic fibres which are now generally accepted to have a widespread damaging environmental impact. But what do we really know about the make-up of synthetic fabrics and their use in the manufacture of clothing? 


Back to the laboratory

Artificial fibres grew (quite literally) out of 19th-century chemical experiments between alcohol and acid, creating repeating molecular structures that form long, stable and strong polymer fibres. Polyester and polyamides emerged in the 1930s following research at the DuPont Fiber Company, the headquarters for the majority of synthetic textile innovation of the 20th century. DuPont decided to focus on polyamides, concentrating on the first commercially manufactured nylon, the “miracle fibre”.

There are synthetic fabrics like rayon, which are made from natural materials. But fabrics like polyester, nylon, acrylic and spandex are produced from non-renewable fossil fuels like petroleum.

Polyester 

Produced from polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, the same man-made polymer found in plastic packaging, including drink and food containers. This explains why companies are able to recycle PET water bottles into textiles. As many polyester garments are produced as a blend, recycling the fibre is challenging - if not often impossible - as the elements must be separated before they are able to be recycled.

Polyester shouldered bad fashion press in the 1970s after it was used to make the cheap, uncomfortable suits popular at the time. Unbreathable and scratchy, polyester nonetheless won popularity with its easy-care qualities. The fabric’s wrinkle-free, strong, quick-drying, non-shrinking and non-stretching properties catered for a generation who craved liberation from the ironing board and other tiresome laundry chores. 

Polyester became fast fashion’s darling, allowing for designs that hold their shape (think permanent press suit trousers) without excessive maintenance. It is also used as a blending fibre to reduce costs associated with 100% natural textiles. Polyester revolutionised sports and leisure wear, used in the manufacture of high-performance fleeces, swimsuits and athletic clothing due to its lack of absorbency as a fibre which stops clothing sticking to the body when it's wet. 

Nylon

Developed in the 1930s, nylon is the first known fully synthetic fibre, made entirely from petrochemicals. Nylon was marketed without a trademark, intentionally inviting customers to associate it with raw materials like wood and glass, not synthetics.

The DuPont company focused singularly on the women’s hosiery market, promoting nylon stockings as far stronger and more affordable than silk. The campaign was a success - 64 million pairs of nylon stockings were sold in the first year they became commercially available (1940-41).

Nylon had other, more practical applications too, and not long after they came to market, women were encouraged to donate their nylon stockings to the wartime effort, to be recycled back into military products, like parachutes and ropes. After the war, nylon was more widely applied to fashion garments and underwear, feeding into the taste for more durable, affordable and lightweight fabrics. Today, nylon variants are preferred for stretchy, stain resistant, absorbent fabrics.

Spandex (AKA Lycra)

Spandex is essentially a stretchy version of nylon. It has all the strength of polyester but acts like rubber and can stretch up to five times its length. 

Despite its strength, the stretchy properties aren’t long-lasting which leads to a short lifespan of clothing, exacerbated by exposure to heat from washing machines and dryers. Spandex is not biodegradable and there’s little infrastructure in place for recycling waste spandex.

It’s been reported that 80% of garments bought in the US contain some element of spandex, and it's not just in skin-tight sportswear that you can find it lurking. Cotton products are increasingly made with spandex to make them more form fitting for fashion and to increase comfort. 

Acrylic

Named after the shortened version of its key ingredient, acrylonitrile, AKA vinyl cyanide, and if that name sounds troubling, there are also a number of health implications revealed by studies into acrylic. These manifest both during the manufacturing process and when worn on the body. The release of microfibre particles when acrylic is washed is purportedly 1.5 times higher than polyester

So how can acrylic still be so popular? It has a wool-like texture, meaning its soft, light and traps heat well. Therefore it’s used to make warmer clothing, like jackets and jumpers, sometimes replacing cashmere as a cheaper alternative. It’s also a key component of faux fur (meaning it’s probably just better to go fur-free!)

Organza and Taffeta 

These fabrics share an interesting history, both originating as luxurious and lustrous silk fabrics which today have been transformed into cheap and cheerful plastic versions of themselves thanks to plastic textile technology. Although available still in their original 100% natural formats, more widespread use in evening gowns and bridal wear is made possible because they can be woven with plastic filament fibres like polyester or nylon to create more affordable and practical options. Taffeta can also be made with rayon.

In earlier eras, the sheer and shiny organza was used sparingly as an adornment to dresses, but today it’s used in the construction of entire dresses. Taffeta’s reputation is in its iridescent sheen and the ability to keep its shape - it also has some amazing practical applications, found in WWII parachutes, as a lining fabric, and in sleeping bags and tents.

Final thoughts

Thanks to those robust 1940s marketing campaigns, there are still legacy assumptions about synthetic and natural fabrics, for example, that nylon is indestructible and linen is just a nightmare to iron! Our mission today has to be to change those perceptions to encourage fewer plastic fibres entering our clothing systems.

Unfortunately, what emerges from these examples, is that affordability is an overarching factor deciding the use of synthetic, plastic-based textiles, and this is likely to reach far into the future. Although the recycling situation for plastic-based textiles is complex, we will need to rely on these advancing technologies as a solution to the waste and pollution issues caused by polyester et al. What we can do for now, is to support these solutions, and in the meantime continue to promote methods, such as upcycling, as an alternative to sending non-biodegradable clothes to landfill.

 

Additional Reading

Free: Want to know more about the damaging effects of synthetic fabric on the environment? Check out our free article on the topic here.

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