It seems these days everyone is wearing plastic. Polyester and other synthetics have made inroads in apparel in ways not seen since the days of double-knit leisure suits and Nik Nik shirts. After the crash in double-knits in the 1970s, polyester suffered from a terrible reputation. It smelled bad (especially under the arms, no kidding), was hot and had an unnatural slimy hand. Today, it’s different: incredibly, polyester is considered green, wicks well and is used in a wide range of garments. In fact, over the past fifteen years or so, synthetics have gobbled back the entire market share lost in the 1970s. How on earth did this happen?
In the old days, synthetic fiber companies produced what was collectively known as “man-made fibers.” Today, this has been relabeled to read less chauvinistically as “manufactured fibers.” There are two broad segmentations in the manufactured fiber industry: synthetic and artificial fibers. The synthetic category is comprised of fibers such as polyester, nylon, acrylic, and olefin, while the artificial category is made up of acetate and rayon. Synthetics are made (in varying degrees) using petroleum-derived raw materials such as ethylene glycol, caprolactam, etc. Often times, these fibers are referred to as noncellulosic fibers – meaning they are not naturally derived. On the other hand, artificial fibers are cellulosic in that the raw materials originate in nature, such as wood pulp, but are then subjected to powerful chemicals to break down wood pulp into cellulosic cotton-like fibers.
In either case, manufactured fibers have successfully filled production niches where natural fibers do not perform particularly well. For example, polyester, nylon and rayon are used in tire cord, while acetate is used in cigar filters and olefin is used in outdoor carpets, garbage bags, and rugs. Moreover, manufactured fibers have enjoyed robust sales in various home textile and industrial applications over the years. These are versatile productts well suited to a wide range of end use applications.
From the outset of their invention, manufactured fibers have also enjoyed a sizable share of the global apparel market. Rayon, for example, was first seen as a replacement for silk; so it was widely used in women’s hosiery and intimate clothing. Acetate is often used in garment linings. Polyester and nylon are often used in outerwear as both a cold weather insulator, luggage, and rain repellent covers. For many years, acrylic was used as an alternative to wool, so often acrylic was used in sweaters, but also carpets. Over the years, however, use of these fibers has expanded in apparel end uses in a blended form with cotton. Easy care shirts, for example, were first created using a 60%-40% cotton/polyester blended fabric. Cotton feels good next to the skin, but wrinkles, while polyester resists wrinkling. Many feel a blended fabric gives consumers the best of both worlds.