Synthetic fibers are manufactured from chemicals derived from water, coal, and petroleum, through a process known as polymerization. Synthetic fibers, which are man-made noncellulosic fibers, look, feel, and behave very differently from natural fibers. Synthetic fibers include polyester, nylon, acrylic, and spandex. By contrast, man-made cellulosic fibers (which are rayon, acetate, and triacetate), more strongly resemble natural fibers than do synthetic fibers. In general, synthetic fibers have a plastic appearance and to not breathe; that is, they trap heat and moisture. They are generally uncomfortable to wear, especially when layers of clothing are worn. Synthetic fabrics are generally inappropriate for authentic historical reproduction clothing, but can be used as inexpensive alternatives for historically inspired, costumey costume, or modern use. However, their wearing disadvantages remain, as well as the difficulties in removing stains from synthetics, and the shredding problems that the fabrics often have, which makes them difficult to sew.
About “Man-Made” Versus “Synthetic” Fibers:
“Many people refer to the man-made cellulosic fabrics–rayon, acetate, and triacetate–as man-made, and the man-made noncellulosic fabrics–nylon, polyester, acrylic, etc.–as synthetic. These are useful terms that may help you remember that, although man-made, rayon and acetate behave more like natural fabrics than do the synthetics, such as nylon and polyester.” (Ingham and Covey, The Costume Technician’s Handbook, page 68)
For more information about man-made cellulosic fibers, see the entry on rayon fiber.
About Synthetic (Noncellulosic) Fibers:
“Noncellulosic man-made fabrics are based on a chemical reaction called polymerization and are derived mainly from the basic chemicals found in water, coal, and petroleum. The production of man-made noncellulosic fabrics is highly complex. As with man-made cellulosics, the first step is to liquify the base chemical mixture, and the second is to force the resulting solution through the spinneret. The characteristics of the various noncellulosic materials–today twenty generic types are produced worldwide–are attributable to the different chemical structures of the solution and the different processes to which the extruded filament may be subjected.” (Ingham and Covey, The Costume Technician’s Handbook, page 68)
“Acrylic: Commonly soft, light, fluffy fabric construction. Available in sheer fabrics, knits, fleece, fur-like and pile fabrics, and blends with natural and man-made fibers…. Microfibers: Available in acrylic, nylon, polyester, and rayon. Defined as a fiber that has less than 1 denier per filament. Finer than the most delicate silk and very drapeable. Luxurious hand, often silken or suede-like touch…. Nylon: Several types of nylon produce a wide variety of fabric textures, from smooth and crisp to soft and bulky. Available in wide range of fabrics, both woven and knitted…. Polyester: Available in many weights, textures, and weaves; often used in blends and minimum care fabrics…. Spandex: Found in stretchable, flexible, supple fabrics…” (Butterick, Vogue Sewing, pages 52-54)
On Using Man-Made Fabrics for Vintage & Historical Reproductions:
“Because so many modern clothes are made from synthetics, you’re probably used to their essentially plastic appearance. But synthetics make period clothes appear shoddy and inauthentic. Even if the material is partly natural, or used only on one area of one garment. Synthetics also trap heat and moisture. This is an important consideration with period outfits, which are heavier and more layered than modern ones.
“In other words, reproduction fabrics and trims should be made entirely of linen, cotton, wool (including cashmere and other animal-hair fabrics), silk, or a blend of these. (There are some other cellulosic fibers which are seldom found today.) The only exception is rayon, which is cellulose based. Rayon looks most natural blended with silk or cotton. I’m particularly fond of rayon/silk satins and brocades, and cotton velvet over a rayon base. But all-rayon fabrics (especially velvet) can definitely be too shiny.” (Grimble, After a Fashion, page 72)
“In some circumstances, a dressmaker may choose to substitute a high quality man-made fiber in order to replicate a specific weave, color, or textile pattern. This should not be lightly done; it takes detailed research to know when such substitutions are appropriate, and what the compromise entails authenticity-wise. In general, it is best to avoid synthetics.” (Clark, The Dressmaker’s Guide, 2nd ed., page 54)
“The proliferation of synthetics throughout the textile and garment industries continues to pose problems for costume designers and technicians who are in the business of creating stage costumes for plays set in many historical periods, most of which fall before the invention of the wash-and-wear, crease resistant, nonsag ‘miracle’ fabrics. Unfortunately, garments made from nylon, polyester, and acrylic fabrics do not look exactly like garments made from silk, wool, or cotton, especially in motion and under stage lights.” (Ingham and Covey, The Costume Technician’s Handbook, page 59)
For more information about an individual fiber, fabric, or other material, select it on the right side menu for “Fibers, Fabrics, and Materials.” This will bring up all entries which have that tag, including (in most cases) a Glossary post which will offer a definition of that fiber, fabric, or material, and sometimes also offer useful links to outside sources on working with it. For more general information, visit the core entry for the Glossary: Fibers, Fabrics, and Materials. For a directory of all textile glossary posts, go to the Glossary Table of Contents.
- “Synthetic Fiber” on Wikipedia (Remember to read critically!)
- “The Prewash” by Sarai at The Coletterie
- “Quick Look: Satin” by Rachel at The Coletterie
- “Quick Look: Tulle” by Rachel at The Coletterie
- “Quick Look: Jersey” by Rachel at The Coletterie
- “Quick Look: Damask” by Rachel at The Coletterie
- “Quick Look: Brocade” by Rachel at The Coletterie
- “Quick Look: Taffeta” by Rachel at The Coletterie
Print Resources: See the article Glossary: Fibers, Fabrics, and Materials for a list of print resources.
Updated January 10, 2012