Clothing Content 101: Synthetic Fibers

Last week I discussed natural fibers, what they are, where they come from, and the pros and cons of wearing them. Most of us are familiar with natural fibers, it's synthetics that can get a bit tricky. This week I am going to break down the most common synthetic manmade fibers you may come across when reading your clothing label. How often do you read your clothing label? Check yours now. What does it say? Where does it come from? How was it made? After reading last week's and this week's post you should be able to answer.

Synthetic Fibers

Synthetic fibers are made from oil, chemicals, or derived from a plant but undergone a chemical process to turn it into a useable fiber. These fibers were a great development due to their strength and flexibility to adapt properties such as: water resistance, stain resistance, shrink resistance, abrasion resistance, etc. Synthetic fibers were also cheaper and quicker to develop putting them in high demand for fast fashion and low target priced items. I'd like to think at the time of the development of synthetic fibers we didn't know about microplastics, the effects of the chemicals used (many carcinogenic), or that these would take hundreds of years to decompose. Synthetics have their benefits, but I try to stick with natural fibers when shopping first hand. There was a study done in California that confirmed 67% of all species tested from fish markets in California contained microplastics (Fibershed).


One of the most common synthetic fibers, used in 60% of our garments, it requires 359 million barrels of oil every year. Polyester accounts for 282 billion kilograms of carbon dioxide emissions, 3x the amount of cotton. (Fibershed). Polyester is made from oil using fossil fuels (plastic). Polyester is strong, and durable but not breathable. The process is chemical intensive and highly impactful on the environment. Polyester takes hundreds of years to biodegrade but is cheap to produce and is especially common within fast fashion. Recycled polyester is now being used more, which is better alternative to polyester by giving it a second life.

See the image below of a photo I took at an event at Everlane explaining the process of using recycled plastic bottles shredded into pellets, then into crystals, then into a yarn, then into clothing.


Rayon is made from wood pulp but undergoes a chemical process making it man made. Modal, Viscose, and Lyocell are other forms of Rayon. The way of processing slightly varies leaving the fibers at different shapes, sizes, and properties. Rayon can be manipulated to be smooth like silk, scruffy like wool, and soft like cotton. The process of dissolving the wood pulp to create rayon exposes workers to inhaling the fumes and in 2013 it was banned in the US for being too dangerous (fibershed). These fibers also take responsibility for deforestation, start looking to see if there is any information stating that the wood used to create the fibers was sustainably sourced. Tencel lyocell, Tencel modal, and Refibra are eco friendly alternatives to rayon used by many retailers such as Patagonia, Eileen Fisher, and Athleta.


Nylon was first created in the late 1930's used for toothbrush bristles, women's stockings, and later for parachutes for the military. Nylon is made from plastic polymers, that can be melted and processed to have different properties. Nylon is commonly mixed with other fibers like cotton, rayon, or polyester. Nylon is strong, flame resistant, and wrinkle resistant. Similar to polyester but more expensive - polyester dominated the market and nylon is not as popular in clothing today. Nylon is still commonly used in other items such as tires and carpets.

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Acrylic is made form polymers formed by acrylonitrile or vinyl cyanide. Vinyl cyanide is a carcinogen leaving the workers who produce acrylic at a high risk for health issues. Acrylic is not biodegradable and out of every fiber I have talked about, I would avoid this one more than any other. The European Commission's Joint Research Centre designated Acrylic as the most toxic fabric to be produced in the world (fibershed). Acrylic sheds more microplastics than any other synthetic fiber. Acrylic is known for its soft, fuzzy, wool like texture, commonly used for sweaters, fake fur and fleece like fabrics. Acrylic is also highly flammable.


Spandex or elastane is extremely stretchy with a rubber like texture. It is often blended with other fabrics. For example spandex and cotton blended to make a stretch denim or spandex and polyester to make activewear. Spandex isn't very durable, making your clothes that have it not last as long. Spandex is also not biodegradable, uses energy and carcinogens to create. Spandex is heavily saturated within the fashion industry because everyone loves a little stretch. Fun fact: Spandex is an anagram of the word expands. Sorona is an upcoming spandex alternative made from corn, which I may go further into in next week's post.

Thank you for reading! I hope I was able to teach you something new and help assist you on future clothing purchases.


Degree from the Fashion Institute of Technology (lol) Burgess, Rebecca, Fibershed