Synthetic fiber

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Synthetic fibers or synthetic fibres (in British English; see spelling differences) are fibers made by humans through chemical synthesis, as opposed to natural fibers that are directly derived from living organisms, such as plants (like cotton) or fur from animals. They are the result of extensive research by scientists to replicate naturally occurring animal and plant fibers. In general, synthetic fibers are created by extruding fiber-forming materials through spinnerets, forming a fiber. These are called synthetic or artificial fibers. The word polymer comes from a Greek prefix "poly" which means "many" and suffix "mer" which means "single units". (Note: each single unit of a polymer is called a monomer).


Early experiments

Joseph Swan created the first synthetic fiber. Joseph Wilson Swan.jpg
Joseph Swan created the first synthetic fiber.

The first fully synthetic fiber was glass. [1] Joseph Swan invented one of the first artificial fibers in the early 1880s; [2] today it would be called semisynthetic in precise usage. His fiber was drawn from a cellulose liquid, formed by chemically modifying the fiber contained in tree bark. The synthetic fiber produced through this process was chemically similar in its potential applications to the carbon filament Swan had developed for his incandescent light bulb, but Swan soon realized the potential of the fiber to revolutionize textile manufacturing. In 1885, he unveiled fabrics he had manufactured from his synthetic material at the International Inventions Exhibition in London. [3]

The next step was taken by Hilaire de Chardonnet, a French engineer and industrialist, who invented the first artificial silk, which he called "Chardonnet silk". In the late 1870s, Chardonnet was working with Louis Pasteur on a remedy to the epidemic that was destroying French silkworms. Failure to clean up a spill in the darkroom resulted in Chardonnet's discovery of nitrocellulose as a potential replacement for real silk. Realizing the value of such a discovery, Chardonnet began to develop his new product, [4] which he displayed at the Paris Exhibition of 1889. [5] Chardonnet's material was extremely flammable, and subsequently replaced with other, more stable materials.

Commercial products

Nylon was first synthesized by Wallace Carothers at DuPont. Wallace Carothers, in the lab.jpg
Nylon was first synthesized by Wallace Carothers at DuPont.

The first successful process was developed in 1894 by English chemist Charles Frederick Cross, and his collaborators Edward John Bevan and Clayton Beadle. They named the fiber "viscose", because the reaction product of carbon disulfide and cellulose in basic conditions gave a highly viscous solution of xanthate. [6] The first commercial viscose rayon was produced by the UK company Courtaulds in 1905. The name "rayon" was adopted in 1924, with "viscose" being used for the viscous organic liquid used to make both rayon and cellophane. A similar product known as cellulose acetate was discovered in 1865. Rayon and acetate are both artificial fibers, but not truly synthetic, being made from wood. [7]

Nylon, the first synthetic fiber in the "fully synthetic" sense of that term,[ citation needed ] was developed by Wallace Carothers, an American researcher at the chemical firm DuPont in the 1930s. It soon made its debut in the United States as a replacement for silk, just in time for the introduction of rationing during World War II. Its novel use as a material for women's stockings overshadowed more practical uses, such as a replacement for the silk in parachutes and other military uses like ropes.

The first polyester fiber was patented in Britain in 1928 by the International General Electric company. [8] It was also produced by British chemists working at the Calico Printers' Association, John Rex Whinfield and James Tennant Dickson, [9] [10] in 1941. They produced and patented one of the first polyester fibers which they named Terylene, also known as Dacron, equal to or surpassing nylon in toughness and resilience. [11] ICI and DuPont went on to produce their own versions of the fiber.

The world production of synthetic fibers was 55.2 million tonnes in 2014. [12]


Synthetic fibers account for about half of all fiber usage, with applications in every field of fiber and textile technology. Although many classes of fibers based on synthetic polymers have been evaluated as potentially valuable commercial products, four of them - nylon, polyester, acrylic and polyolefin - dominate the market. These four account for approximately 98 percent by volume of synthetic fiber production, with polyester alone accounting for around 60 percent. [13]


Synthetic fibers are more durable than most natural fibers and will readily pick-up different dyes. In addition, many synthetic fibers offer consumer-friendly functions such as stretching, waterproofing and stain resistance. Sunlight, moisture, and oils from human skin cause all fibers to break down and wear away. Natural fibers tend to be much more sensitive than synthetic blends. This is mainly because natural products are biodegradable. Natural fibers are susceptible to larval insect infestation; synthetic fibers are not a good food source for fabric-damaging insects. [ citation needed ]

Compared to natural fibers, many synthetic fibers are more water-resistant and stain-resistant. Some are even specially enhanced to withstand damage from water or stains.


A device for spinning Viscose Rayon dating from 1901 Viscose Rayon spinning machine.JPG
A device for spinning Viscose Rayon dating from 1901

Most of synthetic fibers' disadvantages are related to their low melting temperature:

Common synthetic fibers

Common synthetic fibers include:

Specialty synthetic fibers include:

[ citation needed ]

Other synthetic materials used in fibers include:

Modern fibers that are made from older artificial materials include:

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Textile</span> Various fiber-based materials

Textile is an umbrella term that includes various fiber-based materials, including fibers, yarns, filaments, threads, different fabric types, etc. At first, the word "textiles" only referred to woven fabrics. However, weaving is not the only manufacturing method, and many other methods were later developed to form textile structures based on their intended use. Knitting and non-woven are other popular types of fabric manufacturing. In the contemporary world, textiles satisfy the material needs for versatile applications, from simple daily clothing to bulletproof jackets, spacesuits, and doctor's gowns.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Yarn</span> Long continuous length of interlocked fibres

Yarn is a long continuous length of interlocked fibres, used in sewing, crocheting, knitting, weaving, embroidery, ropemaking, and the production of textiles. Thread is a type of yarn intended for sewing by hand or machine. Modern manufactured sewing threads may be finished with wax or other lubricants to withstand the stresses involved in sewing. Embroidery threads are yarns specifically designed for needlework. Yarn can be made of a number of natural or synthetic materials, and comes in a variety of colors and thicknesses. Although yarn may be dyed different colours, most yarns are solid coloured with a uniform hue.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Fiber</span> Natural or synthetic substance made of long, thin filaments

Fiber or fibre is a natural or artificial substance that is significantly longer than it is wide. Fibers are often used in the manufacture of other materials. The strongest engineering materials often incorporate fibers, for example carbon fiber and ultra-high-molecular-weight polyethylene.

Cellophane is a thin, transparent sheet made of regenerated cellulose. Its low permeability to air, oils, greases, bacteria, and liquid water makes it useful for food packaging. Cellophane is highly permeable to water vapour, but may be coated with nitrocellulose lacquer to prevent this.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Rayon</span> Cellulose-based semi-synthetic fiber

Rayon is a semi-synthetic fiber, made from natural sources of regenerated cellulose, such as wood and related agricultural products. It has the same molecular structure as cellulose. It is also called viscose. Many types and grades of viscose fibers and films exist. Some imitate the feel and texture of natural fibers such as silk, wool, cotton, and linen. The types that resemble silk are often called artificial silk.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Cellulose acetate</span> Organic compounds which are acetate esters of cellulose

In biochemistry, cellulose acetate refers to any acetate ester of cellulose, usually cellulose diacetate. It was first prepared in 1865. A bioplastic, cellulose acetate is used as a film base in photography, as a component in some coatings, and as a frame material for eyeglasses; it is also used as a synthetic fiber in the manufacture of cigarette filters and playing cards. In photographic film, cellulose acetate film replaced nitrate film in the 1950s, being far less flammable and cheaper to produce.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Lyocell</span> Regenerated cellulose fiber made from dissolving pulp

Lyocell is a semi-synthetic fiber used to make textiles for clothing and other purposes. It is a form of regenerated cellulose made by dissolving pulp and dry jet-wet spinning. Unlike rayon made by some of the more common viscose processes, Lyocell production does not use carbon disulfide, which is toxic to workers and the environment. Lyocell was originally trademarked as Tencel in 1982.

Polymer chemistry is a sub-discipline of chemistry that focuses on the structures of chemicals, chemical synthesis, and chemical and physical properties of polymers and macromolecules. The principles and methods used within polymer chemistry are also applicable through a wide range of other chemistry sub-disciplines like organic chemistry, analytical chemistry, and physical chemistry. Many materials have polymeric structures, from fully inorganic metals and ceramics to DNA and other biological molecules. However, polymer chemistry is typically related to synthetic and organic compositions. Synthetic polymers are ubiquitous in commercial materials and products in everyday use, such as plastics, and rubbers, and are major components of composite materials. Polymer chemistry can also be included in the broader fields of polymer science or even nanotechnology, both of which can be described as encompassing polymer physics and polymer engineering.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Artificial plants</span> Imitations of natural plants used for commercial or residential decoration

Artificial plants are imitations of natural plants used for commercial or residential decoration. They are sometimes made for scientific purposes. Artificial plants vary widely from mass-produced varieties that are distinguishable from real plants by casual observation to highly detailed botanical or artistic specimens.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Polyester</span> Category of polymers, in which the monomers are joined together by ester links

Polyester is a category of polymers that contain the ester functional group in every repeat unit of their main chain. As a specific material, it most commonly refers to a type called polyethylene terephthalate (PET). Polyesters include naturally occurring chemicals, such as in plants and insects, as well as synthetics such as polybutyrate. Natural polyesters and a few synthetic ones are biodegradable, but most synthetic polyesters are not. Synthetic polyesters are used extensively in clothing.

Courtaulds was a United Kingdom-based manufacturer of fabric, clothing, artificial fibres, and chemicals. It was established in 1794 and became the world's leading man-made fibre production company before being broken up in 1990 into Courtaulds plc and Courtaulds Textiles Ltd.

Morada Limited is a textile company based in Altham, Lancashire. Morada specializes in curtains.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Artificial silk</span>

Artificial silk or art silk is any synthetic fiber which resembles silk, but typically costs less to produce. Frequently, "artificial silk" is just a synonym for rayon. When made out of bamboo viscose it is also sometimes called bamboo silk.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Bamboo textile</span> Textile made from various parts of the bamboo plant

Bamboo textile is any cloth, yarn or clothing made from bamboo fibres. While historically used only for structural elements, such as bustles and the ribs of corsets, in recent years different technologies have been developed that allow bamboo fibre to be used for a wide range of textile and fashion applications.

Many materials have been used to make garments throughout history. Grasses, furs and much more complex and exotic materials have been used. Cultures like the Arctic Circle, make their wardrobes out of prepared and decorated furs and skins.[1] Different cultures have added cloth to leather and skins as a way to replace real leather. A wide range of fibers, including natural, cellulose, and synthetic fibers, can be used to weave or knit cloth.

Cellulose fibers are fibers made with ethers or esters of cellulose, which can be obtained from the bark, wood or leaves of plants, or from other plant-based material. In addition to cellulose, the fibers may also contain hemicellulose and lignin, with different percentages of these components altering the mechanical properties of the fibers.

John Rex Whinfield CBE was a British chemist. Together with James Tennant Dickson, Whinfield investigated polyesters and produced and patented the first polyester fibre in 1941, which they named Terylene equal to or surpassing nylon in toughness and resilience. He was born in Accrington, but moved out of town before the age of 4.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Max Fremery</span> German chemist and entrepreneur

Max Fremery was a German chemist and industrialist. He was one of the founders of the Vereinigte Glanzstoff-Fabriken (VGF) in 1899. VGF became a major manufacturer of artificial fibers.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Coex (material)</span>

Coex is a biopolymer with flame-retardant properties derived from the functionalization of cellulosic fibers such as cotton, linen, jute, cannabis, coconut, ramie, bamboo, raffia palm, stipa, abacà, sisal, nettle and kapok. The treatment effectiveness was also proven on wood and semi-synthetic fibers such as cellulose acetate, cellulose triacetate, viscose, modal, lyocell and cupro.

A blend is a mixture of two or more fibers. In yarn spinning, different compositions, lengths, diameters, or colors may be combined to create a blend. Blended textiles are fabrics or yarns produced with a combination of two or more types of different fibers, or yarns to obtain desired traits and aesthetics. Blending is possible at various stages of textile manufacturing. The term, blend, refers to spun fibers or a fabric composed of such fibers. There are several synonymous terms: a combination yarn is made up of two strands of different fibers twisted together to form a ply; a mixture or mixed cloth refers to blended cloths in which different types of yarns are used in warp and weft sides.


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Further reading