Man-made fibers are created from chemicals taken from fossil fuels like coal, oil, and other chemicals known as petrochemicals. They are known as synthetic fibers and are totally man-made and the opposite of natural fibers. A secondary group, known as semi-synthetic man-made fibers are made from a combination of chemicals and plant material called cellulose. This process is known as semi-synthetic because it is a combination of natural and synthetic materials.
Man-made fibers have different qualities to natural fibers and are sought after by manufacturers for these qualities. The synthetic fibers create smooth, lightweight, quick-drying, strong and more importantly, inexpensive fabrics.
There are several types of man-made fibers, but the following are probably the most common and the fibers used most often in the manufacture of fabric.
Nylon Man-Made Fibers
Nylon is a strong, water-resistant man-made fibers made from petrochemicals. It is known as a thermoplastic fiber. Nylon is used for all kinds of items from bag linings to invisible thread. Nylon is strong and fast drying, but it melts in high temperatures.
Properties of Nylon Fabric
- Water-resistant so suitable for outdoor use.
- Good for camping products, wind jackets, ski jackets, outdoor furniture cushions and stockings.
- Suitable for thin to thick fabrics.
- Can be blended with other fibers to reduce fabric costs.
Caring for Nylon Fabric
Because nylon is made of man-made fibers, it should be washed in cold water and mild detergents. Never use chemicals like bleach which can destroy the fibers. For delicates made of nylon, a mesh bag can be used in a washing machine. Otherwise, hand washing is often recommended.
It is best not to put nylon fabric in the dryer but rather to drip dry on a line in the shade. A major advantage of using nylon is that it is fast drying and often when it comes out of a washing spin cycle it feels dry already.
Always check the tag and care instructions before you wash nylon items as incorrect washing can lead to pilling of the fabric resulting in a reduction in its life.
Polyester Man-Made Fibers
This fiber, also made from petrochemicals, is processed from a polymer substance. Polyester is comprised of man-made fibers and has the advantage of being able to blend with other fibers.
Poly-cotton is a blend of polyester and cotton and is extremely common and reasonably priced. It is a strong fiber, but with its ability to blend, can produce fabrics ideal for dressmaking. The strong fiber of polyester is used to manufacture sports clothing.
Properties of Polyester Fabrics
- Wrinkle-resistant - This is one reason polyester is added to many natural fibers. Poly cotton fabric is much less prone to wrinkling than pure cotton.
- Can be blended with other fabrics to reduce fabric costs.
- Used for cheap clothing as a silk substitute and is a component of most swim and activewear fabrics.
Caring for Polyester Fabric
Most polyester man-made fibers and fabrics and poly blends can be washed in a machine with a gentle detergent. If the fabric is stretch, turn it inside out to prevent it from catching on other items.
Some polyester fabrics can be mildly bleached but do a test first and check the label. Polyester blends can often be put in a dryer provided it is on a low setting and you do not overdry. 100% polyester should not be ironed but poly blends may be ironed on low settings.
Always check the tag and care instructions of polyester fabrics as there may be considerable differences depending on the fibers it is blended with. 100% polyester is much more delicate than a poly-cotton blend.
Acrylic Man-Made Fibers
Acrylics are man-made fibers used to make cheap wool substitutes. This fiber is crease-resistant and easy to care for. Moths and insects are not attracted to acrylics like to their wool counterparts.
Properties of Acrylic Fabric
- Used for sweaters, knits, coats, furnishing fabrics, carpets.
- May be blended with other natural fibers like wool to reduce fabric costs.
- Not as soft as wool.
Caring Instructions for Acrylic Fabrics
Unlike wool, clothing made from acrylic may be machine washable and is easier to care for. Acrylic fabrics are less likely than wool to shrink and may be washed in a washing machine on a cold gentle cycle with a gentle detergent. Care must be taken with wool-acrylic blends as the wool component may mean that the garment is sensitive to shrinking if it is exposed to hot water or a dryer.
Always check the tag and care instructions particularly when acrylic is blended with wool. The higher the percentage of wool, the more delicate the fabric must be considered.
Viscose or Rayon Man-Made Fibers
Rayon and viscose are the same fiber. They are known as regenerated or semi man-made fibers because it is made of chemical and plant material from wood pulp.
Viscose or rayon imitates the texture and the feel of cotton, linen or wool fibers. It is able to blend well with cotton, wool and linen. This makes rayon a very versatile fiber for fabric production.
Properties of Rayon Fabrics
- Considered cool to wear and is used in a lot of clothing in tropical climates.
- Drapes beautifully so is flattering for women's clothing production. Many of the samples made in my women sewing patterns were made in rayon as it drapes the body, flattering all shapes. It does not add bulk.
- Can be blended with many other fibers and makes a beautiful stretch fabric.
- Rayon takes dye well and can be dyed brilliant colors.
- Rayon is soft and nice to wear. Modal is a type of rayon that is used in many clothing productions for stretch items such as t-shirts.
Caring for Rayon Fabric
Rayon is prone to considerable shrinkage so care must be taken when washing. It is best to hand wash in cold water and then drip dry on a line inside. Due to the short fiber lengths, it tends to wrinkle easily. Using a steamer can be much easier than ironing rayon.
Always check the tag and care instructions as the washing and care may vary according to the other fibers the rayon is blended with.
This fiber is a combination of cellulose and acetic acid. Like rayon, it is considered as semi-synthetic man-made fiber as the cellulose is obtained from wood pulp. It can be considered a natural plastic. The acetic acid is a dry, granular substance that can be spun when it is dissolved in acetone. Cellulose acetate makes up into a smooth soft fabric often known as ‘cheap silk’
Properties of Cellulose Acetate Fabric
- Drapes nicely.
- Wrinkles easily.
- Not as commonly used for clothing as rayon.
Caring for Cellulose Acetate Fabric
Many cellulose acetate fabrics are dry clean only so always check the tag first. This fabric is sensitive to heat so if the tag specifies to hand wash, it will likely be in cold water and not to be put in the dryer.
Man-Made Fibers - In Conclusion
These five man-made fibers are used to manufacture many fabric options. The fiber content and blending of the fabric will determine how you care for the fabric. Clothing labels should display fiber content so take time to check the manufacturer's labels. If the label says 60% polyester and 40% cotton, it is semi-synthetic and not a natural fiber, but a blend of fibers. Every label should have this information to show what man-made fibers have been used to manufacture the fabric.