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Basic Care Instructions #15: Synthetic Fabrics

  

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BASIC CARE INSTRUCTIONS  #15: Synthetic Fabrics

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This is the 15th in a series of articles on common care instructions for domestic items and materials most often seen in antiques and vintage textiles, including but not limited to housewares and clothing. I hope this care information is helpful to you

You may well know a lot more about the care of domestic items than I can tell you here, but it's nice to have all this information in one place. At the risk of trying your patience, I go into considerable detail in suggesting how to care for your things. 

See our issue BASIC CARE INSTRUCTIONS #1 for information on how to read care labels you may find on vintage fabrics (and you should follow them if you do find them!). All previous articles in the series can be found in our library and in the magazine archives.  

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An Archives staff member shows off the cellulose acetate used for the lamination of documents.

 

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SYNTHETIC FABRICS

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This article discusses synthetic fabrics commonly used in clothing. Synthetic fabric blends have been manufactured since 1894 and commercially used since 1905. 

 For better or worse, synthetics are here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future. Understanding their remarkable nature is of practical utility; it helps us regulate their impact on our health and the environment. 

By and large, most fabrics used today, for tee shirts, shirts, blouses, skirts, and dresses, are synthetic blends of some kind. 

Synthetics have a fascinating history however the properties of synthetics are scattered about, in manufacturer brochures, chemistry books such as Lange's Handbook of Chemistry, and there is some information on Wikipedia. 

Many synthetics that are ubiquitous in clothing are found less often in other products. When it comes to clothing, to use a mycological analogy, new synthetics pop up like mushrooms every day.  

Four synthetic fiber classes currently dominate the entire commercial fibers market. According to Wikipedia, nylon, polyester, acrylic and polyolefin account for approximately 98 percent by volume of all synthetic fiber production, with polyester alone accounting for around 60 per cent. These are all used in clothing. For more information, please see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Synthetic_fiber

In separate articles, I cover common fabrics, and vintage and antique fabric and textiles, including at-home methods for detecting the fabric content of vintage fabric and clothing that have lost their labels. 

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How synthetic fibers become thread and fabric.

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WHAT IS A SYNTHETIC SUBSTANCE?

A "synthetic substance"  is produced by human manipulation of chemistry.

A synthetic substance or synthetic compound refers to a substance that is man-made by synthesis, rather than being produced by nature. However, it may also refer to a substance or compound formed under human control by any chemical reaction, either by chemical synthesis or by biosynthesis.


In my viewpoint, there is no meaning to the word "artificial." Man can
only do what nature permits him to do. Man does not invent anything.
He makes discoveries of principles operative in nature and often finds
ways of generalizing those principles and reapplying them in surprise
directions. That is called invention. But he does not do anything
artificial. Nature has to permit it, and if nature permits it, it
is natural. There is naught which is unnatural.

— R. Buckminster Fuller
From 'Education Automation'


We speak erroneously of “artificial” materials, “synthetics”, and so forth. The basis for this erroneous terminology is the notion that Nature has made certain things which we call natural, and everything else is “man-made”, ergo artificial. But what one learns in chemistry is that Nature wrote all the rules of structuring; man does not invent chemical structuring rules; he only discovers the rules. All the chemist can do is find out what Nature permits, and any substances that are thus developed or discovered are inherently natural. It is very important to remember that. 

— R. Buckminster Fuller
From 'The Comprehensive Man', Ideas and Integrities: A Spontaneous Autobiographical Disclosure (1963), 75-76

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Hopf Fibration By Niles Johnson.

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BELIEVE THE LABELS

By and large, most clothing, bedding, and bath fabrics used today are synthetic blends of some sort.  In any fabric that is a blend of materials, the material with the largest percentage wins. By this I mean that the material with the largest percentage in any blend determines the care, the behavior, and the durability. 

In the case where a label contains no care information, but the label does state the percentage of the various ingredients in the fabric, apply what you know are the care instructions for the fabric ingredient with the largest percentage.  For example, in the case where the label states the fabric is  "80% Cotton / 10% Lycra", then care for the garment / fabric as if it were entirely composed of cotton, because 80% is the highest, or largest percentage of the total.
 
If the garment / fabric has a label containing basic care instructions, then you should follow, to the letter,  the basic care instructions stated on these labels. Don't argue with it. 

Tailored skirts and dresses in any fabric should be professionally dry cleaned for best results.

Unless specifically stated as "washable rayon" on the care label, rayon should be professionally dry cleaned for best results.

Anything containing acetate should be professionally dry cleaned; period.

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Vintage French lingerie advertising showing a bra and panty girdle with garters: Moi Je Vis Avec Elaslip, France.

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WHAT CAUSED THE SYNTHETIC FIBER REVOLUTION?  

Rubber And The Search To Fill Gaps 

Natural rubber, also called India rubber or caoutchouc, is a tree sap. It consists of polymers of the organic compound isoprene, with minor impurities of other organic compounds, plus water. Rubber is currently harvested from rubber trees by collecting the tree's latex sap, in much the same manner as maple sap for syrup is collected from maple trees. The latex is then refined into rubber ready for commercial processing. 

Natural rubber exhibits some unique physical and chemical properties that limit its' potential. For example,  it undergoes phase transformations, state changes, and it strain crystallizes (a phenomenon in which an initially amorphous solid material undergoes a phase transformation due to the application of strain).  One of these changes caused the Challenger disaster, when the American Space Shuttle's flattened o-rings failed to relax to fill a widening gap. 

Uncured natural rubber is sticky, deforms easily when warm, and is brittle when cold.  Rubber is composed of long polymer chains that move independently relative to each other; this is what lets rubber change shape, but not recover its' previous shape. In other words, it has low elasticity. 

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Man ensconced in rubber tiers, on roller skates.

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In an attempt to improve rubber's utility, Charles Goodyear developed vulcanization in 1839, a chemical process for converting natural rubber or related polymers into more durable materials by modifying the polymer with the addition of sulfur or other equivalent curatives or accelerators. Vulcanization crosslinks rubber's long polymer chains, preventing them from moving independently, and as a result, when stress is applied, the vulcanized rubber deforms, but upon release of the stress it reverts to its' original shape.

The discovery of the rubber-sulfur reaction revolutionized the use and applications of rubber, changing the industrial world. Vulcanized rubber solved a long-standing small gap sealing problem between moving machine parts, whose only previous solution was to use leather soaked in oil. The oiled leather only worked  at moderate pressures; above a certain point, machine designers were forced to compromise between the extra friction generated by tighter packing and greater leakage of steam. In 1905, George Oenslager discovered that a derivative of aniline called thiocarbanilide accelerated the reaction of sulfur with rubber, leading to shorter cure times and reducing energy consumption. This breakthrough was almost as fundamental to the development of the rubber industry as Goodyear's sulfur cure, and the science of chemical accelerators and retarders was born. An accelerator speeds up the cure reaction, while a retarder delays it.

Vulcanized materials are less sticky and have superior mechanical properties and today, a vast array of products are made with vulcanized rubber, including tires, shoe soles, hoses, and conveyor belts. Hard vulcanized rubber is sometimes sold under the brand name Ebonite or the genericized former brand term "vulcanite", and is used in making articles such as clarinet and saxophone mouth pieces, bowling balls, and hockey pucks.

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Original 1920 photo from France of a child in his Citroen (voiture enfant, ancienne photo de 1920)

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What we call "Elastic" is rubber produced as a fiber. "Elastic" has excellent elongation and recovery properties and is either woven directly with other yarns into a fabric or used after being covered or coated.  Rubber yarns were used in foundation garments but unfortunately, latex is prone to oxidization, and is readily damaged by age, sunlight, oil, and perspiration. 

Because of these performance limits, the textile industry searched for replacements. Once begun,  the search has never stopped, and the industry has continued to develop a never ending stream of synthetics and synthetic rubbers such as Neoprene (a polymer of chloroprene),  elastomer fiber, and spandex (trade name Lycra).

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Vintage trade advertising published in the USA, England, and France 1941 - 1945: 'Make your rubber last'.

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The two main solvents for rubber are turpentine and naphtha (petroleum). Rubber does not dissolve easily. An ammonia solution can be used to prevent the coagulation of raw latex. Rubber begins to melt at approximately 180 °C (356 °F). Natural rubber is used extensively in many applications and products, either alone or in combination with other materials. In most of its' useful forms, it has a large stretch ratio and high resilience, and is extremely waterproof.

 

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USA Scouts enjoy their trampoline.

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After World War II, the flood of synthetic fibers significantly decreased the use of natural fibers. The trend is reversing however, due to the increase of oil prices and results of voluminous environmental studies detailing the consequences of this cavalier usage. There has been a revival of natural fiber use within the textile, building, plastic and automotive industries. 

For more information, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vulcanization
and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Natural_fiber

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Yellow rubber kitchen gloves worn by the dog as he helps wash the dishes.

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WHAT IS A DENIER?

Many synthetics are processed into fiber filaments that are then sold based on their denier measurements. Fiber or fibre (from the Latin fibra) is a natural or synthetic substance that is significantly longer than it is wide. Silk from silkworm cocoons is a natural example.

The denier is a metric (measurement) for fiber filaments. It is based on a natural reference: a single strand of silk is approximately one denier; a 9000-meter strand of silk weighs about one gram. 

The term denier comes from the French denier, a coin of small value (worth  1⁄12 sou). Applied to yarn, a denier was held to be equal in weight to 1⁄24 ounce (1.2 g). 

Microdenier describes filaments that weigh less than 1 g per 9000 m. A fiber is generally considered a microfiber if it is one denier or less.  

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Long bearded sea captain with his new kitten.

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A one-denier polyester fiber has a diameter of about ten micrometers. In tights and pantyhose, the linear density of yarn used in the manufacturing process determines the opacity of the article in the following categories of commerce: ultra sheer (below 10 denier), sheer (10 to 30 denier), semi-opaque (30 to 40 denier), opaque (40 to 70 denier) and thick opaque (70 denier or higher). 

For single fibers, instead of weighing, a machine called a vibroscope is used. A known length of the fiber (usually 20 mm) is set to vibrate, and its fundamental frequency measured, allowing the calculation of the mass and thus the linear density. 

For more information, please see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Units_of_textile_measurement#Denier
and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fiber

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Standard poodle jumping a vibrating rope.

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COMMON SYNTHETIC FIBERS USED IN CLOTHING

Common synthetic fibers used in clothing include but aren't limited to:
Acetate
Acrylic, Modacrylic, and Acrylic Paints
Kevlar
Lyocell, TENCEL®, and Rayon
Microfiber
Nylon
Olefin
Polar Fleece
Polypropylene
Saran
Spandex
Vetcran
Zylon PBO

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ACETATE

The Federal Trade Commission definition for acetate fiber is "A manufactured fiber in which the fiber-forming substance is cellulose acetate. Where not less than 92 percent of the hydroxyl groups are acetylated, the term triacetate may be used as a generic description of the fiber."  The first U.S. commercial acetate fiber production was in 1924 by the Celanese Corporation. 

Cellulose acetate fiber is one of the earliest synthetic fibers; it's based on cotton or tree pulp cellulose ("biopolymers"). In recent decades, "cellulosic fibers" are being replaced by cheaper petro-based fibers  such as nylon and polyester.  Acetate is similar to rayon and in the past, the two were considered the same textile and vintage clothing labels may not distinguish between them.  Acetate production, however, uses acetic acid, and the two fabrics are now required to be listed distinctly on garment labels. Rayon resists heat while acetate is prone to melting. Acetate fibers rapidly become weak when wet, so acetate must be dry cleaned or it must be laundered with great care by hand-washing. Acetate garments will disintegrate when heated in a tumble dryer. Acetate is breathable so it's often used as a garment lining and for wedding attire.

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Flapper coneheads wearing decorated acetate.

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ACRYLIC, MODACRYLIC & ACRYLIC PAINTS

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Acrylic

DuPont created the first acrylic fibers in 1941 under the trademarked name ORLON but didn't produce them in large quantities until the 1950's. For a fiber to be called "acrylic" in the US, the polymer (polyacrylonitrile) used must specifically contain at least 85% acrylonitrile monomer. Typical comonomers are vinyl acetate or methyl acrylate. 

Acrylic fiber is manufactured as a filament, then cut into short staple lengths similar to wool hairs, and spun into yarn. It comes in a range of derniers and takes dye well. Acrylic can mimic other fibers depending on how it is made. Acrylic fiber is usually lightweight, soft, and warm, and the larvae of clothes moths can't digest it (when blended with wool, however, moths can feed on the wool percentage).

Some acrylic fibers pill and fuzz easily, and acrylic actually lacks a propensity to felt. It is highly flammable. It isn't as warm as wool when wet. Due to a lack of give and stretch, acrylic yarn can be painful to knit and may squeak. 

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Modacrylic

Modacrylic is an attempt to improve upon Acrylic fibers. It's a modified acrylic fiber, a synthetic copolymer that contains between 35% and 85% acrylonitrile monomer.   

The fiber becomes flame retardant when bonded with the modacrylic comonomers vinyl chloride, vinylidene chloride or vinyl bromide. Modacrylic is used in fleece-type fabrics, fake faux fur, wigs, hair extensions, and protective clothing.  Unlike acrylic fiber, modacrylic fibers do not combust; the fibers are difficult to ignite and will self-extinguish. Modacrylic is, however, heat-sensitive, and this allows wigs and hairpieces to be curled and heat styled without damage.  Fibers are heat sensitive and will shrink at 250 °F and will stiffen at temperatures over 300 °F.  Trousers made with modacrylic fibers tend to develop permanent puckers. 

Modacrylic fibers are sensitive; it's important to know how to care for them properly. They're resistant to acids, weak alkalis, organic solvents, moths, mildew, and sunlight. Modacrylic fibers are prone to pilling and matting, and are poor heat conductors. They're highly elastic with high elastic recovery, so hold their shape. They're made in various deniers with varying shrinkage potentials. 

Modacrylic fabrics can be machine washed using warm water, and tumble dried on a low setting. Modacrylic hair pieces can also be dry-cleaned, however, they should not be steamed and should only be tumbled on cold. Some fabrics may also be cleaned using the furrier method (a special non-immersion cleaning process).

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Press photograph from the television show 'Lost In Space', showing Robbie the Robot and June Lockhart, who is wearing a transparent plastic acrylic skirt.

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Acrylic Paints

Acrylic paints became commercially available in the early 1950's, first as acrylic emulsion artists' paints, and subsequently, as indoor and outdoor water-based latex house paints. Latex is the technical term for a suspension of polymer microparticles in water. Later in the 1950's, water-soluble artists' acrylic paints were sold commercially by Liquitex, and modern high-viscosity paints became available in the early 1960s.  For more information, please read https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Acrylic_paint


According to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Acrylic_fiber, there are serious concerns over our use of acrylics.  A team at Plymouth University in the UK spent 12 months analysing what happened when a number of synthetic materials were washed at different temperatures in domestic washing machines, using different combinations of detergents, to quantify the microfibers shed. They found that acrylic was responsible for releasing nearly 730,000 tiny synthetic particles (microplastics) per wash, five times more than polyester-cotton blend fabric, and nearly 1.5 times as many as polyester.

Ecologist Mark Browne discovered something scientifically important after months of tediously examining sediment along shorelines around the world. He noticed fiber waste that no one else had predicted. They were tiny, synthetic, and all over the coastline, with the greatest concentration near sewage outflows. Of the man-made material found on the shoreline, 85% were microfibers, and matched the types of material, such as nylon and acrylic, used in clothing.

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Harry Whittier Frees photograph of a kitten painting a canvas. 

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KEVLAR

Kevlar is the registered trademark for a para-aramid synthetic fiber, related to other aramids such as Nomex and Technora. Developed by Stephanie Kwolek at DuPont in 1965, this high-strength material was first commercially used in the early 1970's as a replacement for steel in racing tires. Typically it's spun into ropes or fabric sheets, or used as an ingredient in composite material components. Kevlar is a well-known component of personal armor such as combat helmets, ballistic face masks, and ballistic vests. Kevlar has also been found to have useful acoustic properties for loudspeaker cones, can be used as an acoustic core on bows for string instruments, and on marching snare drums.  See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kevlar
 

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A skirt and collar made from recycled kevlar, dacron, and mylar sailcoth; clothing design by Allison Cohen.

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LYOCELL, TENCEL®, AND RAYON

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RAYON 

Rayon (introduced in 1894) a.k.a. artificial silk,  is a manufactured regenerated cellulose fiber. Manufacturing rayon generates a considerable amount of pollution. Rayon is made from purified cellulose, primarily from wood pulp, chemically converted into a soluble compound that is then dissolved and forced through a spinneret to produce filaments which are chemically solidified, resulting in synthetic fibers of nearly pure cellulose. Because rayon is manufactured from naturally occurring polymers, it is considered a semi-synthetic fiber. Specific types of rayon include viscose, modal, and lyocell (TENCEL®), each of which has different properties and uses a different manufacturing process. Trade names include "Viscose Rayon" , "MODAL", and TENCEL® . 

Visil rayon is a flame retardant form of viscose  manufactured with silica embedded in the fiber.

TENCEL®'s generic name is lyocell; it's made by a slightly different solvent recovery process that that which is used to manufacture generic rayon. As a result, the U.S. FTC considers it a different fiber from rayon, and classifes it as a sub-category of rayon. More information is below.

Rayon's industrial applications began in 1935, developing substitutes for cotton fiber in tires and belts, where tensile strength (elasticity) is important. Rayon textiles, however, are more like nylon; they feel cold, almost slimy to the touch, are slippery, and don't insulate body heat. Rayonfiber  has the lowest elastic recovery of any fiber. 

High-wet-modulus rayon (HWM rayon) was developed in the 1950's, to produce a machine washable rayon; regular viscose rayon can only be dry cleaned. 

In 2015, the FTC filed complaints against Bed Bath & Beyond, Nordstrom, J.C. Penney, Backcountry.com, and their subsidiaries, for continuing to deceptively sell rayon mislabeled as bamboo. The four companies were required to pay civil penalties totaling US$1.3 million for violating the "Textile Act and the Textile Rules" and Section 5(m)(1)(B) of the FTC Act.

    For more information, please see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rayon
and
 (151209) Nordstrom, Bed Bath & Beyond, Backcountry.com, and J.C. Penney to Pay Penalties Totaling $1.3 Million for Falsely Labeling Rayon Textiles as Made of “Bamboo". www.ftc.gov  (retrieved on 2015-12-09).

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Katharine Hepburn in the 1933 film "Christopher Strong", as an aviatrix attending a costume party; she is wearing rayon.

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LYOCELL and TENCEL® 

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission defines lyocell as a fibre "composed of cellulose precipitated from an organic solution in which no substitution of the hydroxyl groups takes place and no chemical intermediates are formed". It classifies the fibre as a sub-category of rayon. 
    
Lyocell // TENCEL® is considered a luxury fabric and is more expensive to produce than cotton or viscose rayon.
    
Lyocell (introduced in 1972) is a synthetic fabric derived from wood pulp. Lyocell is a form of rayon consisting of cellulose fibre made from dissolving pulp (bleached wood pulp) using dry jet-wet spinning. The fibre was developed further as TENCEL® in the 1980's.  TENCEL® is a brand of fibre made by dissolving wood cellulose from tree-farms, in an amine oxide solvent, and spinning the resulting dope into fibres which are chemically identical to cotton and generically known as "lyocell".  The fibers are produced in various weights and are often blended with other fibers, such as silk, cotton, rayon, polyester, linen, nylon, and wool. 
    
Apart from clothing, it's also used in conveyor belts, specialty papers, and medical dressings. It shares many properties with other cellulosic fibres such as cotton, linen, ramie, and viscose rayon. Lyocell fibres are soft, absorbent, very strong when wet or dry, and resistant to wrinkles. Lyocell fabric can be machine washed or dry cleaned, it drapes well, can be dyed many colors, and can simulate a variety of textures such as suede, leather, and silk. 

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MICROFIBER

Microfiber is miniaturized plastic.  Microfibers in textiles refer to ultra fine sub-denier fiber.  This can be a woven product or a non woven product, made from 100% polyester, or a blend of polyester and polyamide (nylon).  Microfiber distinguishes itself by being a synthetic fiber finer than one denier or decitex/thread. This is smaller than the diameter of a strand of silk, which is approximately one denier, and which is itself about 1/5 the diameter of a human hair. 

The most common types of microfibers are made from polyesters, polyamides (e.g., nylon, Kevlar, Nomex, trogamide), or a conjugation of polyester, polyamide, and polypropylene (Prolen).  When microfiber textiles are manufactured from hydrocarbons (polyester) or carbohydrates (cellulose), they're flammable, and when burning, they emit toxic gases, and even more so when aromatic (PET, PS, ABS), or treated with halogenated flame retarders and aromatic dyes. Their polyester and nylon stock are made from petrochemicals, which are not a renewable resource, and they are not biodegradable. However, if they are made of polypropylene, they're at least recyclable (Prolen).

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A publicity photograph from a BBC episode of 'Dr. Who' showing a microfiber monster. 

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Similar to other microplastics, there are environmental concerns about microfiber entering the oceanic food chain. A study by the clothing brand Patagonia and the University of California, Santa Barbara, found that when synthetic jackets made of microfibers are washed, on average 1.7 grams (0.060 oz) of microfibers are released from the washing machine. These microfibers then travel to local wastewater treatment plants, where up to 40% of them enter into rivers, lakes, and oceans, where they contribute to the overall plastic pollution.  See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Microfiber

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Press photograph from the television show 'Lost In Space', showing Robbie the Robot cleaning the family car.

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In higher quality consumer cleaning and drying cloths, microfiber is knit from split conjugated fibers of polyester and polyamide. It's known as "split microfiber".  The fiber is split during the manufacturing process to produce multi-stranded fibres. A cross section of the split microfiber fabric under high magnification would look like an asterisk. 

The split fibres and the size of the individual filaments make these cloths very effective for serious cleaning. The structure traps and retains the dirt, and also absorbs liquids. The material leaves no lint, holds up to eight times its' weight in water, and absorbs oils. Microfiber accumulates dust, debris, and particle grunge. It can be charged electrostatically for special purposes such as filtration. 

The tradeoff is that it retains what it accumulates, and after it's seen some usage, it can scratch sensitive surfaces. You can wash the cloth in regular washing detergent, but you must not use fabric softener or soap based detergents, or self-softening oily detergents, as these will clog the fibers, making them less effective. 

Interestingly, when microfiber is woven but not split during manufacturing in this way, it doesn't work the same; the result is a non-absorbent, very soft but otherwise useless cloth. Non-split microfiber does have some industrial uses, for example, with cosmetics and optical lenses. 

Microfiber's weave isn't always mentioned when buying it; it's not a requirement for the label to designate whether it is split or not. So, here are two ways to determine this. 1. Run the cloth over the palm of your hand; split microfiber will cling to imperfections of the skin and can be either heard or felt. 2. Pour a small amount of water onto a hard flat surface and try to push the water around with the microfiber. If the water is pushed rather than being absorbed, it's not split microfiber. 

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Microsuede

Interesting microfiber variations include two microsuedes: Ultrasuede® and Alcantara®. Both were developed in the 1970's by Miyoshi Okamoto, while working for the Japanese chemical company Toray Industries. They share the same technology.  Their fabric content ranges from 80% polyester non-woven (100% recycled ultra-microfiber) and 20% non-fibrous polyurethane, to 65% polyester and 35% polyurethane, combined with a polyurethane foam in a non-woven structure. They're used in the SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsule, and as a flame-retardant driver seat cover for Formula One race cars. 

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Press photograph with a furry monster, from an unidentified B-rated science fiction film.

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NYLON

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Nylon is ubiquitous, as filaments, fabrics, coating, food packaging, coating powders for metals, rods, tubes, guitar strings. You name it; nylon is everywhere.   Nylon (introduced in 1935) is a generic designation for a family of synthetic polymers, more specifically aliphatic or semi-aromatic polyamides that can be melt-processed into fibers, films, or shapes. Nylon is the ultimate in morphing.

The first example of nylon (nylon 6,6) was produced on February 28, 1935, by Wallace Carothers, at DuPont's research facility at the DuPont Experimental Station. As a thermoplastic, silky material, it's first commercial use was in a nylon-bristled toothbrush (1938), followed more famously by women's stockings ("nylons"; 1940) after being introduced as a fabric at the 1939 New York World's Fair. It's "non-stick" frying pan technology, too. Duralon is an alternate and trademarked name (by Rexnord) for a composite of Teflon/ Dacron with a fiberglass substrate that has an epoxy resin as the binding agent.

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Two girls doing headstands to show off their new nylon stockings and garters.
    

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For chemical reasons, nylon parts cannot be used in contact with sulfuric acid,  for example, as the electrolyte used in lead–acid batteries. Various nylons break down in fire, and form hazardous smoke, and toxic fumes or ash, typically containing hydrogen cyanide. It's usually expensive to incinerate nylons to recover the high energy used to create them, so most nylons reach the garbage dumps, and just sit there, decaying very slowly. Nylon is a robust polymer and can be recycled. Much nylon resin is recycled directly in a closed loop at the injection molding machine, by grinding sprues and runners and mixing them with the virgin granules being consumed by the molding machine. Nylon polymers are quite tricky to work with; for more details please see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nylon

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Young boy dressed as a three-way stop light, conducting traffic with hand signals.  

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OLEFIN

Olefin (introduced in 1949) is a fibre used in activewear, linings, and warm clothing. Olefins are hydrophobic, allowing them to dry quickly. A sintered felt of olefin fibres is sold under the trade name Tyvek.

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Two people hanging from a ski lift.

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POLAR FLEECE

Despite names suggesting the product is made of natural material, polar fleece is 100% polyethylene terephthalate (PET) often bonded with other synthetic fibers.  Other names for this fabric are "Polar Wool", "Vega Wool", or "Velo Wools". It is soft napped insulating fabric. It can be made out of recycled PET bottles, or even recycled fleece.

It's hydrophobic (fears water) and holds less than 1% of its' weight in water. The result is that is retains much of its' insulating powers even when wet. It's not windproof and won't absorb moisture from the skin.  It's machine washable and dries quickly. It's a cold weather alternative for people allergic or sensitive to wool. 

It's not flammable; it melts when exposed to flame. It can stretch in one direction, but less so in the other. It readily generates static electricity, accumulating lint, dust, pet hair, you name it. It can be damaged in high temperature washing, tumble drying, or ironing. Lower-quality polar fleece material is also prone to pilling. 

One of the first forms was Polar Fleece, created in 1979 by Malden Mills, now Polartec LLC. Aaron Feuerstein, then CEO of Malden Mills, intentionally declined to patent it, allowing the material to be produced cheaply and widely by many vendors. 

There are environmental issues according to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polar_fleece

Non-recycled fleece is made from non-renewable petroleum derivatives. Even if made of recycled materials, fleece relies on a continued production of non-renewable fossil fuels for the raw material. When fleece goes through the laundry, it generates microplastics which become part of domestic waste water. Municipal waste water systems often discharge into rivers and oceans. PET does not biodegrade, and suspended microplastics are easily ingested by marine life, thus entering the food chain.

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A cinnamon black bear on roller skates.

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POLYESTER

Polyester fiber was first introduced to the American public in 1951.  Polyester material, and polyester threads, are ubiquitous in clothing. It's essentially impossible to avoid polyester. Even if you purchase a 100% cotton cloth shirt, today the chances are that the thread holding it together is a polyester or polyester blend.

Polyester is plastic, one of an entire category of polymers containing the ester functional group in their main chain, thus the name poly-ester. 


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Woman in a polyester suit wearing a polyester crab hat.

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As the story goes, W.H. Carothers, while working for duPont, discovered alcohols and carboxyl acids could combine and be processed to form fibers. Unfortunately, he then discovered Nylon, put polyester on the back burner, and left his research incomplete; he hadn't investigated the polyester formed from mixing ethylene glycol and terephthalic acid.

In 1939, British scientists R. Whinfield, J.T. Dickson, W.K. Birtwhistle, and C.G. Ritchie, took up where Carothers had left off.  In 1941, they created Terylene, the first polyester fiber, and in 1941, patented PET // PETE. Polyethylene terephthalate is basis for synthetic polyester fibers Terylene and Dacron.  Terylene was first manufactured by Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI); duPont bought the legal rights from ICI in 1946, and subsequently created yet another polyester fiber they named Dacron. Mylar was introduced in 1952. Kodel was developed by Eastman Chemical Products, Inc. in 1958.

When polyester was first introduced in 1951, it was advertised as a magical fabric that needed no ironing; it purportedly could be worn for 68 days straight without ironing and still look presentable. 

The market for polyester in clothing has had great ups and downs. It recovered by developing microfibers (read about them here under Microfiber!), and then marketing polyester microfiber and other fabric blends as expensive luxury products. Polyester, spun in various percentages with natural fibres, produces a cloth with blended properties, and many of these blends have been deliberately named to confuse consumers, by suggesting a similarity or even superiority to natural fibers.  All this has successfully altered the public's perception of polyester as a cheap suit.  

From 1981 to 1983, Hoechst Fibers Industries conducted various studies: 89% of the people interviewed could not distinguish between polyester and other natural fibers like cotton, wool and silk, and people were more interested in the appearance of the apparel than the fabric from which it was made. 
For more information, please see http://www.whatispolyester.com/history.html

Polyester fiber, fabric, and materials ,are made from synthetic polymers of polyethylene terephthalate (PET), purified terephthalic acid (PTA) or dimethyl ester dimethyl terephthalate (DMT) and monoethylene glycol (MEG).  There are also polyester resins. The majority of the world's PET production is for synthetic fibers,in excess of 60%.  In textile applications, PET is referred to by its common name, polyester, whereas the acronym P.E.T. is generally used in relation to packaging. Polyester makes up about 18% of the world's polymer production, and it is the fourth-most-produced polymer; polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP), and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) are first, second and third, respectively. For more information, please see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polyethylene_terephthalate

Polyesters as thermoplastics change shape after the application of heat. While combustible at high temperatures, polyesters tend to shrink away from flames and self-extinguish upon ignition. Synthetic polyesters are not biodegradable. Blends are much less breathable than cotton, trap more moisture while sticking to skin, aren't fire resistant, and can actually melt when ignited; that's how they "self-extinguish".

A team at Plymouth University in the UK spent 12 months analysing what happened when a number of synthetic materials were washed at different temperatures in domestic washing machines, using different combinations of detergents, to quantify the microfibers shed. They found that an average washing load of 6 kg could release an estimated 137,951 fibres from polyester-cotton blend fabric, 496,030 fibres from polyester, and 728,789 from acrylic. These fibers add to the general microplastics pollution.

For more specifics, please see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polyester

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Press photo for the film 'Mr. Peabody and The Mermaid" showing Ann Blyth in her mermaid costume being carried by Glenn Strange, who is  wearing his Frankenstein costume for 'Abbott & Costello'.

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POLYPROPYLENE

Polypropylene is an incredibly versatile thermoplastic polymer,  invented in 1954 by Giulio Natta of Milan, Italy. It was originally produced by the Italian chemical company Montecatini, and marketed under the name Moplen.

Polypropylene is the world's second-most widely produced synthetic plastic, after polyethylene. Polypropylene-Polypropylene (PP), also known as polypropene, is a thermoplastic polymer and there are three general types: homopolymer, random copolymer, and block copolymer. Polypropylene also comes in a foam form. It's application is so pervasive, I can only include a partial list here: packaging and labeling, textiles, ropes, thermal underwear, carpets, diving gear, stationery, plastic parts and reusable containers of various types, laboratory equipment, loudspeakers, automotive components, transvaginal mesh, polymer banknotes, medical kits, bandages, diapers, and sanitary products.

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A diver greets the famous Copenhagen Mermaid.

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Polypropylene, or 'polypro', has long been used to make cold-weather base layer fabric, as long-sleeve shirts or long underwear, as well as warm-weather clothing, because it transports sweat away from the skin. Recently polyester replaced polypropylene for these uses in the U.S. military. Although polypropylene clothes aren't easily flammable, they can melt, which may result in severe burns if the wearer is involved in an explosion or fire of any kind. 

Polypropylene undergarments can stink; they retain body odors which are difficult to remove. The current generation of polyester apparently has less of this problem. The FDA has issued several warnings on the use of polypropylene mesh medical kits for certain applications. Initially considered inert, polypropylene has been found to degrade while in the body. The degraded material forms a bark-like shell on the mesh fibers and is prone to cracking. 

Polypropylene has a relatively slippery "low energy surface" making it resilient and resistant to most solvents and glues; there are very few glues available specifically for gluing PP.  However, PP can be melted using a speed welding technique, and solid PP objects not subject to undue flexing can be satisfactorily joined with a two part epoxy glue or using hot-glue guns. So if your polypropylene Italian designer chairs crack, hot glue them! 

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An artistic rendering of a melting plastic chair. 

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In 2008, researchers in Canada asserted that quaternary ammonium biocides and oleamide were leaking out of certain polypropylene labware, affecting experimental results. As polypropylene is used in a wide number of food containers such as those for yogurt, Health Canada media spokesman Paul Duchesne said the department will be reviewing the findings to determine if steps are needed to protect consumers.

For more information, please see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polypropylene

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Two rubber tube ensconced Haloween-ers.

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SARAN

Saran (introduced in 1953): the most well known use of polyvinylidene chloride came in 1953, when Saran Wrap, a plastic food wrap, was introduced. In 2004, however, the formula was changed to low-density polyethylene due to environmental concerns about its' chlorine content.


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Vintage Italian industrial trade advertisement showing a naked girl holding strategically placed polyvinylidene chloride balloons.

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SPANDEX

Spandex (trade name Lycra) is a polyester-polyurethane copolymer stronger and more durable than natural rubber; it can be made tight-fitting without impeding movement. Incredibly elastic, it stretches up to five times its' length. Invented in 1958 by chemist Joseph Shivers at DuPont's Benger Laboratory in Waynesboro, Virginia, it was introduced commercially in 1963, and revolutionized the clothing industry. In 2010, an estimated 80% of the clothing sold in the United States contained spandex. In North America, it's more common in women's clothing than in men's. 

In clothing, spandex is usually mixed with cotton or polyester, as a small percentage of the final fabric, which then retains the properties of the majority fibers in the fabric. 

The name "spandex" is an anagram of the word "expands". It is known by different names in different countries.  Spandex is the preferred name in North America. In continental Europe it's referred to by variants of "elastane", i.e. élasthanne (France), Elastan (Germany), elastano (Spain), elastam (Italy), and elastaan (Netherlands). It's Lycra in the UK, Ireland, Portugal, Brazil, Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, and Israel. Brand names for spandex include Lycra (made by Koch subsidiary Invista, previously a part of DuPont), Elaspan (also Invista), Acepora (Taekwang), Creora (Hyosung), INVIYA (Indorama Corporation), ROICA and Dorlastan (Asahi Kasei), Linel (Fillattice), and ESPA (Toyobo).

Since its' introduction, Spandex fetishism has developed world-wide; this is a fetishistic attraction to people wearing form fitting stretch fabrics, or to the wearing of items of clothing made of such material.
    
    For more information, please see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spandex

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VETCRAN

Vectran is a manufactured fiber, spun from a liquid crystal polymer (LCP) made from Vectra LCP polymer; Kuraray Co., Ltd. began manufacturing Vectran in 1990. Vectran has some interesting industrial uses. For example, the United States Department of Homeland Security is sponsoring development of an inflatable plug made of Vectran to prevent flooding in New York City Subway tunnels and for other tunnels in New York City, as it is strong but relatively inexpensive, and not edible for rats. For more information, please see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vectran

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Vintage German industrial trade advertisement showing a young woman about to give a football kick to an oversized polyester-polyurethane pickle.

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ZYLON PBO

Zylon is a trademarked synthetic polymer material invented and developed by SRI International in the 1980's and manufactured by the Toyobo Corporation. In generic usage, the fiber is referred to as PBO. 

Zylon has had some spectacular successes, and some equally spectacular failures. It's used by NASA in long-duration, high-altitude data collection, in Formula One racing, and on modern racing yachts. It gained wide use in U.S. police officers body armor protection in 1998, with its' introduction by Second Chance Body Armor, Inc. However, in 2003, protective vests constructed with Zylon became controversial when two Oceanside, CA police officer's vests failed, leaving one mortally wounded and the other seriously injured. Some studies subsequently reported that the Zylon vests may degrade rapidly, leaving wearers with significantly less protection than expected. The U.S. government's National Institute of Justice decertified Zylon for use in its' approved models of ballistic vests for law enforcement, and in 2005, Armor Holdings, Inc. discontinued manufacturing all of its' Zylon-containing vests. 
For more information, please see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/zylon

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Zylon vest.

 

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Please also see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plastic_pollution 

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In short, have fun with your clothes and take care of them. After all, you're a "picture worth a thousand words"!

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Vintage trade industry press photograph showing a man wearing an environmentally protective suit.

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I sign our magazine articles "See Into The Invisible". Thanks for reading.

Best Wishes, 
Debra Spencer

All Content is © Debra Spencer, Suit Yourself™ International. Technical Library FAQ Index ISSN 2474-820X. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce in part or in whole without express written consent. Thank you.
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All Content is ©2019 Debra Spencer, Appanage™at www.suityourself.international Suit Yourself ™ International, 120 Pendleton Point, Islesboro Island, Maine, 04848, USA 44n31 68w91 Technical Library FAQ Index ISSN 2474-820X. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce in part or in whole without express written consent. Thank you.

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All Content is ©2019 Debra Spencer, Appanage™at www.suityourself.international Suit Yourself ™ International, 120 Pendleton Point, Islesboro Island, Maine, 04848, USA 44n31 68w91 Technical Library FAQ Index ISSN 2474-820X. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce in part or in whole without express written consent. Thank you.
Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm. ~ Winston Churchill