Performance Fabrics

Complete Guide to Synthetic Fabrics

Synthetic fabrics, or artificial or artificial fabrics, are textiles made from chemically produced fibers like poylester, nylon, acrylic, PVC, and rayon.


Fabrics have been used for as long as humans have worn clothes and needed shelter. Natural fabrics -- including but not limited to silk, cotton, wool, and linen -- are made from natural materials and were the only fabrics available for many years. As technology grew and advanced, people began to search for new options and attempted to create fabrics rather than using the ones that had always existed.

Ideally, these new fabrics would improve on the limitations of natural materials and even be cheaper to manufacture. Because there was no synthetic fabrics council overseeing these creations, the history of synthetic fabrics begins separately with each different type of synthetic fabric as it was created.

Synthetic fabrics, or artificial or artificial fabrics, are textiles made from chemically produced fibers rather than natural sources like plants (cotton, linen) or animals (wool, silk). These fibers are created through processes involving polymers, which are large molecules of repeating chemical units.

There are several common types of synthetic fabrics:

  1. Polyester: Polyester is a widely used synthetic fabric known for its durability, wrinkle resistance, and resistance to stretching and shrinking. It is often blended with other fibers to improve its qualities and is commonly used in clothing, home textiles, and industrial applications.
  2. Nylon: Nylon is a strong, lightweight, and elastic synthetic fiber. It has excellent resistance to abrasion and chemicals, making it suitable for various applications, including clothing (stockings, swimwear), ropes, and industrial uses.
  3. Polypropylene: Polypropylene is a thermoplastic polymer used in various applications, including textiles. It is lightweight, moisture-resistant, and has good insulating properties. Polypropylene fabrics are often used in activewear, thermal underwear, and disposable medical garments.
  4. Acrylic: Acrylic fibers are soft, lightweight, and warm. Acrylic fabrics resemble wool and are often cheaper than natural wool in sweaters, blankets, and other cold-weather clothing items.
  5. Rayon: Rayon is a semi-synthetic fiber made from wood pulp. Although it is not entirely synthetic, it is considered a regenerated fiber. Rayon is soft, breathable, and drapes well, making it suitable for various clothing items, including dresses, blouses, and linings.
  6. Spandex (Lycra or Elastane): Spandex is a highly elastic synthetic fiber known for its exceptional stretch and recovery properties. It is often blended with other fibers to stretch clothing, especially in activewear, swimwear, and garments that require a close fit.
  7. Polyethylene: Polyethylene fibers create fabrics with specific properties, such as high strength and water resistance. These fabrics are used in applications like outdoor furniture, camping gear, and waterproof clothing.

Synthetic fabrics offer a range of advantages, including durability, resistance to wrinkles, moisture-wicking properties, and ease of care. They are often combined with natural fibers to create fabrics that possess the desirable qualities of both natural and synthetic materials. 

Getting Started

Initially, attempts at creating synthetic fabrics were just attempts at recreating natural materials and possibly improving them or driving down their production costs. Audemars, a Swiss-born chemist, received the first patent for artificial silk in the 1800s. He made the fabric from the bark of mulberry trees. This progressed into Sir Joseph Swan creating rayon around the same time using a similar process to Audemars. Rayon, a hugely popular synthetic fabric today, is incredibly soft, moisture-absorbing and easily dyed. A variation of rayon called modal has also gained popularity recently.

Also, in the 1800s, PVC was discovered, though it was an accident, and the first PVC patent wasn’t filed until 1913. PVC is used as a water-resistant coating for fabrics, which is very important for materials that are meant for outdoor use. Manufacturers often opt for PVC because of its durability. In most cases, these early fabrics are still in use today, though most have been substantially improved over the years.

Technological Advances

The history of synthetic fabrics is closely tied to the development of polymer chemistry and the search for alternatives to natural fibers. Here's a brief overview of the critical milestones in the

1935: Wallace Carothers and his team at DuPont developed the first genuine synthetic fiber, nylon. Nylon stockings were introduced to the market in 1939, revolutionizing the hosiery industry. Nylon's strength and elasticity made it incredibly popular during World War II for various military applications.

1941: British scientists John Rex Whinfield and James Tennant Dickson patented polyester, though its commercial production began in the United States in the 1950s. Polyester gained popularity in the 1960s and 1970s for its wrinkle-resistant properties and durability. Acrylic fibers were developed by the DuPont Corporation and marketed under the trademark Orlon. Acrylic is soft, warm, and wool-like, making it a popular choice for sweaters and other cold-weather clothing.

1959: Chemists C. L. Sandquist and Joseph Shivers at DuPont invented Spandex, a highly elastic synthetic fiber. Originally intended for use as a synthetic version of latex, spandex is more porous but less durable than the original. Its exceptional stretch and recovery properties, especially sportswear and undergarments, revolutionized the clothing industry.

1966: Kevlar, the material most famous for its use in bulletproof vests, was introduced and has more than 200 uses, including in-car tires and tennis rackets.

20th Century: Advances in polymer science led to the development of high-performance synthetic fibers such as Kevlar (1965) and Nomex (1967), both created by Stephanie Kwolek at DuPont. Kevlar is known for its exceptional strength and is used in applications such as bulletproof vests. At the same time, Nomex is flame-resistant and used in protective clothing for firefighters and industrial workers.

The development of synthetic fabrics significantly impacted the textile industry, creating new materials with diverse properties. These materials have found applications not only in clothing but also in various industrial and technical fields. As technology advances, synthetic fabrics' production processes are becoming more sustainable and environmentally friendly, addressing concerns about their environmental impact.

Synthetic fabrics today

In recent years, synthetic materials have received some backlash in the public eye. Where synthetic materials used to be viewed as innovative and fashionable, anything that’s not natural or organic can get a bad rep these days. There are valid arguments on both sides of this debate, though it’s not slowing researchers down. It’s also not affecting the use of the fabrics -- in 2014, synthetic fabric imports overtook cotton imports in the United States.

Researchers aren’t stopping at the fabrics already released and put into production, either. In September 2016, a Stanford researchers team used a material called nanoPE, which uses smaller holes in the fabric than usual and can be spread out in a more dense pattern, adding a cooling effect to the clothing. Materials like this can be suitable for use in sports, for example. Examples like this are not few and far between -- researchers are constantly working on future-tech materials and fabrics.

Ongoing research focuses on developing sustainable alternatives to traditional synthetic fibers. Innovations include fabrics made from recycled PET bottles, biodegradable polymers, and materials derived from renewable resources like corn and soybeans.

Why are flexible PVC composite textiles such powerful performance fabrics? Download our white paper — The Flexible PVC Composite Textile Advantage  to find out.



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