The textile industry is constantly evolving as the demands for durable, comfortable, and good looking apparel increases. Natural fabrics such as cotton, wool, and linen have been on the market for centuries. Man-made materials made their first appearance in the late 1800s. Not all man-made textiles are completely synthetic; rayon combines man-made fibers with wood fibers. Some of the common synthetic textiles include nylon, polyester, olefin and specialty fibers such as spandex. Rayon and acetate are considered artificial fibers rather than synthetic textiles.
The History of Synthetic Textiles
The first man-made fiber was produced in the mid-1800s as a substitute for silk, but did not make its commercial debut until 1924. Initially called viscose, rayon is often included in lists of synthetic fibers though it is actually made from wood cellulose. Count Hilaire de Chardonnet was the first to successfully process a fiber from cellulose and is thus considered the father of rayon. It wasn’t until the 1950’s rayon was used for apparel.
In 1934 Wallace Hume Carothers of the E.I. DuPont de Nemours Company in Delaware was credited with the invention of nylon, a fiber produced from purely petrochemicals. Originally, nylon, like rayon, was developed as a substitute for silk. Specifically, the fabric was touted as a substitute fabric for women’s silk stockings. “Nylons,” as they came to be called, were introduced in 1939 and quickly became popular. During World War II nylons became scarce as the fabric was used for war purposes. Once the war ended, it took some time for the supply to catch up with the demand for nylons.
The synthetic fiber polyester also had its roots in the Dupont Company as well as its British rival, the Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI). An agreement to share information concerning research and resulting patents was dissolved in the early 1950s. Dupont continued research on nylon while ICI developed Terylene polyester. Other synthetic fibers followed as more research developed different fibers from petrochemicals.
The Making of Synthetic Textiles From Petrochemicals
The raw material used to make synthetic fibers usually comes from crude oil which is fossil fuel nature makes from decaying marine life. The process of turning the crude oil into fibers begins by turning the solid
When the thread comes out of the spinneret, the liquid polymer is converted to a rubbery state and then solidified. The combination of the extrusion and solidification is called spinning. There are four methods of spinning the synthetic threads:
- Wet spinning: The spinnerets are submerged in a chemical bath and as the threads come out they separate from the solution and solidify. Rayon, acrylic, and spandex are examples of fibers made using this process.
- Dry spinning: This process also uses a solution bath, but the solidification is a result of evaporating the solution by an air or inert gas stream rather than dilution or chemical reaction. Acetate is an example of a fiber produced with this method; also spandex and acrylic may be produced with this method.
- Melt spinning: During this method the fiber-forming substance is melted for forcing through the spinneret and then cooled to solidify. This method allows different cross-section shapes to be forced through the spinneret. Nylon, polyester, and olefin are examples of textiles produced with this method.
- Gel spinning: This process is used to produce special properties of the fibers such as high strength. During the extrusion process, the polymer is not in a liquid state and not completely separated. The polymer chains are bound together in liquid crystal form at various points. The threads pass through air first and then further cooled in a liquid bath. High-strength polyethylene is an example of fibers produced with this spinning method.
Stretching and orientation of the forced fibers takes place during the solidifying part of the process, and in some fibers after the fibers have hardened. Stretching causes the molecular chains to draw together and orientate along the axis of the fiber which produces stronger yarn.
Once the threads are produced the synthetic fibers can either be woven into fabrics used for products such as apparel; or manufactured as nonwoven materials which are generally used for products such as carpet backing, household goods and medical products. Nonwoven materials are produced by interlocking or bonding the threads by chemical, thermal, solvent or mechanical techniques.
Synthetic fibers are not without controversy. Though the products are less expensive for consumers, the environmental impact can be harmful. In addition, many people are allergic to the chemicals used in the processing of the fabrics. With technological advances however, improvements in nylon, rayon, polyester, and other man-made fabrics are bound to occur.
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