The Journey of Synthetic Fabrics: From Scientific Labs to Your Closet

How did synthetic fabrics go from being a scientific experiment to a wardrobe staple? The article traces the evolution of synthetic materials, from their inception in research labs to their current ubiquity in fashion.

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The Journey of Synthetic Fabrics: From Scientific Labs to Your Closet

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Key takeaways

  • Synthetic fabrics are the dominant fabric in today’s market.
  • The rise of fast fashion was aided by the swift production process associated with synthetic fabrics
  • Synthetic fabrics are not sustainable, contributing to environmental degradation and microplastic pollution


Synthetic fabrics are ubiquitous — they need no introduction. These man-made textiles have been seamlessly integrated into our lives, adorning us in stylish and functional garments. With origins rooted in scientific discovery, synthetic fabrics have traversed a path from laboratory experimentation to becoming staples in our wardrobes. But the big question is whether we struck gold or there is more to these synthetic fibers. This article offers a comprehensive view of these synthetic materials to help readers better understand what they really are.

The origin of synthetic fibers

Synthetic fibers haven’t always been around. They are not naturally occurring like natural fibers. Instead, they are man-made products crafted through a process of scientific ingenuity. The inception of synthetic fibers can be traced back to a series of pioneering experiments and discoveries dating back to the 1800s, driven by a quest to find alternatives to traditional natural fabrics.

George Audemars and the earliest pioneers

What we have come to generally know as synthetic fiber today started with George Audemars. George Audemars was a Swiss chemist who is credited with inventing the first crude artificial silk in 1855. He did this by dipping a needle into a solution of mulberry bark pulp and gummy rubber to make threads. However, this method was too slow to be practical.

In 1884, a French chemist named Hilaire de Charbonnet, Comte de Chardonnay, patented an artificial silk that was a cellulose-based fabric known as "Chardonnay silk." This fabric was more successful than Audemars' invention, but it was also flammable.

In 1894, British inventors Charles Cross, Edward Bevan, and Clayton Beadle patented a safe and practical method of making artificial silk that came to be known as viscose rayon. This method involved treating cellulose fibers with sodium hydroxide and carbon disulfide to create a soluble compound that could be spun into threads.

Viscose rayon was the first commercially successful artificial silk. It was used to make a variety of fabrics, including dresses, blouses, and curtains. Rayon was also used to make artificial flowers, lampshades, and other decorative items.

The development of artificial silk was a major breakthrough in the textile industry. It provided a cheaper and more abundant alternative to natural silk, and it helped to meet the growing demand for textiles in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Nylon and the big break

The invention of nylon by Wallace Carothers in the 1930s was a major breakthrough in the textile industry. Nylon was the first fully synthetic fiber, and it had a number of advantages over natural fibers, such as silk, cotton, and wool. Nylon was stronger, more elastic, and more resistant to wear and tear than natural fibers. It was also easier to care for and did not shrink or wrinkle as easily. These advantages made nylon a popular choice for a variety of applications.

Nylon was used to make stockings, hosiery, underwear, and other garments. It was used to make ropes, parachutes, fishing nets, and other industrial products. The invention of nylon had a major impact on the textile industry. It led to the development of new fabrics and new clothing designs. It also helped to meet the growing demand for textiles during World War II. Nylon is still produced today, and it is one of the most common synthetic fibers in the world. It is used to make a wide variety of fabrics, including clothing, home textiles, and industrial products.

Reasons for the rise of synthetic fabrics

The rise of synthetic fabrics can be attributed to several compelling reasons, each contributing to their increasing popularity in the textile industry. These reasons encompass a blend of practical, economic, and technological factors:


Synthetic fibers are often more affordable to produce than natural fibers. This cost advantage allows manufacturers to offer a wider range of clothing options at various price points, making fashion accessible to a broader audience.

Versatility in design

Synthetic fabrics offer a high level of versatility in terms of texture, color, and patterns. They can be easily manipulated during the manufacturing process to achieve specific design aesthetics, giving designers greater creative control over their creations.

Durability and longevity

Many synthetic fabrics, such as polyester and nylon, are known for their durability and resistance to wear and tear. This longevity makes them suitable for everyday wear and high-activity situations, which is particularly important in activewear and outdoor clothing.

Performance properties

Synthetic fibers can be engineered to possess specific performance properties, such as moisture-wicking, quick-drying, and UV protection. Some are even stain-resistant. These characteristics make them ideal for sportswear, outdoor gear, and other functional apparel.

Easy Care and Maintenance

Synthetic fabrics often require less maintenance than natural fibers. They are less prone to wrinkling, shrinking, and fading, making them convenient choices for busy individuals seeking low-maintenance clothing options.

Rapid Manufacturing

Synthetic fabrics can be produced relatively quickly compared to the time-intensive processes required for some natural fibers. This speed of production aligns well with the recent trend of fast fashion, where clothing items are produced in rapid cycles and disposed of soon after for new ones.

Consistent quality

The chemical processes involved in the production of synthetic fabrics allow for greater control over the material's consistency and quality, reducing variations in texture and appearance that can be found in some natural fibers.

The ugly side of synthetic materials

Considering the prevalence of synthetic fabrics, it is easy to get carried away. However, a closer look reveals an ugly side to these materials. From polyester fibers to nylon blends, the allure of affordability, durability, and versatility often conceals a range of environmental and ethical challenges that come with the use of these artificial fibers.

Environmental impact

One of the most significant concerns is the environmental impact of synthetic fabrics. Many synthetic fibers, such as polyester and nylon, are derived from petrochemicals, contributing to the demand for non-renewable resources. The production of these fibers generates greenhouse gas emissions and pollutants, contributing to air and water pollution.

Microplastics pollution 

Washing garments made from synthetic fabrics releases tiny plastic fibers known as microplastics into water systems. Microplastic pollution caused by the washing processes of synthetic textiles has been identified as the main source of primary microplastics in the oceans. These microplastics are a significant environmental threat, as they can accumulate in aquatic ecosystems, harm marine life, and potentially enter the food chain, posing risks to human health.

Slow decomposition

Most synthetic fabrics are not biodegradable and can take hundreds of years to decompose in landfills. This exacerbates the problem of textile waste, contributing to overflowing landfills and environmental degradation.

Limited breathability 

Some synthetic fabrics are less breathable than natural fibers, which can lead to discomfort, especially in hot and humid conditions. This reduced breathability can cause excessive sweating and skin irritation.

Heat sensitivity

Many synthetic fabrics are sensitive to high heat. When exposed to high temperatures like those from irons or dryers, these fabrics can melt or become damaged, affecting their longevity.

Potential allergic reactions

Some individuals may experience skin irritation or allergic reactions when wearing clothing made from certain synthetic fibers. These reactions are often attributed to the chemicals used in the production process or the fabric's lack of breathability.

Non-renewable resource dependence

Synthetic fiber production heavily relies on non-renewable resources such as crude oil. This dependency can lead to price fluctuations and vulnerability to supply chain disruptions. Synthetic fabrics may lack the natural texture and feel of materials like cotton, silk, or wool. This can impact the tactile experience of wearing clothing and reduce the perception of quality.

Challenges in recycling

While some progress has been made in recycling certain synthetic fabrics, the process is often complex and limited compared to natural fibers. This results in a lower recycling rate for synthetic textiles. For context, less than 1% of textile waste is recycled into new fibers for clothing. The non-reusable fraction is mostly downcycled into industrial rags, upholstery filling, and insulation or is incinerated or landfilled.

The re-emergence of natural fibers

Although natural fibers were never gone, the invention of synthetic fabrics pushed them to the background. Now, with the renewed interest in sustainability, natural fibers are experiencing a resurgence. Their biodegradability, lower environmental impact, and timeless appeal have captured the attention of consumers and designers alike.

It feels like we’re back where we started. However, this is an overly simplistic way of looking at it. Instead, we’re back where we started, but with a better understanding of how to make the best use of natural fibers. Synthetic fiber created the illusion that technological advancement had outstripped the need for traditional materials, but their downsides have reminded us of the value of natural options. This return to natural fibers comes with a newfound wisdom—leveraging their strengths while acknowledging their limitations. It's not a regression but a recalibration of our approach to fashion and sustainability.

Top natural fabrics to consider

Natural fabrics are derived from plant, animal, or mineral sources, offering a range of characteristics and textures. Here are some examples of commonly used natural fabrics:

Organic cotton: Perhaps the most well-known natural fabric, cotton is soft, breathable, and versatile. However, the emphasis is on organic cotton. Organic cotton is a type of cotton that is grown without the use of synthetic pesticides, insecticides, or genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Instead, organic cotton farming relies on natural methods and practices that prioritize environmental sustainability and the well-being of farmers and communities. 

Linen: Derived from flax, linen is lightweight, textured, and eco-friendly. Flax requires minimal water and fewer pesticides to grow, making linen a sustainable choice.

Wool: Wool, sourced from sheep, is celebrated for its warmth and moisture-wicking properties. Sustainable wool production emphasizes responsible grazing practices and animal welfare.

Silk: Luxurious silk produced by silkworms is both elegant and biodegradable. The silkworms' natural life cycle contributes to the sustainability of this fabric.

Bamboo: Bamboo fabric's softness and moisture-wicking properties stem from sustainable bamboo plantations that grow rapidly without synthetic inputs. In fact, bamboo is the fastest-growing plant on Earth. It's used in various clothing items, including athletic wear and undergarments.

Hemp: Hemp fibers are strong and durable, making them suitable for items like jeans, bags, and durable outerwear. Hemp fabric is also considered more sustainable due to its minimal need for pesticides and water.

Lycocell (Tencel): While not a traditional natural fiber, Lyocell is made from wood pulp, often sourced from sustainable eucalyptus trees. It's known for its softness, moisture-wicking properties, and sustainable production process.


What fabric is synthetic?

Nylon fabric, polyester, and PVC are some examples of synthetic fabric. Synthetic material is man-made, produced chemically, and not sourced from plants or animals.

Is viscose a synthetic fabric?

No, viscose is not considered a purely synthetic fabric. It is often classified as a semi-synthetic fiber. Viscose is derived from wood pulp through a chemical process, but it undergoes significant processing to transform the natural cellulose into fibers suitable for textiles. While it's not a natural fiber like cotton or wool, it's also not entirely synthetic, like polyester or nylon. Instead, it falls somewhere in between, combining aspects of both natural and synthetic fibers.

Should I avoid synthetic fabric?

Yes, avoiding synthetic fabrics is a wise choice due to their unsustainable nature. Most synthetic fabrics, such as polyester and nylon, are derived from petroleum-based materials, contributing to non-renewable resource depletion and environmentally harmful production processes. The energy-intensive manufacturing of these fabrics releases greenhouse gases and pollutants into the environment, exacerbating climate change. Additionally, the shedding of microplastics from synthetic fabrics during washing contributes to marine pollution and poses a threat to aquatic ecosystems. 

Are all synthetic fabrics plastic?

Yes, all synthetic fabrics are essentially made from plastic or plastic-derived materials. Synthetic fibers are created through chemical processes that involve polymerization, in which small molecules are combined to form larger chains, resulting in the formation of fibers. 

Is fleece a synthetic?

Yes, fleece is a type of synthetic fabric. It is typically made from polyester, which is a synthetic material. Fleece is known for its soft and fuzzy texture, as well as its warmth and moisture-wicking properties. It's often used in various clothing items, blankets, and outerwear. 

Is viscose toxic to wear?

No, viscose is not inherently toxic, but the manufacturing process can introduce certain chemicals that might raise concerns. During the production of viscose, chemicals like carbon disulfide and sodium hydroxide are used. Exposure to high levels of carbon disulfide, particularly in poorly regulated manufacturing environments, can pose health risks to workers and potentially impact the environment. 

Is polyester toxic to wear?

No, polyester is not toxic to wear. However, the production of polyester involves the use of various chemicals, including antimony and ethylene glycol. While these chemicals are tightly controlled during production, there might be trace amounts present in the finished fabric.


From polyester fleece to nylon and other synthetic fabrics, it's undeniable that these materials have woven themselves into the fabric of our lives. Yet, as we revel in their convenience and affordability, we cannot overlook the shadows they cast. The widespread use of synthetic fibers, derived from petrochemicals and often laden with environmental consequences, has raised alarms about their sustainability and impact on our planet. 

In this light, natural fabrics emerge as the resolute torchbearers of a more responsible and harmonious approach to clothing. Cotton, linen, wool, silk, and their counterparts exemplify the profound synergy between fashion and nature. They embody biodegradability, regenerative agriculture, and a connection to time-honored traditions. The resurgence of natural fibers isn't just a nostalgic step backward; it's a stride forward towards ecological restoration.


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Ibrahim Okunade

Dedicated to promoting environmental consciousness and ecological harmony. I write to help others embrace sustainable living.

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