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What Are The Differences Between Natural And Synthetic Fibres?

Synthetic fibres are a modern day wonder. They're not only versatile with their applications, but also come in many different types of materials to suit your needs. However, they have some disadvantages too- so it's important you know what you're getting into before making this decision!

Fibres are classified as natural, synthetic (manmade), or a blend. Synthetic clothing is usually made up of a blend of polyester, nylon, spandex, or any other combination. They are made from chemical compounds and have different uses in the textile industry. Synthetic fibres were created as a cheaper and more mass-producible alternative to natural fibres.

FAQs

Natural fibers usually have a smaller environmental impact than synthetic fibers because natural fibers do not use as many chemicals during the production process. Some natural fibers are less eco-friendly than others because some plants require more water. Durable.

Most synthetic fibres have good elasticity. Most fabrics made of synthetic fibres do not wrinkle easily. Fabrics made of synthetic fibres are generally more durable, less expensive, and more readily available than those made of natural fibres. Most synthetic fibres can handle heavy loads without breaking.

Synthetic fibres (man-made fibres) are produced by joining chemical monomers into polymers using a chemical reaction called polymerisation. The chemicals used are usually sodium hydroxide and carbon disulphide (derivatives of coal, oil, or natural gas).

Natural materials come from the natural environment, and have been changed very little. Plastics are an example of a synthetic material. A synthetic material is a material that is obtained from a natural material which has undergone a chemical reaction in a laboratory or factory.

The disadvantages are as follows:

  • The strength of natural fibers is very less as compared to synthetic fibers.
  • Natural fibers are heavy in weight.
  • Natural fibers can be damaged by moths and other insects.
  • These fibers are not wrinkle-free.
  • These fibers are not long lasting and hence not durable.

Common natural fibers sourced from the plant kingdom include cotton, flax, hemp, bamboo, sisal, and jute. Their main component is cellulose. From animals, we get popular fibers like wool, silk, angora, and mohair.

Three sources of natural fibers include: animals, plants, and minerals.

  • Animal fibers are composed of proteins which come from an animal's hair, fur, or webbing.
  • Plant fibers are a specialized type of plant cells. 
  • Mineral fibers are not composed of proteins or cellulose.

Jute, also known as the golden fibre, is the cheapest natural fibre. Jute is a vegetable fibre, derived from the bark of a reed like plant grown mainly in the subtropical areas of Asia, especially India, Bangladesh and China. It is the second largest plant fibre after cotton and is available in large quantities.

The wool of the vicuña, a camelid (llama type animal) living at 4000 metres in the Andes is the finest natural fibre in the world. Produced in small quantities, it is used by the luxury end of the fashion industry.

  • Natural fibres are softer and more natural than their synthetic fiber counterparts but aren’t always as durable.
  • Man made or regenerated fibres are often easier to care for than natural fibres without the need for special treatments such as dry cleaning.
  • Synthetic fibres can be easily washed in hot water which you wouldn’t recommend with some animal or plant based fabrics. They can also offer better performance in terms of heat, making them great for areas of high humidity and wet climates.

Natural Fibres Vs Synthetic Fibres 

The natural fibres vs synthetic fibres debate has been upheld by fashion designers, textile producers and sustainability advocates for decades. The fabrics we wear all fit into two categories: natural or man made. Although blends of both have become increasingly popular in recent years with wool and acrylic-blend knitwear dominating the high street throughout the colder seasons.

Natural fibres are derived from plants and animals, while synthetic fibres are made from chemical compounds. Each has its benefits and drawbacks as far as clothing companies are concerned. Many fabrics have been developed and adapted to meet rising demand amid a market of increasingly shrinking costs and margins. But which material is best for the people making the clothes, those wearing them and for the planet?

What Is A Natural Fibre?

Natural fibres are made from organic materials such as plants and animals. The raw material is processed and then spun and woven or knitted into fabrics. The most well known type of natural fibre is cotton, which comes directly from the cotton boll. Other popular natural fibres include linen, which is made from the flax plant and silk which is made by silkworms who create a cocoon of silky thread to protect themselves with. Finally, there is wool which comes from sheep’s fleece and hair, which comes from a variety of animals.

There are two types of natural fibres: animal-based or plant-based. Animal-based fibres include silk and wool, while plant-based natural fibres include cotton, linen, jute and bamboo. Recently developed materials also include pinatex and tencel – made from eucalyptus pulp.

Natural fibres are popular for many reasons and are generally more environmentally friendly than synthetic materials. Natural fibres are also considered to be carbon neutral, but what are the other benefits of choosing natural over man made? Some natural fibres have been used by man since ancient times such as cotton, linen or silk but since the 20th century manmade and synthetic fibres such as nylon, polyester and modal have become more popular. 6 Popular Natural Fibres. There are of course many natural fibres used to create fabric for clothes, but the six most popular natural fibres are:

  • Cashmere
  • Cotton
  • Hemp
  • Linen
  • Silk
  • Wool

What Are The Benefits Of Natural Fibres?

Eco-Friendly

natural fibres usually have a smaller environmental impact than synthetic fibres – with some exceptions. Natural materials require far fewer chemical additions during the production process.

Durable

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you’ve heard the saying ‘but well, make it last’ right? Due to the structure of cellulose, which makes up natural materials, most plant-based natural fibres are incredibly strong.

Absorbent

natural fibres have a high absorbency rate making them a great option for bed linen, cloths, reusable nappies, cosmetics and towels.

Insulated

natural fibres make great insulators. The cellulose structure traps heat effectively. However, non-synthetic fibres also make for far more breathable materials than synthetic fibres, making them an obvious choice for warm weather as well as cooler temperatures.

Hypoallergenic

fabrics such as linen, cotton and silk are naturally hypoallergenic. They also have unique anti-bacterial qualities, making them ideal for sensitive skin.

Are All Natural Fibres Ethical?

It’s clear that as a renewable resource with few negative impacts on global biodiversity, natural fibres present a more sustainable option in many cases. The natural fibre industries employ millions of people all over the world, particularly in developing countries.

However, despite being a natural resource, cotton is not a very sustainable crop. Massive amounts of water are needed to effectively farm and produce cotton. It takes 2,700 litres of water to make a regular cotton T-shirt. This is staggering, though it’s not the only option. Organic, fairly traded cotton production is a step in the right direction, however organic cotton still only makes up around 1 percent of global cotton.

There is no one strategy to ensure all materials used in garment production are sustainable and ethical. Each fibre presents its own strengths and weaknesses in terms of cost, impact and quality. However, we can push for transparency about these factors in order to make informed decisions that benefit people and the planet over profit.

As it stands, performance and cost are still the driving factors in garment production across the majority of the world. In order to change this, we should not only call for transparency but also for legislation on fibre production and disposal. Finally, we need to see ethical and sustainable verification for the final product. Consumers deserve to know what brands are selling them and what the implications of this are.

What Is A Synthetic Fibre?

Synthetic fibres are formed using chemical processes in which a polymer is extracted using a spinneret and turned into a usable fibre. Easy to mass produce in factories, synthetic fibres became popular in the last few decades in response to a booming demand for affordable fast fashion.

5 Examples Of Synthetic Fibres

There are many fabrics made from synthetic fibres now, but the most commonly recognised are:

  • Lycra
  • Nylon
  • Polyester
  • PU (polyurethane)
  • PVC (polyvinyl chloride)

Characteristics Of Synthetic Fibres

Cheaper

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natural fibres, especially in their pure form, can be costly. For example, a faux silk garment made from synthetic materials will often be a preferable choice for consumers on the high street.

Stain Resistant

synthetic fabrics tend to be more stain resistant and able to withstand damage. Natural or organic fibres will absorb liquids rapidly while in some cases, synthetic fibres are created to repel liquids entirely.

Waterproof

it’s likely you have a plastic rain jacket in your line up as opposed to an old fashioned waxed cotton jacket. Synthetic fibres have become increasingly popular for workwear in industries like construction and fishing and for outdoor gear for hiking and skiing.

Synthetic fibres are essentially plastic so an obvious drawback of using them is that garments made from non-natural fibres won’t biodegrade once they’re thrown away. So with 11 million items of clothing being sent to landfill every week, this is a problem.

Advantages Of Synthetic Fibres

Synthetic fibres have the following advantages.

  • Most synthetic fibres have good elasticity.
  • Most fabrics made of synthetic fibres do not wrinkle easily.
  • Fabrics made of synthetic fibres are generally more durable, less expensive, and more readily available than those made of natural fibres.
  • Most synthetic fibres can handle heavy loads without breaking.

Disadvantages Of Synthetic Fibres

Synthetic fibres have the following disadvantages.

  • Most fabrics made from synthetic fibres require careful ironing as they melt easily.
  • Most fabrics made from synthetic fibres absorb very little moisture. They become sticky when the body sweats, which makes them uncomfortable to wear in hot weather.
  • Most fabrics made from synthetic fibres catch fire very easily. Therefore, it is dangerous to wear them near a source of fire (e.g., while working in the kitchen).

What Are Man Made Fibres?

Man made fibers (sometimes called semi-synthetic or regenerated fibres) are made from natural polymers. These include regenerated cellulose, which is a natural fibre made from wood or cotton pulp. Although this type of fibre starts with a natural element, it is processed in a way that makes the resulting fibre more ‘synthetic’ than ‘natural’.

5 Common Man Made Fibres

There are many different types of man made fibre now, but the five most common used within garment making are:

  • Acetate
  • Bamboo
  • Cupro
  • Modal
  • Rayon / Viscose

Final Thoughts On Different Fibre Types

Synthetic fibres are a byproduct of petroleum oil processing which is why they can be so difficult to recycle or reuse when disposed of in landfills, whereas natural fibers like cotton have been found to degrade much more quickly than man-made materials. Polyester for example is almost impossible to recycle due to the chemical reactions that take place during the manufacturing process.

Natural fibres are often more breathable and absorbent than synthetic fibers which make them better for those with sensitive skin or those prone to allergies, but they can be harder to care for. Man-made fibers are regenerated fibres that use natural cellulosic fibres. There are of course benefits and drawbacks to each fibre type – not only in terms of cost and usage but also the sustainability of each, but it is worth noting that there isn’t really a best type of fibre – it’s up to you, the individual, to decide which is more important for your needs!

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