Whether choosing your wardrobe or materials to decorate your home, synthetic and natural fabrics are all around us. These materials have a wide variety of special qualities, and it’s important to know what you’re dealing with when you choose between wool, cotton, and polyester.
The Difference Between Synthetic and Natural Fabrics
The fundamental difference between synthetic fabrics and natural fabrics is in the creation process, and in the fabric generated. In natural fabrics, the material is sourced from the world around us, whereas in synthetic fabrics, the material is entirely created and spun through chemical processing. Each type of fabric has its own unique benefits and process, which we will be explaining below.
Natural Fabrics Explained
Natural fabrics are made from organic materials, which are able to be gathered and spun into clothing and other articles without the use of chemicals. These were the earliest materials used in clothing production; wool and cotton were among the earliest fabrics our ancestors used.
The first step in creating organic fabrics is gathering the material. Wool comes from various animals, including alpaca and sheep, whereas cotton grows in large, fluffy mounds in plants grown worldwide. After the material is gathered, human and machine processing in various locations from the field to the textile mill is used to clean the fabric and spin it into a long, continuous strand. From there, the material is ready to be woven into clothing or household decor items.
Organic fabrics can be costly to produce in a relative sense due to a finite supply of material and the inability to scale outwards without increasing the size of farmland or animal population. For this reason, rare dyes and high-quality silks have all served as exclusive fashion and status symbols from antiquity into the modern day.
The Origin of Synthetic Fabrics
Synthetic designs for use in fabric first appeared in 1856 with the creation of the color mauve, then a brilliant fuchsia. The first synthetic fabric, artificial silk, appeared in 1891, and by the early 1920s, a version of artificial silk was half as expensive as its organic counterpart.
The 20th century saw the creation of a wide variety of synthetic fibers with practical purposes for fashion, activewear, and protective gear. These included spandex, nylon, fiberglass, Kevlar, polyester, as well as a special treatment for wrinkle-resistant clothing.
When making organic fabrics, the material is gathered and spun together by a machine. Though the process varies for each synthetic material, the general process remains the same: Chemical components are mixed so that they form a long chain of material in a process called polymerization. A machine then extrudes the material in a form where it is ready to weave. While more water and energy are consumed in the creation of synthetic fabrics, the result is a cheap, easily produced, and accessible alternative to organic fabrics.
Synthetic fabrics offer a wide variety of special applications that may not be widely available in traditionally made counterparts. Fiberglass is widely used in industrial settings due to its durability and high melting point. Bulletproof Kevlar is famously utilized in protective gear. On a more conventional scale, materials like nylon, polyester, and spandex can be imbued with moisture-wicking, water-resistant properties that make them ideal for activewear.
Natural Fabrics Pros and Cons
Cotton has been popular throughout our history for a good reason. The popularity of cotton as a crop means that it’s less expensive than some alternatives. People who don’t like heavy materials often prefer cotton. Cotton is lightweight and breathable, making it a comfortable fabric for any context.
Unfortunately, there are some drawbacks to cotton. Cotton isn’t the best for wet environments. Cotton retains moisture, meaning if you wear it directly on your body during an intense workout, the odds are that you’ll end up with a wet, sweaty piece of clothing. Speaking of sweat, regular cotton retains odor, meaning it won’t stay fresh-smelling as long as clothing made from other materials.
Ultimately, cotton works extremely well as a base layer in daily activity and in any layer during light to moderate physical activity. However, prolonged activity like a game or marathon may leave you feeling the (unpleasant) weight of your efforts.
Merino wool is a favorite of many, and it’s easy to see why. First of all, merino wool has unique, thermoregulating properties which allow it to regulate your temperature, making it a highly effective fabric for any season. Unlike cotton, merino wool is also phenomenal at dealing with moisture, with a high saturation point to improve comfort during the heartiest of workouts.
This protection against moisture extends to odor-blocking properties. Merino wool lasts through multiple uses without needing to be washed, which offers convenience and a long lifespan for your garments. Wool does not hold odor, making it suitable for almost anything.
Merino wool also has some less favorable qualities, like its price. Quality comes at a cost. Merino wool garments tend to be more expensive than other organic or synthetic designs. Ethically, merino wool is a fairly kind product but do your research to ensure the livestock it came from is treated well.
All in all, wool is a great all-purpose material for any setting and any layer. Choose this fabric if you want to be active and comfortable year-round.
Natural fibers come from Mother Earth, but how do they hold up? First off, though the level to which this is an element varies, many organic fibers are highly breathable. If you’re looking for sustainable clothing, natural fibers might fit the bill. Plant-based fabrics and cruelty-free fabrics derived from animals are more sustainable than synthetic fabrics, which rely on higher water use as well as chemical processing.
Unfortunately, natural fibers are not prone to stretching unless they are highly specialized or blends that utilize synthetic components.
When making a choice, choose your fiber based on your specific needs. If an extra bit of stretch is necessary, a blend could be useful, but otherwise, sustainability and high-performance make natural fabrics highly desirable, continuing a millennia-long trend.
Synthetic Fabrics Pros and Cons
We often associate spandex with superheroes, which makes sense when you think about it. The stretching capabilities of spandex lie in its elasticity—this aids in both comfort and durability. Plus, spandex is a highly lightweight material, making it great for athletes who want to be unimpeded by their gear.
However, spandex is not perfect. Spandex is a highly stretchable, body contorting material, but the material is not especially breathable, which may cause discomfort for those prone to overheating. If you have a spandex garment, be careful how you wash it. While spandex can handle an intense summer, hot water or irons can damage the material.
In summary, spandex is a high-powered material that’s perfect for exercising. Just be sure you take proper care of your materials.
Nylon is great for the person on the go. Nylon wicks moisture, making it hold up great under long-term exercises. It also has quick-drying properties. Even if your nylon does get wet, it takes no time at all for it to dry. To add to that, nylon is highly durable, with special designs such as Olivers’ ripstop nylon creating a high-performance, distinctive athletic offering.
Sadly, nylon as a fabric has no UV resistance, meaning that harsh sunlight may bleach the material over time.
For athletes, nylon is a great choice, but if your preferred sport has you seeing a great deal of sunlight, you might find your clothing aging over time.
Polyester is a fascinating invention. First, it is recyclable. Polyester is unique among synthetic fabrics in that it is highly recyclable, making it a more sustainable fabric than many others. This fabric can last a long time; polyester maintains its shape well and is highly wrinkle resistant.
Common complaints against polyester are that it tends to hold odors in and can be highly affected by static cling.
Polyester has unique benefits and downsides as far as synthetic fabrics go, in that it is recyclable while also retaining odors, making it a strong athletic contender while possibly requiring higher maintenance than other synthetics.
Synthetic fabrics boast some impressive traits. Synthetic fabrics offer special benefits in both industrial and home contexts. In athletics, synthetics such as nylon, spandex, and polyester offer high levels of both comfort and performance. Additionally, these fabrics are quite durable. The aforementioned athletic-wear-appropriate synthetics all share high durability due to their unique properties.
However, synthetic fabrics are not always environmentally friendly. They undergo chemical processing: The creation of synthetic fabrics uses an extensive array of chemicals, which in some cases may contribute to global issues.
The verdict is in: Synthetic fabrics are performance-oriented, with flexibility and moisture-wicking capabilities offset by a chemical footprint that outstrips their organic counterparts. Consider engaging with sustainable synthetic designs, such as the Pivot Tee, which is largely made from recycled poly fibers.
Synthetic and Natural Fibers: A Final Thread
Choosing between synthetic and natural fibers and what kind of synthetic or natural fiber may seem a daunting choice. In the long run, however, the material that’s best for you depends on your personal needs and preferences.
For those looking simply to satisfy their daily activities, natural fibers provide a great deal of comfort and durability. For those with high-intensity athletics in mind, however, specially made synthetic fibers or high-quality natural materials like merino wool may be best. Whichever material is right for you, Olivers is here to serve.
Synthetic vs. Natural Fabrics in Clothing I Attire Media
Textiles and Fashions, 1860s—1960s I San Bernardino County