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What are Synthetic Fibers? - Definition, Types, & Examples

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  • 0:03 Synthetic Fibers
  • 0:50 Fiber Content
  • 2:05 Examples
  • 4:00 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Have you ever worn spandex workout gear? When you buy an item of clothing, do you look at the label and wonder what names like Dacron or nylon mean? In this lesson, learn about synthetic fibers and explore some examples.

Synthetic Fibers

All you have to do is look around you to see how important fabrics are to our everyday lives. Fabric is used to make things like clothing, towels, sheets, blankets, and curtains, among other items. For centuries, people relied upon natural fibers from plants and animals to make threads for fabrics. These include fibers such as cotton and wool.

So, what is a fiber? Well, it's a hair-like strand of material that can be knit or woven into a fabric. Today, many kinds of fabrics are made of synthetic fibers, which don't come from nature. They are man-made, created by processes that begin in a laboratory. Many synthetic fabrics have attractive appearances and mimic natural substances like silk. Synthetics are often smooth, lightweight and wrinkle-resistant.

Fiber Content

Synthetic fibers are made of polymers. The word polymer refers to a chemical substance composed of molecules that form long repeating chains, a characteristic that is useful in synthetic fibers.

Synthetic fibers begin as chemicals, often derived from products like coal and petroleum. Depending on the type of fabric, these chemicals are combined with acids and alcohol, sometimes heated, and then extruded. Extrusion is a manufacturing process where a chemical substance is pushed through a die or nozzle to form long threads. Think of it as similar to how a spider spins a web.

Some synthetic fabrics may be manufactured using metallic, carbon, or glass fibers. To make carbon fiber, a substance called a precursor, often a type of polymer based on plastics or petroleum, is spun and then heated to a very high temperature under tension. The end result is a very strong, stable, and lightweight fiber. Carbon fiber contains at least 90% carbon. There are many kinds of carbon fibers, and the companies that make them are very secretive about their exact manufacturing processes. Carbon fibers are used in the aerospace industry, and to make high-end cars, biomedical devices, and sporting goods because they are lightweight and very strong.

Examples

One of the first synthetic fibers created was rayon in 1910, made by processing and spinning a sticky cellulose or wood pulp solution into a silk-like fiber. Rayon is an artificial fiber but not a true synthetic because it comes from regenerated fibers, natural materials that are processed or manipulated into a fiber structure.

Nylon was one of the first true synthetic fibers. In 1939, scientists at the DuPont Corporation invented it by mixing chemical substances derived from coal and oil, then pulling strands from the mixture. The strands were then put through a cooling process to form long elastic threads. Nylon immediately became a best-selling product, used for a diverse range of products from women's stockings to parachutes.

Another synthetic fiber, polyester, was developed in 1953 from a chemical reaction involving coal and petroleum-based substances. Scientists mixed the substances with a combination of alcohol and acids, and then extruded it, creating a synthetic fabric with silk-like qualities. Familiar trade names like Dacron and Mylar signal fabrics using polyester fibers.

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