ARTIFICIAL FIBRES, Main Characteristics

By Be Quality | Comments: 0 | February 26, 2024

The Artificial Fibres are man-made, as they are fibres that we can not find as such in nature. The raw material are natural components, as cellulose or proteins mixed with other chemical substances. These components pass through physical and chemical processes to obtain the textile fibres.

A Bit of History

Artificial Fibres have been developed since at least 100 years. It first started during the silk industry crisis in France at the end of XIX century. This turned into a research for a fibre that could imitate silk, as an alternative to save their industry.

On those days, the Count Hilaire de Chardonnet developed a fibre made of cellulose, which was very soft and shiny, similar to silk, and with a lower cost.

Since then, there have been many developments on artificial fibres to cover different needs.

The Industry Today

The more common artificial fibres in the fashion industry are Rayon, Viscose, Bamboo, Acetate, Modal. These fibres are all made with cellulosic material, such as wood pulp, cotton waste, bamboo plants, etc. Some viscoses use mainly eucalyptus wood, a tree that grows much faster than many trees in the region. You can read more about the impact of eucalyptus forests here.

The raw material is first bleached (with hypochlorite bleach) to whiten it, and then it is further dissolved into a paste with some chemical agents such as caustic soda, acetic acid, acetone among others. I would like to underline that all these chemicals either evaporate during the process (and end in the air), either finish on the discharge waters, or form part of the fibres (and the garments).

In general, artificial fibres are cheaper than natural fibres, and this is the reason why we find them so widely in the fast-fashion industry.

The interesting thing about the artificial fibres is that they have some of the main characteristics of the natural fibres. They are breathable, absorb the moisture & sweat of our bodies, can conduct the static electricity, and as a consequence have a similar comfort as natural fibres.

The main difference between them is how cellulose is transformed and what kind of chemicals are added in the process to give them their final characteristics. As a consequence, they may differ in resistance, lustre, flexibility, tensile strength, durability, humidity absorbance, washing shrinkage, softness, etc.

Another aspect to consider is that we can find artificial fibres either on a very long fibre like the silk (a continuous filament) or cut into staples with the intention to have a closer feeling to cotton.

Today, the biggest production volumes of artificial fibres are mainly in Asia. There is also some production in Europe and in the USA, but in much lower volumes.

The most Common Artificial Fibres

Rayon: is the first developed artificial fibre. It is soft and breathable, like almost all the artificial fibres. Moreover, it is stronger and also more resistant to wrinkles, comparing to the other artificial fibres. But cotton is more resistant, specially when the fibre is wet. For this reason rayon is widely used in almost all kinds of Fashion Garments. And also in a wide variety of Home Textiles, including bed-sheets, tablecloths, curtains, etc

Viscose: Is mainly a cheaper version of cotton and silk, or something in between. It is softer than Rayon, but less resistant. It is one of the less environmental friendly fibre. As it’s production involves a caustic substance. For this reason, some (few) manufacturers use a closed-loop system to contain these chemicals. By this way, there is less pollution, as they recycle some corrosive chemical products. Another element to consider is that viscose has low dimensional stability. This means it can shrink or become bigger with washing or ironing. We find viscose mainly in Fashion Garments, while only some Home Textiles use it. There are many branded viscoses that are very popular today in the market.

Modal: This is a fibre made from cellulose from beech trees. It has a slightly warmer feeling than the other artificial fibres mentioned here. In some companies I used to work for, they used modal for the winter collections and viscose for the summer.

Acetate: this is one fibre with high lustre, imitating silk. It can produce very elegant fabrics and also inner linings of luxury garments. Besides the Fashion Garments, its use for Home Textiles is important, specially in brocades, satins, etc. Moreover, we can find acetate in the cigarette filters, pillow fillings, etc.

Bamboo: Is one of the youngest artificial fibres in the market. It has a great success, as it is very shiny, fresh and soft. It comes from bamboo plant, that is a very fast growing plant. For this reason it can be an endemic plant, if it is not controlled. I would like to underline that Bamboo consumes a lot water.

Environmental Impact

The environmental impact of artificial fibres is higher than we can imagine.

As the raw materials of some are wood pulp, in some areas there is a deforestation phenomenon occurring. Or even a reduction of native forests, including fauna and flora.

As an example, some viscoses use eucalyptus tree pulp. This is a tree coming from Australia, that has a fast growing rate. To consider that in Australia there is a specific fauna which eats and degrades the elements of this tree. This includes mammals, as the koala bear, up to microorganisms. We do not have this fauna in Europe. For this reason it is an endemic species, as is displacing native forests (native fauna and flora have disappeared from many places already).

As a consequence of this, the eucalyptus trees create a high fire risk situation. Mainly because their leaves do not naturally degrade, it creates a thick layer of dry vegetal material, easy to burn. Moreover, they also contain oils that are inflammable. You can read more about this here.

The production process of the artificial fibres involves many toxic chemicals. Some end up in the air and others in the waste waters, directly or indirectly. We should remember that the production of artificial fibres is in high percentages in countries where there are not strict laws as in Europe concerning the environmental impacts.

Another point to underline is that artificial fibres are mainly from natural raw materials. But there is still chemical products in their final composition. This means that they are not 100% biodegradable. It is confirmed by studies, that micro particles of viscose are present inside the stomach of some molluscs and little fish. In the same study no natural fibres particles were present. You can find more about microplastics in this article.

In Conclusion

In conclusion, artificial fibres can be an alternative to natural fibres, as they have similar characteristics of comfort and breathability. Anyway we have to consider that this happens with a higher impact on the environment. Even though the strong marketing some brands use to inform that their products are “natural”, they are not 100%.

Obviously, when we compare artificial fibres with synthetic fibres, the artificials are more eco-friendly.

From my point of view, natural fibres are always the best choice, for us and for our planet. Just observe the history of human civilizations since thousands of years using only natural fibres.


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