A Guide to Fabric: Synthetic Fibers


In my last article, I explained natural fibers and all the pros and cons of these.

For this installment, man-made fibers and blended fabrics will take centre stage. Since these are used in modern clothing most often, it is really important to know a bit about them before you make that next purchase.

Artificial fibers were created in the late 19th Century, when scientists first began to replicate naturally occurring fibers using wood material, which they called viscose. This was then renamed to rayon. The first truly man-made fiber was nylon, becoming immensely popular in the 1940s, especially for women’s stockings. Since then, synthetic fibers have improved dramatically, and the number of these materials available to the market have grown – all thanks to several scientific discoveries and improvements.


Types of Synthetic Fabrics

While there are many more synthetic fabrics, polyester, nylon, rayon, acrylic, and spandex are the most common.

Polyester – this fabric is super strong, is machine washable, and resists wrinkling very well. It is not particularly absorbent though, and is subject to mildew, which isn’t ideal. Polyester is often used in lining fabrics, as well as in cotton/poly blends.

Nylon – used to make satins, chiffons, tricots, knits, and upholstery (how versatile!), nylon is strong, machine washable, elastic, and wrinkle-resistant. Its absorbency isn’t amazing, however.

Rayon – absorbent and stretchy, rayon is used to imitate silk, linen, and cotton, often through blending with other fibers. This fabric is relatively weak, however, and often needs to be dry-cleaned as it has the tendency to shrink or stretch if improperly handled.

Acrylic – this material is strong and machine washable, wrinke-resistant, and dyes well. While it pills and isn’t very absorbent, it blends well with wool, cotton, and rayon. Often used to make fake fur, knits, and fleece, it can also imitate wool. 

Spandex – strong, non-absorbent, and very stretchy. These features make spandex a great choice for swimwear, form-fitting clothing, and 80s dress-up party outfits. It is generally machine washable and relatively easy to care for.


Blended Fabrics

Blended fabrics can offer the best of both worlds by combining fibers to accentuate their strengths, while downplaying their weaknesses. The blending process creates thousands of possible fabrics, which is why you should definitely have a look at the percentage breakdown on the tags of your clothes before you buy them. Having a rough idea of the kinds of fibers that particular clothing item is made of can help you decide whether to buy it or leave it on the shelf.


Synthetic fabrics are specially designed to both replicate natural fibers and add benefits, such as waterproofing and stretch, to fabrics. Though synthetic fabrics do not generally have the longevity of natural fiber fabrics, they are often the more thrifty choice and require less care.

Also, consider how long you plan to be using a piece when you buy it. If you are hoping to keep something for more than a year or two, strongly consider investing in a higher quality piece in a natural fiber, but if you’re following an iffy trend, you may be better off purchasing the less expensive synthetic option!

Be sure to keep seasonal temperatures in mind as you shop as well. Synthetic options that have poor absorbency are often not great choices for the warm New Zealand summer, due to the fact that they trap both the heat and sweat against your skin, which can get uncomfortable very quickly! It’s best to opt for natural fibers or blends that include natural fibers if you are shopping for the upcoming summer season.

– Lena Aseeva


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