Many people are unaware that they have been wearing man made fibers for many decades, sometimes without knowing it – and many don’t know the difference between a natural fiber or synthetic fiber.
In fact, when I wrote this guide to the different types of fabric types, I talked a little about fibers and have since received many more questions!
So, in this article I’ll be explaining the difference between natural, synthetic and man-made fibers, the benefits of each type, and giving you a run down on the most common types to be found in your wardrobe today.
What Are The Key Differences Between The Three Fiber Types?
- Natural fibers are softer and more natural than their synthetic fiber counterparts but aren’t always as durable.
- Man made or regenerated fibers are often easier to care for than natural fibers without the need for special treatments such as dry cleaning.
- Synthetic fibers 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.
Let’s dig in deeper, starting with natural fiber which is the oldest type of fiber used in clothing.
What Are Natural Fibers?
Natural fibers 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 fiber is cotton, which comes directly from the cotton boll. Other popular natural fibers 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.
Some natural fibers have been used by man since ancient times such as cotton, linen or silk but since the 20th century manmade and synthetic fibers such as nylon, polyester and modal have become more popular.
What Are The Benefits Of Natural Fibers?
Natural fibers have a number of benefits:
- They provide greater breathability than man made or synthetic fibers
- They are often manufactured without the need for harsh chemicals
- They are biodegradable and so considered a more sustainable option
6 Popular Natural Fibers
There are of course many natural fibers used to create fabric for clothes, but the six most popular natural fibers are:
What Is Cashmere?
Cashmere fiber is a natural fiber obtained from the permed wool of cashmere goats and has been used for several hundred years. It is more insulating wool than wool collected from sheep and it has a soft, silky feel.
It can be woven into light or heavy weight fabrics depending on what you want to achieve. Fabric made with cashmere is usually more expensive than wool fabrics.
What Is Cotton?
The most well known natural fiber is cotton which has been used for centuries to create clothes and other textiles.
It is the most popular natural fiber because it’s easy to grow. It can also be viewed as more environmentally friendly as cotton crops are often harvested with minimal use of pesticides or herbicides.
I have this short guide on how cotton is made into fabric if you’d like to learn more!
What Are The Benefits Of Cotton?
Cotton has a number of benefits:
- It’s comfortable, adapting well to changes in temperature making it a great fibre for changing seasons
- It is very absorbent
- It also has natural antimicrobial properties which makes it suitable for underwear
What Is Hemp?
Hemp is a natural fiber, in existence for thousands of years and was very popular for clothing up until the 1920s – it is now seeing a surge in popularity due to its sustainability credentials.
Hemp is one of the strongest natural fibers and has natural antibacterial properties, and is found in both woven and knitted fabric form.
What Are The Benefits Of Hemp?
As well as being stronger than cotton, hemp is also more breathable, has great antibacterial and one of the more environmentally friendly fibers!
What Is Linen?
Linen is a natural fiber and originates from the flax plant. The raw material is processed into thread, which can then be woven into linen cloth. A special kind of weaving technique known as dobby creates the characteristic cross-hatch pattern on the fabric surface of linen.
Linen is a natural fiber that is super comfortable. Its popularity increased in the 18th century when it became popular with the wealthy.
What Are The Benefits Of Linen?
Linen is very breathable – helping you stay cool in summer and warm in winter, which is great for people with sensitive skin as it doesn’t irritate it the way other materials can.
What Is Silk?
Silk is made from silkworm cocoons and was first used as a fabric in China during the Han dynasty.
What Are The Benefits Of Silk?
As silk is a natural fiber, the benefits are fairly obvious:
- It’s hypoallergenic
- It’s soft and comfortable to wear
- It has neutral temperature properties making it great for all seasons
More sustainable options for silk include peace silk, which is made from the natural web of a wild silk moth, and organic silk which can be treated with natural pesticides.
Silkworms are not harmed when in the production of this type of silk because it comes from the natural web that they create to protect themselves in their cocoon. Once the silkworm has become a moth, it is able to leave its cocoon.
What Is Wool?
Wool is a natural fiber gathered from sheep. It’s widely recognised as being a natural and sustainable fiber that is great for the environment. Wool also has natural thermoregulatory properties which means it regulates temperature without needing to be washed every time you wear it – this makes it ideal for cold climates!
What Are The Benefits Of Wool?
It has some great benefits because it’s so natural – for example wool can absorb about 30% of its weight in moisture without feeling wet!
Can Natural Fibers Be Recycled?
The answer is yes. Recycling natural fibers like cotton and linen can be tricky, due to the high levels of contamination from man-made materials such as polyester or rayon, but it’s not impossible!
What Are Man Made Fibers?
Man made fibers (sometimes called semi-synthetic or regenerated fibers) are made from natural polymers. These include regenerated cellulose, which is a natural fiber made from wood or cotton pulp.
Although this type of fiber starts with a natural element, it is processed in a way that makes the resulting fiber more ‘synthetic’ than ‘natural’.
5 Common Man Made Fibers
There are many different types of man made fiber now, but the five most common used within garment making are:
- Rayon / Viscose
What Is Acetate?
Acetate fabric is a cellulose acetate based natural fiber. It does not require the use of solvents during its production process, which makes it relatively environmentally friendly and sustainable.
It is popular with designers who love its natural, lustrous appearance which is similar to silk. Acetate can be slippery so it is often worn next to the skin in the form of lining.
As well as being prone to static electricity buildup acetate is quite prone to melting when near a heat source. For this reason, it is recommended that garments made with acetate are either hand washed or dry cleaned.
Acetate is most often used as a lining, trim, or interlining.
What Is Bamboo?
Bamboo fabric is a man-made fiber from a natural resource. Bamboo is an eco-friendly fabric and as it grows, so does the bamboo plant making it quite sustainable!
What Are The Benefits Of Bamboo?
There are several benefits to using bamboo fabric when making clothing:
- Naturally antibacterial and antifungal
- Hypoallergenic making it great for those who suffer from allergies
- It is said to be a natural protector against UV
- Very absorbent, making it popular for sportswear items that get quite sweaty
- It also doesn’t wrinkle easily because it has a natural water-repellant quality.
- Bamboo fabric is 100% biodegradable.
Cupro fabric – also known as Bemberg or ammonia silk – is made from cotton waste which is treated with ammonia, caustic soda and copper. Cupro is viewed as a vegan silk alternative as it does not contain any animal substances. This makes it the perfect material for vegans and vegetarians.
Benefits Of Cupro Fabric
- Soft and silky fabric making it a great fabric for draping
- Vegan Friendly
- A lightweight and breathable fabric
What Is Modal?
Modal is a man made fibre coming from the beech wood and of rainforest trees and part of what is called a ‘closed loop’ process – this is where the chemicals used in the manufacturing process are reused.
Fabric created with modal is very soft while being strong, and is often used to create knit fabrics for knitwear garments.
What Are The Benefits Of Modal?
There are several benefits to using modal:
- It is biodegradable
- Less likely to shrink
- Doesn’t wrinkle
- Easy to care
- More sustainable option compared to purely synthetic fabrics like polyester
The downside of course is that deforestation is associated with modal.
What Is Rayon?
Rayon – known as viscose in the UK – is another regenerated cellulose fiber made mostly from wood pulp materials. It’s made by breaking down natural material into a cellulose fiber form, then processing the resulting regenerated fibers to give them desired properties for different uses.
Rayon can be used in clothing fabrics because of its strength, drapability, easy care and wrinkle resistance. It is often described as a silk substitute or ‘artificial silk’!
It feels smooth to the touch and has a natural, cotton-like feel that’s cool in hot weather, making it perfect for warm climates. Rayon is also much lighter than other fabrics like wool or polyester which makes it easier to carry when traveling!
What Are The Benefits Of Rayon?
The benefits of using rayon fabric are:
- Lighter than other fabrics
- Drapes well
- Doesn’t wrinkle easily
- Easy to care for and has a natural feel
- Cool in hot climates (so perfect for warm places)
- Lightweight – easy to pack when traveling!
- Resistant to moths
Ok, that’s man made regenerated fibers covered, let’s now look at synthetic fibers!
What Are Synthetic Fibres?
The term synthetic fiber refers to a man-made fiber created from a non-naturally occurring resource – also referred to as synthetic polymers. Synthetic fibers are created in factories from chemicals and processed into fibers or threads which are then woven or knitted to make fabrics.
Because of the manufacturing process used to create synthetic materials, they are non-biodegradable creating a significant environmental impact.
5 Examples Of Synthetic Fibers
There are many fabrics made from synthetic fibers now, but the most commonly recognised are:
- PU (polyurethane)
- PVC (polyvinyl chloride)
What Is Lycra?
Also known as elastane and spandex, lycra is an extremely elastic fiber invented in 1958. From the 1970s it became very popular in the manufacturing of athletic wear.
It is added to other fibers to create a stretchiness in the fabric – skinny denim jeans were only possible once the elastane was added in which allows the denim to cling to the shape of the legs.
A side effect of adding in this fiber is that it is very hard to recycle fabrics. We’re all familiar with the story of how 100% cotton denim used to be recycled and turned into American dollars. With the addition of lycra / elastane / spandex, this is no longer the case.
Lycra is used in swimwear, athletic wear and in other garment types too!
Extracting this stretch fiber from mixed blend fabrics – typically cotton or polyester – is extremely difficult and has had a huge environmental impact.
What Is Nylon?
Nylon is a man made fiber that was first developed in the 1930s. It is a durable fabric and can be made in many different weights, has good elasticity and does not wrinkle easily.
Nylon is commonly used to create stockings and tights, as well as net and mesh fabric types!
What Is Polyester?
Polyesters are made from natural gas and petroleum, so they’re not as sustainable as man-made regenerated fibers since the resources need to be constantly replenished.
Polyester is a synthetic fiber which has very good elasticity and can be made in many different weights. It does not wrinkle easily and it’s often used for making shirts, dresses, trousers, skirts and more.
Polyester blend fabrics are popular because they have the look of natural fibers but with the durability of polyester – poly cotton is one example of a polyester blend fabric and is used often in children’s school uniforms!
What Are The Benefits Of Polyester?
Polyesters are always man made, and are not at all sustainable, but they do have some benefits. They are:
- Quick drying
- Easily cared for at home
- Highly stain resistant
- Both strong and lightweight
While Polyester is essentially a plastic, and as such, not considered environmentally friendly, when it is recycled by melting down and respinning into new fiber, it has better sustainability credentials. This type of polyester is known as rPET.
What Is PVC?
With 40 million tonnes of PVC manufactured every year, it is a very commonly used synthetic fiber. But how is PVC used in clothing?
PVC has been used for clothing since the late 1960s. It has a high shine factor, and comes in very bold colors as well as black and white. The patent style of PVC makes it very popular with goth and punk subcultures as well as fetishwear enthusiasts.
PVC is also used for bags and clothing as it is made from several layers and can be quite structured too.
What Are The Pitfalls Of PVC
Because of the way PVC is constructed, it:
- Cannot be washed in a washing machine
- Cannot be ironed as the vinyl coating will melt
- Excessive stretching will cause the upper coating to be damaged
What Is PU?
Also known as polyurethane, PU is fully synthetic fiber. As a fabric, it is often referred to as a vegan leather because of the way it is constructed – two layers! – and it’s pliability.
PU fabric is also more breathable than PVC and has an upper layer that more closely resembles real leather.
When you see faux leather jackets and trousers, these are typically made from PU.
Final Thoughts On Different Fibre Types
Synthetic fibers 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 fibers that use natural cellulosic fibers.
There are of course benefits and drawbacks to each fiber 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 fiber – it’s up to you, the individual, to decide which is more important for your needs!
If you love to learn about different types of textiles, I have this guide to the different fabric types and their uses here, read my guide to knit fabrics here and there’s my guide to lace fabric types too!
Eve Tokens (aka The Creative Curator) is a fashion designer, creative pattern cutter and sewing pattern designer.
Eve graduated with a 2:1 in Fashion Design from the University of The Creative Arts in the UK, has a BTEC diploma in Creative Pattern Cutting, a Foundation Degree in Art & Design from Wimbledon College of Art and gained extensive experience in the fashion industry by interning and freelancing for London based fashion brands – Hardy Amies, Roland Mouret, Peter Pilotto and others.
As well as running her own small sustainable fashion brand, Eve has more than 25 years experience sewing and making clothes for herself and family members.