Rayon (1910) Acetate (1924) The grand quest to outdo the silkworm lead to rayon, Count Hilaire de Chardonnet's Paris sensation. These earliest synthetic fibers were still based on cotton or tree pulp cellulose ("biopolymers"). The pulp was deconstructed into a fluffy white cellulose, then turned into a viscose resin which was squeezed through spinnerets that resembled a shower head, and hardened as a "manufactured fiber from natural plants." Because of the Great War and other more profitable uses such as dope for airplane wings and celluloid for motion pictures, it took until 1924 for "artificial silk" to grab significant market share of hosiery, blouses, and linings. These "cellulosic fibers" have passed their peak as cheap petro-based fibers (nylon and polyester) and have displaced regenerated pulp fibers. Rayon manufacture requires large volumes of water, generating water pollution and waste treatment expenses. But, its high absorbency keeps it available for diapers, feminine hygiene products, cigarette filters, and surgical products.
Nylon (1939) was the first non-cellulose fiber made directly from petrochemicals and/or coal. Its petro-family of polymers is called polyamides; its source petro-molecule is toluene. In 1931, Wallace Carothers presented his finding on long chains of small molecules. The miracle fiber (no more moths! no more mildew! exceptionally strong!) replaced silk parachutes, silk stockings, and sewing thread. Nylon entered the carpet and men's sport shirt markets. In World War II, nylon was an ingredient of paper money, tires, ropes, and tents. Now, nylon seat belts, windbreakers, sleeping bags, tarpaulins, curtains, etc. are everywhere.
Polyester (1953) Its source monomers are xylene and ethylene which become the polymers polypropylene and polyethylene. Polyester fibers are lightweight and wash-and-wear, with longer fibers than nylon. As electric dryers saved women from clothesline drudgery, polyester wrinkle-free fabrics further freed them from ironing. Polyester replaced rayon and nylon in many tire fabrics, and further reduced the percentage of textiles made from cotton. (At times, polyester is used in cotton blends.) Seatbelt safety rules sparked further production. A favorite for ropes and nets, floppy disk liners, and fiberfill for sleeping bags. Some of the polyesters contain chlorine, and these have become sources of harm to wildlife and humans during production, use, and disposal of the end product.
Acrylic (1950) Modacrylic (1950) Entering the market as "wash-and-wear," polypropylene acrylics are best in blends with cotton. Acrylic was a major leap in time-saving for homemakers and washer women. Its uneven fiber surface is unique, with outstanding wickability and resistance to sunlight. Modacrylics took over the "furry" textile market, including teddy bears, wigs, deep-pile coats, paint rollers, and fake sheep fleece. Acrylics ate away at the markets for wool carpets and blankets as well as sweaters.
Olefin (1959) is a by-product of the breakdown ("cracking") of the large molecules of raw petroleum into smaller ones (propylene and ethylene gases). The most lightweight of synthetic fibers, olefin is super-comfortable, with exceptional wickability. Olefins are the best replacement for the chlorinated synthetic fibers and plastics used in medical paraphernalia. You'll also find them in sportswear, thermal underwear, cars, fabrics, carpets, and geotextiles.
Vinyon (1939) is a polyvinyl chloride with all the health problems associated with chlorinated polymers. It can bind non-woven fibers and fabrics. Vinyon has been a substitute for plant-based filters in tea bags!
Saran (1941) is another polyvinyl chloride. Its heavy fibers encourage use in public transport upholstery, deck chairs, and garden furniture.
Metallic (1946) fibers are simply to look cool in swim suits or hot pants — made with plastic and metal foils.
Spandex (1959) the stretchable fiber of bathing suits and sports clothes, is stronger and more durable than rubber, its major plant competitor.
Aramid (1961) the fire-resistant polyamide, is a favorite for aerospace and military; bullet-proof protective "armor" fabric, as well as an asbestos substitute.
PBI (1983) also has no melting point and will not ignite; it is the love of astronauts and fire departments.
Sulfar (1983) has special resistance to chemical and thermal attack; it has changed industry with filter fabrics for coal boilers, papermaker felts, electrical insulation, specialty membranes, gaskets, and packings.