DK Science: Synthetic Fabrics
Synthetic fabrics, such as nylon and polyester, are produced entirely from chemicals. Natural fabrics, such as cotton, silk, and wool are made of fibres from plants and animals. Synthetic fabrics are useful because they have very different or enhanced (improved) properties in comparison to natural materials. Plastic raincoats, for example, are waterproof, and stretchy Lycra® keeps its original shape.
A bodysuit made of Fastskin™ helps swimmers move through water faster than when wearing a traditional swimsuit. Fastskin™ is a stretchy fabric made of polyester and Lycra®. The bodysuit is made from several panels of Fastskin™, which hug the swimmer's body to make it as streamlined as possible.
The developers of Fastskin™ looked to nature for inspiration. They found that sharks have V-shaped ridges – called denticles – on their skin, which channel water to pass over the skin very efficiently. Fastskin™ has similar built-in ridges. The ridges help to reduce the drag of the water and push the swimmer through the water.
The starting point for most synthetic fabrics is a liquid made from the products of coal, oil, or natural gas. The liquid is forced through the fine holes of a nozzle, called a spinneret. As the liquid emerges from the holes, it is cooled so that it solidifies to form tiny threads. These threads are woven together to make fabric.
The world’s first synthetic fabric, nylon, was developed in 1938. Long chains of molecules, called polyamide, are made by heating a polymer solution to 260°C (500°F). The liquid is forced through a spinneret and the strands are treated in a cooling bath. The strands are woven together to make fabric for clothes and parachutes.