In out last installment we talked about the most common man-made, natural-material fibers in menswear, rayon and acetate. Today we turn our eyes to the chemical synthetics — artificial substances created entirely by laboratory processes. Like the man-made fibers of natural materials these have their place fashion despite the modern distaste for anything labeled as “artificial.” Used properly, the most common synthetic fabrics — nylon and polyester — offer unique wardrobe properties that should not be ignored.
Nylon in Menswear
“Nylons” are inescapably associated with women’s hosiery, but men may realistically expect to wear nylon socks at some point as well. The fibers will be thicker and more opaque than women’s hose and are often blended with cotton for a more padded garment, but the nylon performs the same function: adding elasticity and moisture absorption without suffering harm from either. Nylon is created as a liquid which is then mechanically spun and dried into individual fibers, and is extremely flexible and water resistant. The construction of nylon allows a great deal of variety in the finished product; it appears in items ranging from hiking boots to formula race car safety harnesses. In menswear it commonly appears in hosiery, underwear, undershirts, and “activewear” or other informal outerwear.
Like rayon, nylon will most commonly appear as an ingredient in a blended fabric rather than as the sole material. It may make up a large percentage of the fibers if the garment is meant to be sheer and lightweight, or may only appear in small amounts if it is used to add stretch or water resistance without altering the appearance of the clothing. Nylon fibers break down easily in heat, meaning that garments with a substantial amount of nylon will need to be dry-cleaned or washed in cold water and then air-dried. Surprisingly, it is a fairly “green” fabric — most nylon is made from unavoidable oil refinery byproducts, and the process for manufacturing it requires less power and far fewer hazardous chemicals than rayon or acetate.
Polyester in Menswear
Of all the man-made fibers, polyester is likely the most instantly-recognized. Its light weight, smooth feel, and slightly slick texture, along with its ease and relatively low cost of manufacture, have made it the most widely-used synthetic fiber in the world. It holds dyes well and is easy to clean, with few drawbacks other than its plasticy sheen and low breathability. It can appear in almost any kind of garment, including suits, and can be blended with nearly any other fiber, including wool and cotton. The polyester adds durability and smoothness to the other materials. Its most common use in menswear is probably blended into shirtings.
Polyester is spun into thread from a chemical solution. The aperture of the spinneret can be adjusted to create fibers with different cross-sectional shapes, each of which results in a different texture when woven. Many companies have created patented materials by adding their own ingredients to the original polyester base, giving their products specific benefits like static resistance or additional elasticity. In any form the fabric is durable and resistant to both heat and water, making it one of the easiest fabrics to wash and dry.
From an environmental standpoint, polyester is non-biodegradable but can be recycled to make more garments. Some manufacturers have taken this up as a marketing device, and it is now possible to purchase 100% recycled polyester.