“Synthetic” is sort of a dirty word in clothing catalogs. Writers will work carefully to avoid it, not because synthetic or man-made fabrics are inherently inferior but because many consumers associate them with cheap, plasticy goods and tacky shirts. But synthetic goods have been used in clothing for more than a century now, with vulcanized rubber raincoats as the first widely-recognized example, and they continue to serve vital functions in quality men’s clothing. As with anything, the well-dressed man simply needs to understand what garments should incorporate synthetics, and for what effect — and which should always be 100% natural.
Part 1 of this series looks at fibers which are man-made from naturally-occurring materials. In Part 2, we’ll take a look at the entirely synthetic fibers manufactured by chemical processes.
Rayon in Menswear
“Rayon” is not a single fabric or a trademark; it is a common term used for any material made through a specific process. Wood pulp is treated chemically to turn the naturally-occurring cellulose into a substance that can be spun into tiny filaments. The individual filaments are then spun into threads of the desired thickness, allowing different weights of cloth to be produced.
Rayon fabrics are very smooth and drape without wrinkling. The cloth can be made to appear very similar to cotton or silk, depending on its weight and the number of fibers used. It lacks the strength and weight of natural fibers like cotton or wool, however, and is generally seen as an element in a blended weave rather than as the sole fiber of a garment. Cotton products in particular often have rayon blended in for added softness and smoothness. Garments with a high percentage of rayon may not last long — the fiber does not hold up well to water or damp, and it tends to lose shape quickly when stretched.
The process used to make rayon is chemical-intensive and the fibers themselves can last for many years before decomposing, making it one of the less environmentally-friendly fabrics on the market. Production within the USA is better-regulated than elsewhere, so try to buy garments made in the USA (and with ingredients only produced in the USA as well) if environmental impact is a concern.
Acetate in Menswear
Most men aren’t familiar with the term acetate as it relates to clothing, but it’s actually one of the more commonly-used man-made fibers. It was first marketed as an artificial silk due to its smooth surface and glossy sheen, and it remains the fabric of choice for interior linings. While silk-lined jackets are considered a luxury item, the more common acetate is actually the superior fabric due to its high wrinkle resistance, low static cling, and superior wicking and moisture absorption. Its use is almost exclusive interior, however, as it can become wrinkled if left crumpled or folded too long and lacks the durability needed for an exterior fabric.
Production of acetate is somewhat similar to that of rayon, with naturally-occurring cellulose (again from wood pulp) drawn out and chemically treated to provide spinnable filaments. The by-products and process can be more hazardous, and some forms of acetate manufacture are illegal in the United States. The fabric can be dry-cleaned or hand-washed safely, but breaks down in the heat of a conventional drier.