Understanding how tailors use artificial fabrics in suits and shirts.
Wool and cotton have long been the staples of clothing construction, but the last century has seen an explosion in the production of artificial fabrics and fibers as well. These materials are changed, upgraded, and replaced at a much faster rate than the long-standing natural materials, and can be expected to continue improving into the future.
Understanding when to wear them — and when to avoid them — will always be part of being a well-dressed man.
Rayon in Menswear
Manufacture of Rayon
Like many manmade fibers, “rayon” uses a single word to refer to an entire category of textiles. Several different brand names all fall under the definition of rayon, and it is now the most commonly-appearing term on garments that utilize the fiber.
Rayon is made of natural materials (most commonly wood pulp) that are chemically treated to allow their naturally-occurring cellulose to be formed into fibrous filaments. The filaments are then woven like a hair or plant fiber.
Properties and Use of Rayon in Menswear
The process of spinning cellulose into thread allows manufacturers to control the thickness and length of rayon fibers, allowing quite a bit of variation in the finished cloth. Rayon is overall a very soft fiber that drapes well, and it can be made to appear very similar to cotton, wool, linen or silk.
It breathes well, and is smooth and comfortable against the skin. Rayon is most commonly used blended with other fibers, lending softness and absorbency to a fabric while avoiding the extensive care that pure rayon garments would require.
Care for Rayon in Clothing
Rayon is a weak fabric, and also one that is quite susceptible to water damage — the fibers swell when wet, and have difficulty returning to their original shape. A particular process can produce what is called high wet modulus or HWM rayon, which holds up much better when wet, but rayon garments in general should be dry cleaned.
Garments which only use a small percentage of rayon (this is common in undershirts and jockey shorts, for example) can be safely washed, though they may lose some of their surface softness as a result. Rayon stretches easily, and does not return to its original shape, making tight, form-fitting garments very short-lived.
Rayon and the Environment
Buyers concerned about “green” clothing find a mixed bag in rayon — the materials used are naturally-occurring and renewable, but the processing is both chemical- and energy-intensive. Depending on the facility, rayon may cause substantial water and soil pollution as a result of its production.
The cellulose is biodegradable but can last for many years in landfills, and there are no other means of recycling rayon available. Rayon made in the USA is required to meet strict environmental standards in production, but consumers should be aware that garments labeled as Made in the USA are assembled in the United States, but do not necessarily use rayon produced there.
Acetate in Menswear
Properties and Use of Acetate in Menswear
Although the name is less commonly-known, acetate is one of the more frequently-appearing manmade fibers in menswear. It has a smooth and very lustrous sheen (it was originally marketed as an artificial silk) and drapes very evenly, making it a widely-used liner fabric in jackets and trousers. It breathes well and can absorb a moderate amount of moisture, allowing it to sit comfortably against bare skin.
Among most garment-makers, acetate is viewed as preferable to silk for the interior lining of jackets and similar menswear due to its durability and comfort. Acetate can be wrinkled or damaged by long-term stretching and crumpling, but is sufficiently durable for its most common use as a liner.
Manufacture of Acetate
Acetate is another fiber made from natural materials that do not naturally form spinnable fibers. The process for manufacture is more complicated than that of rayon, and often more environmentally damaging; some kinds of acetate can no longer be produced in the United States due to the hazards of production.
Like rayon, the most common source of acetate is wood pulp, which is dissolved into a solution that can be spun out in individual strands. It is then stretched and wound like other threads and woven normally.
Care for Acetate Fabric
Acetate is usually used in garments that require dry cleaning, and will not be harmed by the process. It can be washed in water as well but cannot hold up to the stretching of a strong wash cycle or the heat of most commercial dryer settings, making it a hand-wash only fabric if dry cleaning is not used.
Jackets with an acetate liner should be hung neatly, as the fabric will crumple and lose its shape if left bunched.
Acetate and the Environment
Like rayon, acetate is made from natural, renewable, and biodegradable materials, but requires intensive chemical treatments to be made into workable fiber. It shares most of rayon's disadvantages, produces even more difficult-to-dispose-of runoff, and takes far longer to break down naturally. It compares very unfavorably to silk in terms of its environmental impact overall, but remains in use due to its affordability and durability.
Nylon in Menswear
Properties and Use of Nylon in Menswear
“Nylons” is a word typically associated with women's clothing, but the odds are that most men have worn nylon at one point or another in their life as well. Indeed, many men's dress socks (hosiery) are nylon, simply in a thicker and less lustrous form than in women's hose. It blends well with cotton, adding stretch and durability.
It is rarely seen in dress clothing outside of hosiery and undergarments, and even then tends to appear only in blends, but it features prominently in a great deal of undress sportswear and outdoorswear.
Manufacture of Nylon
Nylon is completely synthetic, that is, it was engineered from the original molecular structure up. Its raw form is a liquid solution which can be drawn out into solid filaments. These can take a number of different shapes and thicknesses, resulting in a wide range of end products. Nylon can be made stronger and less flexible or lighter and even more elastic by chemical changes to the initial solution, making it an extremely versatile fiber.
Care for Nylon Garments
Nylon requires little care; in many ways it altered the way Americans thought about clothing care entirely. Nylon keeps its shape extremely well, even when wet. Its only bane is heat: nylon clothing should always be air-dried and kept away from prolonged exposure to even low-level heat.
It also has a tendency to pick up dye and microscopic bits of fiber from other fabrics, meaning that it will take on the color of other clothes if washed or closely stored with them. It is also a high-static fiber, which does not harm the garment but can be irritating for the wearer.
Nylon and the Environment
Nylon is a petroleum-based product, meaning that it is oil-dependent. The vast majority of nylon is, however, produced using byproducts from oil refineries, making it a form of recycling in its own right; techniques for recycling nylon fabric also exist. It does not require the extensive chemical treatment of rayon or acetate, and requires relatively little power to produce and process. Nylon is not biodegradable.
Properties and Use of Polyester in Menswear
“Polyester” is synonymous in many people's minds with cheap, loudly-pattered shirts, and both the cost of manufacture and the ability to hold dyes are among the qualities that make polyester the most widely-used synthetic fiber in the United States. The highly versatile material can be blended or woven with nearly any other fabric.
It is lightweight, easy to care for, and extremely durable. Its chief weaknesses are its lack of breathability and its texture, which is smooth but also sheer and slick, giving garments with a high polyester content a very “plastic” feel. Polyester appears in most clothing, even in suits, but is best worn blended with natural fibers for shirting in non-humid climates.
Manufacture of Polyester
Polyester is another artificial molecule created by chemical reactions. It is spun into thread while heated, allowing the shape of the thread to be changed by changing the aperture on the spinneret. Different shapes create different textures and allow for the creation of different weaves.
Many patented fibers are made by adding other chemicals to the polyester base, making it possible to control static build-up or improve the absorbency of the finished fabric.
Care for Polyester Garments
Polyester was a key contributer to the idea of easy-care garments; keeping it in good shape is much easier than caring for wool or even cotton. It can be washed and dried, so long as excess heat is avoided, and holds up well to both hanging and folding. The fibers are stain- and mildew-resistant, and offer no interest to moths or other insects.
Gaps in the structure of the polyester fiber sometimes fill with dirt, which allows odor-emitting bacteria to grow, but this can be combatted with mild detergents or bleach.
Polyester and the Environment
Like nylon, polyester is entirely synthetic and does not biodegrade. However, it can be extensively recycled, and brands exist now that make their fabrics entirely from recycled polyester.
This, in turn, means that there is far more infrastructure in place dedicated to recycling polyester, making polyester garments less likely to become pure landfill.
The chemical reaction used to create polyester is reasonably low-impact, and its byproducts can be processed harmless, making polyester more eco-friendly than its petroleum origins would suggest.