Potential narratives and research areas

The Featured fibres and materials entries include suggestions for potential narratives and research. Many are applicable beyond the featured fibre that they are associated within the text. In this section the narratives and suggestions for further research have been arranged by theme and offer a different way of accessing them. It is important to remember that manufacturing textiles from natural fibres also has disadvantages and dangers as well as benefits.

Historical drivers behind the development of synthetic fibres

  • not subject to the effects of seasonality, crop failure, disease, the fluctuating cost of expensive raw materials such as silk or interrupted supply chains.
  • once the fibres are commercially viable, they are usually less expensive than natural materials.
  • offered a means of developing a new industry to reduce unemployment, as for example the viscose rayon industry established in Norway in the 1930s; or, in the case of a company, Courtaulds, to manufacture a new product range to replace a material for which demand had stalled.
  • not affected by moth and other pests: easier to warehouse.

Possible environmental impacts of the manufacture and use of synthetic fabrics

  • occupational health hazards caused by exposure to chemicals and industrial accidents.
  • emission of toxic fumes which can lead to land, air and water pollution, resulting in health risks for those living in the vicinity of production sites and within range of their chimneys, as well as those living downstream from affected waterways.
  • water pollution can poison drinking water supplies and kill fish stock; land pollution can destroy ecosystems, affecting domestic animals, flora and fauna.
  • their manufacture can pose a fire risk.
  • microfibres shed during domestic washing, which are harmful to species including humans.

Animal welfare

  • substitutes for silk, leather, fur and wool.
  • synthetic fibres are marketed as animal-friendly and suitable for vegans, but it is important to remember that their production can pollute the land, air and water upon which animals depend.
  • comparative impact of synthetic (man-made) textiles and textiles derived from plants and animals.

Contribution to fashion

  • reduction in cost of fashion.
  • introduction of new materials with properties and qualities, especially textural, that are not found in fabrics made from traditional materials, for example PVC.
  • blending natural and synthetic fibres has many benefits in terms of cost and performance.
  • finishing agents made from synthetics can improve the performance and care of natural materials, for instance making woollen garments machine washable.
  • synthetics such as elastane have revolutionised the comfort and performance of close-fitting clothes such as underwear and sportswear.

Contribution to technical textiles for specialist situations

  • warfare.
  • protection in extreme heat and cold.
  • space travel.

Contribution to a democratic world

  • generally low cost.
  • easy care: wash and wear, quick drying, non-iron.
  • hardwearing and not affected by moth and other pests.
  • mimicry of luxury materials.

Contribution to climate change

  • fully synthetic fibres are made from non-renewable resources; their manufacture can be very energy intensive from the extraction and transportation of the oil and gas from which they are made to their manufacture; this in turn increases greenhouse gas emissions.
  • pollution generated by their manufacture can harm delicate ecosystems, on land and in the sea and other waterways, whose damage impacts on the flora and fauna that depend on them.
  • many synthetic fibres are not biodegradable; recycling is not always an option; disposal by incineration and landfill can lead to more pollution and emissions.

Contribution to sustainability

  • some semi-synthetic fibres can be produced in closed loop systems designed to reduce or eliminate toxins and reduce water use and wastage.
  • some synthetics, for instance polyester, are very durable and have the potential to be recycled both as garments and fabric as well as being recycled to create new fibres.
  • some semi-synthetics, for instance those made with cotton linters , and regenerated protein fibres, utilise a waste product.
  • a new generation of bio-based synthetics is the subject of global research, development and investment.

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