Beyond Artificial Yarns: Synthetics

As noted in two earlier posts, artificial yarns are made from a natural substance (e.g., wood or bamboo). In contrast, synthetic yarns come from a man-made (woman-made?) goo that is forced through holes into the air, forming threads. These threads are then plied into yarn.

The first synthetic fiber was nylon (a thermoplastic polyamide), created in the late 1930s by Dr. Wallace Hume Carothers, a chemist at at DuPont. DuPont is an American chemical company originally founded as a gunpowder mill in the early 19th century. As U.S. relations with Japan were breaking down and most silk came from Japan, DuPont was interested in creating a silk replacement.

In 1939, nylon was first pitched, however, to women’s club members, and (non-stretch) nylon hosiery was manufactured to replace silk stockings. Women began to wear “nylons.” In the 1940s, the military began to replace silk parachutes with nylon ones. (For more information about vintage nylon hose and source of 1951 above right, see Inherited Values; source of pic at left.)

Nylon is frequently combined to wool to add durability, but other synthetic yarns popular with knitters and crocheters include acrylic (polymerized from acrylonitrile) and polyester (generally a thermoplastic and refers to polyethylene terephthalate, aka PET, which was originally patented in 1941 by two British chemists). The original manufacturer of polyester fiber was Imperial Chemical Industries or ICI. DuPont bought the U.S. rights in 1945.

In the 1950s, DuPont introduced polyester fabric for clothing – clothing that did not need ironing (a big selling point for many).

Who remembers men’s polyester leisure suits of the 1970s?! (The pictures of these natty double-knit polyester ensembles are from The Henry Ford Museum. Interesting, isn’t it, when you think about the relationship between Henry Ford and polyester clothing!)

(Here are some links for more information about the invention/discovery and development of polyester and nylon.)

Now I am not sure if it’s my mind or my keen olfactory senses, 🙂 but I could swear I catch whiffs of petrochemicals if I wear clothes made from either synthetic or artificial yarns. How about you?


About sweatyknitter

Fiber art devotee, author, and amateur artisan bread baker.
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18 Responses to Beyond Artificial Yarns: Synthetics

  1. Pingback: Synthetics and Man-made Staple fibers – africasiaeuro

  2. I think something immoral if it’s done purposely to hurt someone or something. So please don’t be too hard on yourself 🙂


  3. I donated half of my stash to the knitting for peace charity group I started but then my mom started getting mad because I was starting to donate skeins she had given to me :/ But they’re are just like, there and I have no desire to touch them -___- is it immoral I’ve used them to knit things for swaps? Just so I had a legitimate way to be rid of them…. lol


  4. Thank you; I am happy to know you are enjoying my blog. Re what to do with your synthetic yarns, perhaps donate them to someplace like Goodwill? One of our local homeless shelters was giving knitting lessons to its residents, so perhaps there’s a local organization that could put them to good use.


  5. Reading all of your (fabulously written) articles about different fibers has only reinforced my decision to knit with strictly 100% natural fibers. Now if I could find a way to dump off the synthetic fibers I do have without my mom killing me…


  6. I think that’s the wisest gauge to fashion, will I and others laugh at this in years to come? 🙂


  7. I am with you. I remember my first polyester (double knit, of course) dress – in a hideous bright orange with a black plaid skirt. (Gag!) I hated the feel and smell of it … it was like wearing something that wasn’t supposed to be worn. And just maybe it could stand up by itself. 🙂


  8. I like your choice of words “with more than 20% plastic in it,” Now why don’t advertisers let us know! 🙂


  9. I hadn’t heard about “pearl powder.” Thanks for mentioning it … I’ll take a looksey. 🙂

    Yes, those suits were indeed “natty” — they were awful then and they’re still awful. Those poor men whose children now laugh hysterically when they see photos of their dads wearing those outfits. 🙂


  10. I’ve had rayon shirts I’ve given away because they have petro-chemical smells. (I’m assuming your chem teacher lived through WWII.) I’m thinking about making my own slips now (out of silk?).


  11. Oh my – I too regularly smell chemical odors in fabric and some clothing shops! I hadn’t thought of it before reading your comment.


  12. Deanne says:

    Funny how I never thought of bamboo as artificial per se. But I get it now. Disappointing to learn of its chemical processing. I definitely notice off gassing off synthetic fabrics when I’m shopping. You can smell it in the store. Some stores I feel great sympathy for the young kids working there, breathing it all in.
    Lovely vintage images.


  13. kiwiyarns says:

    As a child, I refused to wear anything synthetic. It felt icky and sticky, to use the childish term! Fortunately, we lived in a warm country where cotton was very suitable clothing! I still dislike synthetics and generally end up discarding anything in my wardrobe in synthetic when I do try to wear it. I will tolerate 10% nylon in some yarns, but in most cases I use 100% natural fibre. It just feels so much better…


  14. ethgran says:

    Oh, do I remember the plastic double knit of the 70’s. My husband’s rich aunt died and I was gifted some of her leisure clothing which I wore gratefully as we were starving students a the time. I also made dresses out of remnant men’s shirt fabric which I could get for next to nothing. Luckily those days are way in the past and now I have to be hard pressed to wear anything with more than 20% plastic in it, so most of the time I demand 100% cotton. Can’t wear a lot of the natural fibers (silk and alpaca are my friends) but since I live in Florida, cotton works very well for just about everything. Insidious is a good word for the synthetics, idiosyncratic eye. ;o}


  15. Nice, I’ve got images of crusty jumpers and armpits now, thanks for sharing! 😉


  16. streepie says:

    especially, as a pearl is mostly made of calcium carbonate (the stuff lime is made off, and what makes your water hard) and bits of organic material.


  17. It’s great how the major synthetics of the modern era have been fuelled by arms and war, something of another ethical dilemma perhaps. From wearing mainly wool in my childhood, somewhere in my later childhood years acrylic became pretty much the standard. Maybe my family were late to the fashion or something. Fortunately I’ve never had any trouble with it but maybe I am too over accustomed to it. At least it’s nowhere near as ‘plastic’ looking or feeling as those natty suits! I think that was the decade of overkill when it came to wearing plastic but these days it is much more insidious.

    PS. I have another fibre for you to debate: pearl powder! (I know, I couldn’t quite believe or comprehend it! For some reason, wearing a dash of pearl in your handknit or deodarant has become more popular and classier than the old string of them). 🙂


  18. streepie says:

    I have fleece blanket that reeks (!) of petro-chemicals – it has a diesel-like smell to it that does not go away. The only way to get rid of the smell would be to chuck out the blanket.
    By the way – our chemistry teacher told us that nylon was the acronym for “now, you lousy old nippons”…


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