Friday, February 15, 2013

Why I Like Synthetic Fibers

In the pseudo-circle of people I know, natural is the word.

The food is organic.
The cooking is traditional.
Teaching. Learning. Cleaners. Footwear. All that.
Natural is in it all.

But clothing fibers are where I fall jump off the natural wagon on a lot of occasions.

My reasons are varied but it usually all comes down to the fibers.

Hydrophobic or Hydrophilic?

or "Excuse me while I get my geek on."

In the textile industry, fabric fibers are described as either hydrophobic or hydrophilic.  "Hydro" is the Greek prefix for "water".  "Philic" is the suffix for "loving," and "phobic" is the suffix for "hating/repelling".  

Natural fibers (those gathered from organic sources) are most likely to be hydrophilic, especially when the natural oils are removed as is common in the processing.  Cotton, linen, silk, wool, hemp, and several others fall into this category.

Synthetic fibers are hydrophobic.  They are fabricated from inorganic materials.  You know.  Like plastic.  Polyester, nylon, rayon, spandex, and a bunch of other meltable (and trademarked) fabrics are in this list. 

The reasons why these fibers are hydrophobic or hydrophilic are varied.  My best understanding involves cellular structure and that's why I love it so very, very much.  

Cells of plants and animals all have walls.  To keep the innards in, the bad stuff out, and to filter the comings & goings of things across this border.  Cell walls are designed to be a permeable barrier and they never really lose that feature - even when the cell is dead.

As the cells are exposed to water, they get wet.  No different than the hydrophobic, synthetic fibers, right?  But at the fiber level there is a difference.  Cell walls want to take in water.  Synthetic fibers just get wet.

Once the fabric is wet, the benefit of synthetic fibers is in the drying process.

Let's say I have a gajillion plant cells forming hydrophilic fibers in one hand and a gajillion thermoplastic hydrophopic fibers in the other hand.

Grey shirt: 100% cotton, Men's Large, 15.5 oz
Red shirt: 100% recycled polyester, Men's Large, 13oz

Now I immerse them in water for 15 min and hang them up to dry.  The sun is shining but it's February in Minnesota so these north-facing windows are shut.  And those are cabinets on each side of my kitchen sink.  No fans.  No cheating.  Just two shirts on hangers.

Completely wet but not quite dripping:
Grey shirt: 3 lb 14 oz
Red shirt: 2 lb 8 oz
Weights after hanging 2 hours:
Grey shirt : 2 lb 2 oz 
Red shirt: 1 lb 8 oz

Weights after hanging 5 hours:
Grey shirt: 1 lb 6 oz
Red shirt: 15 oz

Weights after hanging 6 hours:
Grey shirt: 1 lb 3.5 oz

Red shirt: 13 oz

After 6 hours at at 68*F on a hanger, the synthetic shirt was dry at its original weight.  The cotton shirt still had 4 oz of water in it.

OK.  So, synthetic fibers dry faster.  Why does that matter?  It matters for a variety of reasons. My two favorites are sweat and drying. In my book, they are different.

Most people sweat and kids are no exception.  A sweat-soaked, cotton t-shirt or dress shirt stays wet longer.  It's cold and clammy and stays that way for hours and hours in the dirty laundry basket (assuming it ever gets there but that's a whole 'nother topic).  On the body, it's always cooling.  That's fine if you are moving to keep warm.  But once you stop hiking for the day, that shirt will lead you to chills in the evening.  On scrawny little seven-year-olds, it happens even faster.  Synthetic fibers dry faster and return to their dry functioning state quickly.

Drying laundry is as certain as taxes.  It's going to happen.  Synthetic fibers dry much faster on the clothes line or in the dryer.  For the average person, that's not a big deal.  BUT if you are the mom who has to resurrect an outfit that the toddler has just yurped all over in the van - it's a life-saver!  

  1. Strip child. Remove chunks. Stifle gag.
  2. Put clothing in plastic bag w/o holes. Half fill bag with water.  (You do have water bottles, right? Good.)
  3. Slosh clothing thoroughly.
  4. Get your hands in there and rinse that stuff out really well.  
  5. Rinse & Sniff.  (You know what I mean. Icky job but SomeMommy's gotta do it.)
  6. When you think it's rinsed enough, lay it out over the defroster vents and hit the road again.  Flip clothing as needed to get elastic waistbands & pocket layers dry.
You saw the pictures above.  This method works and the stuff will be dry in a hurry.  Ask me how I know.  And how many times this method has been varied and tested.

But do you guys wear this stuff all the time?  Really?  Like super-athletes to the grocery store or something?  No.  We usually wear whatever is around and cheap.  In our every-day life, we don't need to worry about chills.  "If you are cold, get a sweatshirt from your room."  But when I can get it cheap, I snatch up.  We do go camping, hiking and otherwise adventuring when we can.  And we do make all-day trips to Town that involve in & out of buildings and vehicles and treks across the parking lot.  Clothing that wicks and dries is great for those outings!

Eventually, I will blog about how we pack for all of us for extended trips and then you will see again how handy these fibers can be.  But that's another post for another day... or two.


  1. Enlightening! Truly because I have wondered about this topic but never bothered to look into.

  2. I learned some of this from hiking blogs that I read. Very important when exerting in cold weather. Could mean the difference between hypothermia or not.
    The one exception to this that I've been reading about just recently is Bamboo. I've just read a bit but, it is natural fabric that wicks and dries faster. Even a bit anti bacterial, I think. This is debated.
    You probably know all this though. :)

    1. I've only just read about bamboo. I've seen it but not every even tried anything on in any bamboo line. It sounds REALLY interesting though.

      It was said that injinji was investigating making their toe socks with bamboo fibers. I don't know what ever became of that.

      I'm guessing it would drive prices up as well but if it's a good fiber and wears well, I would consider it. At least for adults that are less likely to destroy them in normal use.

    2. I actually ordered some bamboo fabric to make a headband/wrap out of. I ordered the stretch knit type. It is a very soft material. I like the way it feels. But I'm sure that synthetics are much more durable.
      I'm thinking of making under clothes (tank tops and shorts) out of it though. Very soft and comfortable feeling.
      I found my material on Etsy.

    3. COOL! I would think it would be quite soft and comfortable. I seem to remember seeing some men's shirts in a catalog somewhere made of bamboo. Men don't usually go for uncomfortable....

  3. very interesting. I've been looking at fabric types too, as some clothes seem to smell cleaner than others- don't hold the gym stink. I haven't been able to determine which hold it and which get cleaner- what do you think? fast AND truly clean are both important to the Mama doing tons of laundry/week :)

    1. I have found this to be true as well. The Man wears synthetics every day. In the winter and cool times of the spring or fall, he usually has no problem with his every day items. But his shirts can pick up a smell after a month or two during the summer months.

      Synthetic t-shirts will carry odors longer than cotton t-shirts. I don't know about wool or other natural fibers. (I don't have many natural fibers beyond cotton.) But I have a fix for that!

      My usual laundry soap is actually a real soap. I use a method similar to HealthyBratt:

      When my synthetics get that lingering stink, I just run a single load through the washer with commercial detergent. That usually takes care of the smell in one load. For really, really bad batch of running gear, I put ammonia in the slot for fabric softener in my washer.

      This almost always takes away that lingering smell. It's possible to permanently "stain" those fibers like anything else - but that's the exception to the rule.

    2. Thanks! I'll have to try the ammonia thing. Working on making my own laundry soap when the big container we have is gone- what soap do you use- and why not Ivory anymore (for HB)?

    3. (answering until HB can)
      I use some home made soap I was given from some great folks at AJ's Country Cottage.

      I use whatever I happen to have. I've never had any soap that I didn't think wasn't effective in this method.