Choosing the fibers for your clothing can be a challenge. Should you go for natural or synthetic? Is natural fiber more comfortable? Can synthetic fiber keep you warm? Is one type of fiber better than the other? What is the difference between natural and synthetic fibers?
The main difference between natural and synthetic fibers is how they are made. Natural fibers are derived from plants and animals. Fabrics like cotton, wool, and silk are all natural fibers. Synthetic fibers are petroleum based. This means they are man-made. Polyester, nylon, and acrylic are all examples of synthetic fibers.
In this article, you’ll discover the differences between synthetic and natural fibers. You’ll learn the pros and cons of each one. As well as which fiber, you should choose for your next project.
Natural vs Synthetic Fibers: Key Points
Although natural and synthetic fibers can be used for the same products, they are inherently different. Your wool sweater will behave slightly differently from an acrylic one even though they look and feel the same.
That difference between the two is down to the fiber content. In this table, I’ve listed the properties of natural and synthetic materials side-by-side. That way, you can see which fiber offers the best solution for your needs.
|Natural Fiber||Synthetic Fiber|
|Absorbency||Very absorbent||Not absorbent|
|Breathability||Very breathable||Not breathable|
|Durability||Not as durable as synthetic fiber||More durable than natural fibers|
|Dye Suitability||Easy to dye. Color can be added before and after the fiber is turned into yarn or fabric||Not easy to dye. Color is added during the manufacturing stage of the fiber|
|Feel of the fabric||Can be cool in warm weather and warm in cold. Soft, comfortable feel||Can feel cold, clammy and a little clinical|
|Hypoallergenic||Does not cause allergic reactions||Chemicals within the fiber can cause allergic reactions|
|Impurities||Can contain dust particles that can be woven into the fabric or become attached post-production||Free from impurities and not prone to collecting dust|
|Mold and Mildew||Can suffer from mold and mildew||Mold and mildew resistant|
|Where the fiber comes from||Plants and animals||Oil-based and completely man-made|
What Is a Natural Fiber?
Natural fiber is essentially any fiber that can be taken from plants or animals. These are the materials that have been in existence for generations. Some, like fur and leather, have been around since people first started making clothes.
There are three main types of natural fiber. You have cellulose, protein, and mineral based. They aren’t all used to make fabric for clothes, though.
Of the three, mineral-based fibers are the ones you don’t want to wear. Or get anywhere near your skin. Although natural, they are treated with chemicals to form their products.
Derived from rocks, clay, and even glass, these fibers are used in construction. Asbestos is the most famous, possibly the one that causes more health problems, particularly when older buildings are torn down and the asbestos is broken.
The two forms of natural fiber we are interested in for this article are cellulose and protein. These are the ones you can use to make clothing textiles.
Cellulose fibers are plant-based. These fibers can be harvested from a plant’s stem, leaves, or seeds. The different parts have different properties and give the resulting fabric a different texture. Even the genus the plant belongs to can make a difference to the material produced.
Take sisal, for instance. It’s a stiff material made from the leaves of plants belonging to the agave family. It’s quite rough without any obvious elasticity. Sisal is the fiber used to make the rope that is wound around the wood of a cat tree.
Burlap is similar to sisal, but it is made from the stalks of the jute plant. This fiber is used to make bags, rugs, window treatments, and sacks. Although both fabrics are tough and durable, burlap is softer and more flexible than sisal. Making it a better choice for a rug in your bedroom. It won’t feel so rough on your feet.
Protein-based fibers come from animals. This category can be separated into two groups. Filament fibers and staple fibers. Animal hair, like wool from an alpaca or a vicuna, are examples of staple fiber. While the silk woven by a silkworm is a filament.
Pros and Cons of Natural Fibers
As we’ve seen above, there is a large selection of natural fibers. Each one inherits good and bad points from the parent plant or animal. This can give them a variable range of pros and cons.
The following table highlights the advantages and disadvantages attributed to most natural fibers. While there are some exceptions, you’ll find that many of the most popular fabrics will suffer from some, if not all, of these traits.
- Absorbent and breathable
- Can regulate your temperature
- Natural fiber fabrics are best for babies and toddlers
- Most natural fibers are easy to dye
- Can shrink in the wash
- Can be prone to wrinkles
- Some natural fibers are easily damaged by water
- Can be expensive
- Production process isn’t always environmentally friendly
- Can stain easily
What Is a Synthetic Fiber?
The basic definition of a synthetic fiber isn’t natural. It has been made in a laboratory and synthesized to look, feel, and behave like a natural fiber. Although, in reality, synthetic fabrics don’t always perform the same way as natural fiber.
Also known as man-made or artificial, synthetic fibers are derived from fossil fuels like oil. This makes them mainly petroleum-based and essentially plastic. One of the main downsides of synthetic fabric is its inability to biodegrade.
Just like a plastic water bottle, synthetic textiles will take years to decompose. Nylon, one of the more popular synthetics used in sporting apparel, can take 40 years. For polyester, you’re looking at closer to 500 years or longer.
However, it’s not all bad news for synthetics. Introduced to replace natural fibers, synthetic versions have slightly better qualities. For instance, synthetic fabrics are wrinkle-resistant and immune to mold and mildew. Even moths steer well clear of any clothing made from synthetic textiles.
Unlike natural fibers, synthetic options have existed only since the late 1800s. Even then, the early examples were experimental. It wasn’t until the mid to late 1900s that many artificial fibers gained popularity as replacements for natural fabrics.
That was partly due to the difference in comfort. Synthetic materials are known for feeling clinical and cold, particularly when worn next to the skin. With advancements in modern technology, though, synthetic materials are constantly improving. These days, you’re less likely to know when you are wearing synthetic or natural fibers.
Pros and Cons of Synthetic Fibers
Synthetic fibers tend to share the same basic properties. This can give fabrics like polyester and nylon similar advantages and disadvantages, even though they are made in slightly different ways.
The following table demonstrates the generic pros and cons of synthetic fibers. You’ll find some artificial fibers have most of these attributes, and others might not have any at all. It depends on the man-made textile you are dealing with.
- Cheaper than natural fibers
- Resistant to dust, mold, mildew, and stains
- Do not shrink or bleed color in the wash
- Very durable
- Heat intolerant
- Can fade in direct sunlight
- Not biodegradable
- Derived from oil so are essentially plastic
- Production process isn’t always environmentally friendly
What’s the Difference Between Natural and Synthetic Fibers?
In this section, I’ll delve deeper into the characteristics you need to consider before purchasing fabric for your next project. Whether you’re looking for water resistance or incredible breathability, let’s take a detailed look at the properties of synthetic and natural fibers.
Most natural fibers are absorbent. The level of absorbency will differ depending on the plant or animal the fiber comes from. But they all have some ability to either soak up or wick away the moisture from your body.
Synthetic materials, on the other hand, are all water-phobic. They don’t absorb moisture. Instead, most of them repel it. This can make you feel uncomfortable. Especially if the moisture is your sweat and it’s being kept close to your skin by your polyester shirt. You’re going to feel cold and clammy.
There is a flip side to that, though. While synthetic outerwear will keep you dry in a rainstorm, natural fibers like cotton will let the water soak you to the skin. Then keep it there, leaving you feeling soggy.
Because they are natural, fibers derived from animals and plants have breathability. This is how a fabric regulates your temperature. Natural materials can make you feel cool in summer and warm in winter. This depends on the weave and thickness of the fabric too, but in the main, most natural fibers will perform this task beautifully.
For most synthetics, it’s a different story. Many are plastic or plastic-based and can’t breathe. They don’t regulate your body temperature. If you’re too cold, you’ll stay cold. Get too warm and you’ll overheat.
That’s why synthetic fibers are so dangerous for babies and young children. As they can’t determine if they are too hot or cold, they need a fabric to do that for them. Synthetics, even supersoft ones like double-brushed polyester, just can’t fulfill that task.
This is one area where the two different fibers are closely matched. Synthetic materials are known for their incredible durability. Some are used for industrial purposes as well as for making textiles. This means that synthetics do have a slight edge over natural fibers when it comes to durability.
Although natural fibers can be durable, some aren’t. Most of the time, durability isn’t just down to the fiber. Cotton, for instance, can be lightweight, like lawn, or as tough as old boots, like denim. Both types are durable, but denim will be the stronger.
If you have a silk fabric, you’ll find that it can suffer damage easily. But the silk fiber itself is incredibly durable. It just shows that it isn’t the difference between natural and synthetic that determines whether a fabric is durable. Sometimes it’s down to the weave and type of fabric.
Both natural and synthetic fibers can hold color. However, the ease at which you can add color differs greatly. While natural fibers can be dyed using standard home dye kits, synthetics can be more of a challenge.
Color is added to synthetic fibers while they are being manufactured. Adding color after the fibers are woven or knitted into a fabric is problematic. The reason for this is most synthetics are hydrophobic. They resist moisture. You’ll need special dyes. Even then, complete and uniform coverage can’t be guaranteed.
Natural fibers will suck up dye like a sponge. So if you buy a cotton shirt with the wrong color, you can change it. The same can be said for wool and silk.
Feel of the Fabric
Sometimes you can simply tell a synthetic fabric from a natural one by touching it. Synthetics can feel like plastic. This isn’t surprising, as many man-made fabrics are plastic-based. It can make them feel cold and flat.
This depends on the type of synthetic material you have. Some artificial textiles are designed to feel soft. Like double-brushed polyester, for instance. Or even polar fleece. Even so, they can still feel thin.
Natural fabrics tend to feel warmer. They have more depth and feel cozy and soft to the touch. You can feel the individual fibers within the fabric. It can help give the fabric more substance.
For this one, we’re looking at a fiber’s ability to cause an allergic reaction in the wearer of the fabric. Most natural fibers are hypoallergenic. That means they are less likely to irritate allergy sufferers.
Cotton is particularly strong in this area and is recommended as a safe fabric for those with asthma and eczema. However, cotton attracts dust and can also become covered in pet hair and mildew, which can cause allergic reactions.
Synthetic fibers contain chemicals that can cause allergies to some people. Because of this, most synthetic fibers are not thought to be hypoallergenic. Having said that, synthetic materials don’t get covered with dust, pet hairs, or mildew.
Natural fibers are derived from trees, plants, and animals. Although the manufacturing process involves washing the raw material, sometimes bits get left behind. Dirt in the animal hair or leftover seed residue from the cotton ball. These are known as impurities and they can have an impact on the quality of the material.
Synthetic fibers are produced in sterile conditions. They are made using the same formulae and process every time. There aren’t any impurities that come into contact with the fibers as they are being made.
As synthetic fabrics resist stains, mold, mildew, and dust, impurities don’t get added post-production either. Therefore, the quality of the material remains constant for every batch.
Mold and Mildew
Synthetic fabrics win this category, hands down. None of the synthetic materials used in textile production suffer from mold or mildew. Having said that, if they are in an area that has mold or mildew, they can get coated in it.
However, as they are plastic, any kind of mold build-up slides straight off. The same can’t be said for natural fibers. Mold and mildew love natural fabrics. The icky stuff attracts the fibers like bees in a honey pot. The mold can still dive deep into the fabric, making it difficult to remove.
Where the Fiber Comes From
The source of natural and synthetic fibers couldn’t be more different. Synthetics originate in a laboratory, while natural fibers come from mother nature.
Synthetics are artificial fibers derived from fossil fuels. Mainly oil-based, they can sometimes be made from coal. Either way, the fibers are essentially variations of plastic. Manufactured in factories under controlled conditions, these fibers are man-made, cold, and lifeless. Because they are plastic, most synthetic fibers will not biodegrade easily.
Natural fibers come from plants and animals. Although the production process still involves factories to a certain extent, the environment within those facilities is less clinical. Not only do they feel more alive than plastic, but natural materials can also biodegrade. By doing so, they return some of their natural properties to the ecosystem.
Types of Natural Fiber
There are several different types of natural fiber. Each one has its specific uses and properties. Although, you’ll find there are characteristics they have in common too. Let’s take a look at the natural fibers you’ll come across in your search for clothing or home décor fabric.
Both the name of a thread and a fabric, cotton is a timeless staple when it comes to clothing and home furnishing fabrics. Derived from the boll or protective seed case of the cotton plant, cotton fiber is super soft and fluffy.
Cotton plants are from the genus Gossypium and the fibers produced are just a smidgen short of pure cellulose. You’ll find traces of wax, fat, water, and pectin in the mix. The use of cotton has been documented as far back as prehistoric times.
Breathable and durable, cotton is one of the most popular materials used in garment making. It can be used to make heavy-duty clothing like jeans, delicate blouses or cooling jersey t-shirts. It’s all down to the different weaves and weights of cotton fabric available.
This fiber is cultivated from the stalks of the cannabis sativa plant. Although it contains the same tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) compound as its infamous cousin, marijuana, this one won’t make you fly higher than a kite.
That’s because hemp used to make clothes, home furnishings, shoes, ropes, and even biodegradable plastic, is industrial hemp. It only contains a trace element of THC.
Strong and durable, hemp has a similar texture and softness to cotton. It has a few advantages over cotton: hemp doesn’t shrink or attract mildew. It comes from one of the fastest-growing plants on the planet, too, making it slightly more environmentally friendly.
Derived from the stalks of the plant genus corchorus, jute is the name given to the fiber and the plant it is harvested from. You probably know the fabric it produces better as burlap, gunny cloth, or hessian.
Jute is second in line to the title of the most produced fiber on the planet. It’s only surpassed by cotton. It’s a close-run race between the two disparate fibers. Both are extremely versatile and have a multitude of uses. Cotton wins in the textile stakes because it is softer, so more likely to be made into apparel.
You’ll find jute in bags, vegetable sacks, carpets, ropes, and garden twine. It has a high tensile strength and is completely biodegradable. It is an ideal textile for protecting the root ball of young trees when planted. It’s also used as a temporary solution to combat soil erosion.
Made from the stalks of the flax plant, linen has been the go-to clothing fabric for hotter climates for generations. Unlike cotton, linen doesn’t hold on to moisture. It dries incredibly quickly and is better at regulating body temperature.
Linen is also popular for items around the home, from curtains, bedding, and tablecloths to luggage and wallpaper. You can even use linen as an upholstery fabric.
As one of the oldest fibers known to man, it has been estimated that people have been using linen since the neolithic period. Archaeologists have found evidence that linen was used by ancient Egyptians to make burial wrappings for mummies.
Ramie looks a lot like linen, but it’s derived from the stalks of a nettle planet rather than flax. It comes from a particular type of nettle found in China.
This fabric has a few names besides ramie. It can also be called China grass, China linen, grass linen, and grasscloth. Its long history can be traced back to the middle ages and ancient Egypt. However, it lacks the popularity of cotton and linen due to its lengthy and laborious production process.
Modern ramie is used for packing materials, filter cloths, and fishing nets, although it can be used for apparel, it tends to be blended with other fibers.
A luxurious fabric made from silk fibers spun by silkworms. Originally from China, silk has long been the symbol of wealth and prosperity. So much so that, at one time, it was reserved solely for the Emperor.
It takes over 2000 silkworms to spin enough silk filaments to make a pound of raw silk. That’s a lot of worms. Unfortunately, as with many animal-based fabrics, it is necessary to kill the worms before they break out of the cocoons. This is because it’s the cocoon walls that make the silk fibers.
Modern silk is still expensive and tends to be used for special garments like wedding dresses and high-quality ties. One of the stranger uses it as a surgical suture. The human body can’t absorb silk and, therefore, won’t cause your immune system to react against it.
Sisal is made from the leaves of an agave plant. It’s a long, rugged fiber with high durability and strength. Used for ropes, bags, and carpets, sisal is very similar to jute. The main differences are that sisal is rougher and a lot stiffer.
As the agave plant is a member of the cactus family, it can be grown in hot, dry conditions. It is possible to produce plants on land unsuitable for food or other fibers like cotton and linen.
Its tough cactus base makes it a perfect material to replace things like fiberglass, and can also be used to make plastics and paper.
Unlike other natural fibers, wool comes from several animals rather than just one. Sheep, rabbits, goats, alpacas, llamas, camels, and vicunas are all sources of wool.
The different animals give different types of wool. Vicunas, for instance, are the source of the world’s softest wool yarns.
Collecting wool from the animal is as simple as giving them a haircut, albeit a bit of a drastic one. The wool coating is completely shorn into a large bundle known as a fleece. But the good news is the animal lives.
Wool is known for its high insulation properties and is a popular material for winter clothing. It’s also incredibly flame-resistant. Both those characteristics make wool fabric versatile and suitable for domestic and industrial uses.
Is Leather a Natural Fiber?
Although leather is a natural product, it isn’t a fiber. A fiber is a long, thin strand of a substance like silk or wool. It needs to be spun into yarn to produce cloth.
On the other hand, leather doesn’t need to be spun to form material. It is removed from an animal as one large piece. So technically, it’s already in the shape of a fabric.
Only leather isn’t a fabric, either. You should call it animal hide because leather is skin taken from animals like calves, cattle, deer, pigs, and goats. Like silk, the animal is slaughtered for the leather to be made.
Once removed, the skin is treated with tanning chemicals and graded according to quality. You can get full grain, top grain, genuine, and bonded leather. The bonded leather has been formed from leftovers.
There are also different types of leather. There’s the flat, smooth kind that makes motorcycle jackets. Then there is suede which is the internal surface of the animal skin. Suede makes lovely, soft jackets with a distinctive nap.
Nubuck is similar to suede, but it comes from the top grain and is sanded to remove impurities. The sanding process gives it a velvety finish that replicates the nap of the suede.
Although leather is neither a fiber nor a fabric, it’s still a natural product. This is because it is a protein-based material derived from animals.
Types of Synthetic Fiber
Synthetic fibers are all man-made and contain a lot of similar properties. Although they all start as a mixture of chemicals, the way they are produced gives a variety of diverse materials. Not all of them are suitable for garments.
Just like natural fibers, there is more than one to choose from and they each have a particular function or use they are better suited. Let’s take a look at the more popular synthetics used in the clothing industry.
Technically, acetate is a semi-synthetic fiber. It’s made from wood pulp that has been treated with chemicals. One such chemical is acetic acid. You probably know that better than vinegar.
Originally introduced as a varnish for plane wings in the 19th century, it has modern uses that are a bit closer to humans. It’s one of the main ingredients in some nail polish brands.
Like rayon in the production process and feel, acetate is a silk substitute, and can also be used to replace rayon. One of the most popular uses for acetate is graduation gowns, and another is as a lining fabric in jackets.
If you are looking for a wool substitute, then acrylic is the synthetic fiber you should go for. As a textile, it gets used most for blankets and sweaters. It has the same insulating properties and the look and feel of acrylic are near identical to wool. It even has the same tendency to pilling that wool does.
This is fascinating when you realize that acrylic has a more well-known purpose than making sweaters. When it isn’t woven into clothing, acrylic is a see-through solid plastic known by the trade name, Plexiglass.
That’s not all. Acrylic is also used to replace oil-based paints, particularly for painting landscapes or portraits. It reduces the drying time and removes the need to use turpentine to clean brushes.
Entirely made from synthetic material, elastane is incredibly stretchy. It’s not a fiber you’ll find on its own, though. Elastane is always blended with another synthetic or natural fiber. Although you will find elastane listed on garment labels for stretch fabrics, you’re more likely to see it listed as spandex or Lycra.
Introduced in the 1950s, the elastane has revolutionized the garment industry, enabling clothing as diverse as skinny jeans and sports bras, and has some questionable heritage, though.
The basis of elastane is polyurethane which was invented by Otto Bayer in 1930s Nazi Germany. Its original intention was as a coating for fighter planes, but it didn’t become a popular textile additive until researchers at the DuPont Corporation realized the potential of elastic fabric.
Soft, lightweight, colorfast, and durable, olefin is the ideal outdoor fabric. That’s because Olefin is a textile made from polypropylene. First introduced in Italy in 1957, Olefin is considered one of the more environmentally friendly synthetic fibers.
Polypropylene is made from waste products formed during oil production. Better still, no water, land, or natural resources are consumed during its conversion into an Olefin fabric. It doesn’t end there. Olefin can be recycled. You can use old Olefin fabric to make new fabric.
Its superior UV resistance made it one of the first fabrics used in the marine industry. It’s water resistant, immune to mildew, and dries in the blink of an eye, making it perfect for bean bags and outdoor cushions.
Polyethylene terephthalate, or PET for short, is a synthetic polymer used to make plastic, particularly the plastic found in soda or water bottles. When the same polymer is used in textiles, it’s known as polyester.
It’s been around since the 1940s and made its first foray into fashion in the 1970s. A major selling point for clothing made from polyester was that you could wear it for more than a month and never need to iron it. Which is just as well as polyester is heat intolerant.
Unfortunately, those early days of polyester shirts, skirts, pants, and jackets were uncomfortable and severe static cling. The textile became synonymous with cheap and tacky due to the cold and clammy feel the fabric gave.
Modern polyester has come a long way since then, and these days polyester is blended with other fibers like cotton to counteract its more annoying traits.
Introduced to the world by the DuPont Corporation in the 1930s, nylon was intended to be a textile used in tights and stockings. The reasoning was that nylon was run-resistant. As wearers of tights can attest to, nothing could be further from the truth.
It found fame during World War 2 as a material used for parachutes. Due to the shortage of dress materials, the nylon from parachutes was repurposed into clothing. This had varying degrees of success. Early nylon fabric was uncomfortable to wear and prone to tearing.
Like polyester, nylon lost popularity due to its plastic nature, but by blending nylon with other fibers, including polyester, many of its bad points were eliminated.
Mixing ethylene and chlorine gives a substance known as polyvinyl chloride, also known as PVC. Or more popularly as vinyl. It’s a substance used for records, flooring, double-glazed windows, and siding on homes.
Vinyl has had many uses over the years, and was popular back in the 1960s and 70s as boots, raincoats, and dresses. TV shows of that era would regularly show their stars wearing vinyl clothing.
These days, vinyl is used more in the construction industry than in the clothing business. However, you can still find PVC down jackets if you look hard enough.
Is Rayon a Synthetic Fiber?
No, rayon isn’t a synthetic fiber. Not completely, anyway. Rayon is derived from the wood pulp of plants like bamboo. The wood pulp is treated with chemicals to make it soft enough to use as a textile.
It’s the chemical treatment that gives rayon its link to the synthetic world. But, the wood pulp base keeps the fabric grounded in natural fibers. Rayon is, in fact, a hybrid of the two different fiber types. Just like acetate, rayon is a semi-synthetic material.
Being both natural and synthetic, rayon benefits from the best of both worlds. Its natural side gives it breathability that most synthetic materials can only dream about. Being part synthetic makes it bug resistant and able to fend off mildew.
Natural vs Synthetic Fibers: Which One Should You Choose?
Natural and synthetic fibers have their unique advantages and disadvantages. Both fibers can give durable fabrics that are long-lasting and comfortable to wear.
Sometimes synthetic fiber is best due to its resistance to bugs and allergens. But then, natural fiber will let your skin breathe in hot weather.
At the end of the day, the one you go for is your choice. Whether you choose natural or synthetic fibers, the best one for you is the one you feel comfortable in.