My favorite part of Autumn is wearing a big, fluffy sweater while drinking a cup of tea. What I didn’t realize until recently is that many of those sweaters feature 100% acrylic fibers! If you’re like me, this will lead you to wonder, what is acrylic fabric?
Acrylic fabric is a synthetic material that serves as an affordable version of wool. Acrylic fabric contains a higher percentage of acrylonitrile monomers than other synthetic materials. Popular uses of acrylic fabric include sweaters, socks, and other cold-weather items.
In this article, you’ll find out what goes into the production of acrylic fabric. You’ll also learn about its key characteristics, advantages, and disadvantages. Finally, you’ll get the down-low on modacrylic, as well!
What Is Acrylic Fabric?
Acrylic fabric is made out of acrylic yarns woven or knitted into thick, warm material. This material provides incredible warmth and insulation, making it a popular choice for sweaters, coat linings, and outdoor athletic apparel. This fabric often serves as a cheaper alternative to wool.
The same company that invented nylon designed acrylic during WWII. At the time, textile research had reached new heights, and people thought that synthetic fabrics might entirely replace natural cloth! Acrylic became quite popular in the 1950s, though its insulating abilities meant it mostly saw use for cold-weather clothing.
Then the increased environmental awareness of the 1970s introduced the public to the potential dangers of plastic-based synthetic fabrics. Polyester, nylon, and acrylic continued to see high use, but production dropped off in the United States.
Today, most acrylic manufacturing takes place in China and other Asian countries. Despite its sometimes contentious status in retail clothing, it remains a popular choice for cold-weather clothing today.
What is Acrylic Fabric Made Of?
Acrylic fabric is a synthetic material made out of monomers derived from coal and petroleum. A chemical process called polymerization turns these monomers into a long strand of plastic, called a polymer. This plastic then gets melted and extruded into filaments that become thread-like fibers.
Next, every acrylic fiber gets spun into yarn on special machines. Depending on the desired result, the yarns may undergo dyeing or other chemical treatments. The giant spools of yarn almost always have a special washing and crimping treatment that adds to the insulating ability of the cloth.
Finally, weaving or knitting creates the finished fabric!
In the United States, an acrylic fiber must contain at least 85% of a monomer called acrylonitrile. When made into polymers, they become polyacrylonitrile. These unique polymers give the cloth its trademark warmth and softness.
Acrylic fabric has many popular uses, but you see it used in sweaters, hats, and gloves most often!
Interestingly, the United States no longer produces acrylic fabric, though large amounts get imported every year in the form of retail clothing and other fabric items. Most production and manufacturing centers are in China, India, and South America.
Acrylic fabric that contains a large percentage of acrylonitrile remains a popular material for use in clothing. That said, three other kinds of acrylic material also have specialized uses.
Modacrylic contains other polymers besides acrylonitrile. This fabric has high flame resistance and gets used as a high-performance athletic fabric. It also tends to drape better than regular acrylic, which makes it more attractive for some styles of clothing.
Lastrile contains an elasticky polymer called aliphatic diene to make a more stretchy type of fabric.
Nitrile contains a large percentage of a polymer called vinylidene dinitrile. It doesn’t get a lot of use because it doesn’t hold dye and regular acrylic material.
Is Acrylic Natural or Synthetic?
Acrylic fabric contains 100% synthetic fibers, though manufacturers sometimes blend it with natural fibers to give the material additional characteristics such as added breathability. This entirely man-made material often resembles the bouncy, soft, warm texture of wool. That said, acrylic fiber comes from petroleum, like most plastics.
Concerns over environmental and health issues make some consumers wary of synthetic fibers. Plastic does not biodegrade, making the production of acrylic a pollution concern.
Micropollution caused by invisible plastic particles of acrylic fibers sluicing away in the washing machine also leads to concerns about plastic moving up the food chain. Fish consume the plastic from the water, and eventually, other animals and people end up eating the fish.
On top of this, the process that creates acrylic fiber requires toxic chemicals that also contribute to pollution and health concerns. Acrylonitrile itself is a carcinogen, though studies have not directly linked it to any causes of cancer.
If you feel a strong urge to purge your closet of any synthetic material at this point, you may wonder why this potentially dangerous fabric remains so popular.
The answer is quite simple. Acrylic costs far, far less to produce than wool! You don’t have to feed and shear petroleum, after all.
Acrylic Fabric Properties
Acrylic fabric features extreme warmth and insulation but poor breathability. It is much cheaper than wool or other natural fibers. It also lasts a long time and remains quite durable, though it can pill easily.
This material comes from petroleum and coal. It is made from plastic and is man-made, not natural. Despite this, it does have a soft, springy texture that feels pleasant to the touch.
100% Acrylic Fabric
100% acrylic fabric remains popular today because of its amazing insulating properties. What makes this synthetic material so warm?
Well, part of the insulating ability has to do with the style of garment. A closely woven fabric and a garment that clings to your skin will trap heat next to your body.
Plus, acrylic lacks breathability, meaning that it does not allow air to flow through it easily. This also traps heat between the fabric and your skin.
On top of this, you will often see acrylic touted as the warmest synthetic material. Its strong crimped fibers collect and hold onto heat. It keeps you so very warm that you probably want to avoid it during the summer!
Besides its warming properties, acrylic also has several other benefits.It does well with simple care, for example. You can throw it in the washer, preferably turned inside out. All sweaters do better if you lay them flat to dry instead of putting them in the dryer, though.
Acrylic also dries quickly and has hydrophobic qualities. You can’t call it technically water-proof, but it doesn’t easily absorb water, either.
It also resists stains, mold, and odors.
On the downside, it has no breathability, meaning that it can make you too hot very quickly. It also has little heat resistance and is prone to pilling. Finally, its synthetic nature and manufacturing process causes a lot of concerns about polluting the environment.
Is Acrylic Fabric Itchy?Most acrylic fabric does not feel itchy. Textile sciences have invented methods to make an acrylic fiber super fine, soft, and comfortable. This material may even feel less itchy than actual wool!
You may notice a slight plasticky scratch to it if you compare it to all-natural wool, though.
If you put on an acrylic sweater and instantly develop a rash on your skin, you may have an allergy to synthetic fibers. Allergens in this material can irritate the skin, and in this case, you may prefer to wear natural fibers.
Usually, acrylic has a soft, cozy feel. Think of a skein of yarn, and imagine sinking your hand into the neat coil. That’s what acrylic feels like!
Is Acrylic Fabric Stretchy?
Acrylic fabric can have a good bit of stretch in it, depending on its weave. Lots of sweaters use a knitted structure instead of a plain weave. This means that the threads loop around each other instead of crossing over each other at right angles.
Knit fabrics almost always have more give in them than woven fabrics. Sweaters especially tend to feel stretchy when you tug on them.
That said, an individual acrylic thread won’t feel elasticky. Remember, every acrylic fiber contains pure plastic! For this reason, fabric structured in a plain over-under weave won’t have nearly as much give in it.
In general, don’t expect acrylic to feel more stretchy than cotton or wool unless it contains a blend of something like spandex or Lycra.
Is Acrylic the Same as Polyester?
Acrylic and polyester are not the same. They undergo almost identical manufacturing processes but use slightly different monomers in their chemical composition. While both fabrics share lots of characteristics, the different chemical structure gives them unique features as well.
First, both fabrics come from petroleum and are synthetic or man-made. Polyester also goes through a polymerization process that turns a string of monomers into polymers or plastic.
That said, acrylic uses a large percentage of acrylonitrile. Its chemical composition makes it less durable than polyester. It can shrink more easily and is prone to pilling over time.
Polyester has far more versatility, though acrylic offers more warmth. Acrylic’s lack of breathability makes it unsuitable for products like bedding. You would feel smothered in the middle of the night because none of your body heat could escape into the air!
Polyester, conversely, can use many different styles of weaves to create many different types of material suited for thousands of different uses.
Acrylic steals the show in cold-weather clothing. While a 100% polyester sweater would breathe better, a 100% acrylic sweater will keep you much warmer!
Is Acrylic Good For Winter?
Acrylic has many uses for cold-weather clothing, such as socks, gloves, and sweaters. It is also commonly used for cold weather athletic wear for hiking, camping, fishing, and so on.
Exactly how warm is acrylic? Well, yarn knitted in a looser weave with gaps between the yarns may retain less heat than a close weave or knit. Because of that, insulating abilities vary depending on the style of garment.
Plus, the thickness or thinness of the fabric plays a big role, too. Thicker fabric offers more heat. A plush, thick acrylic winter hat will keep your head warm even in extreme cold because practically none of your body heat will leak out through it!
Acrylic has natural warming properties, too. Acrylic fiber can trap around 20% more heat than wool fiber!
You can easily find dozens of options for 100% acrylic hats, mittens, and socks. That said, you may find yourself more comfortable wearing a blend that mixes in some natural wool. Wool introduces more temperature regulation because it offers more breathability.
Is Acrylic Better Than Cotton?
Whether or not acrylic is better than cotton depends on its use. Cotton provides far more softness, breathability, and moisture absorption. Acrylic offers a lot more warmth and insulation but no temperature regulation and less softness.
Also, cotton comes from a plant and contains natural fiber instead of pure plastic. You may find that you prefer the softer, less plasticky feel of natural fiber.
In general, though, each fabric does a stellar job at different tasks.
Cotton will not keep you very warm. It does better at summer wear, such as jersey knit t-shirts. It is also commonly used for bedding because its airy weave allows for comfortable breathability during the night.
Acrylic can make you too warm on the other end of the spectrum! If you plan to shovel snow for a couple of hours, wear acrylic socks. Your toes will stay toasty for hours, and they won’t get wet even if some snow gets inside your boots.
If you’re deciding whether you want to knit with acrylic yarn or cotton yarn. You might also want to consider the cost. A lot of the yarn you see for sale at sewing stores contains a large percentage of acrylic because the synthetic material costs so much less to produce.
Of course, cotton yarn will make your knitted project much softer. But if you need a lot of yarn, you might prefer to save a lot of money!
In short, cotton will feel much more comfortable in warm temperatures, and acrylic will do better in cold weather.
Acrylic Fabric Advantages and Disadvantages
Like all kinds of cloth, acrylic comes with a checklist of pros and cons.
First, let’s take a look at the many advantages of this material. Acrylic is:
- Highly insulating and the warmest of all man-made fabrics.
- Lightweight and soft to the touch. It typically feels quite similar to wool, though this depends on whether the cloth was knitted or woven.
- Easy to care for and can go in your washing machine. That said, it does better if you let it air-dry.
- Dye-fast, meaning that it holds its color and will never bleed onto other clothing in the wash.
- Wrinkle-resistant and holds shaping such as pleats. This characteristic shows up in most synthetic fabrics, but it’s nice to know you can pack a sweater in your suitcase and just shake it out when you arrive at your destination!
- Resistant to destructive forces like moths, mold, and mildew.
- Hydrophobic, meaning that it doesn’t easily absorb water and provides some protection from the elements.
Of course, this material also has disadvantages. Acrylic is also:
- Prone to pilling, meaning that tiny bobbles of thread will peel off the fabric and collect on its surface over time. You can limit this tendency by turning clothes inside out before washing them. Air drying also helps.
- Also prone to static cling, especially if you put it in the dryer.
- Almost completely impermeable to air. This lack of breathability enables some of its insulating properties, but it also means that your clothes can trap too much heat against your skin.
- Sensitive to heat and can melt at high temperatures. Unlike wool, which has excellent heat and even flame resistance, acrylic has a dangerous tendency to melt into molten plastic when it gets too hot.
Finally, acrylic also gets a lot of scrutiny for its toxic manufacturing processes and environmental pollution, as you will see in the following section.
Is Acrylic Clothing Good or Bad?Acrylic fabric advocates usually claim that its low price and extraordinary warmth outweigh any potential dangers, while its detractors worry that it poses health risks and harms the environment. If you feel undecided about acrylic after reading this article, you’re not alone! This man-made fabric has seen a lot of contention over the years.
The fact of the matter is that acrylic continues to see high sales today. The sales thrive because it costs so little to produce compared to a fabric made from a natural fiber. The United States may have ceased producing the fabric in the country, but it continues to buy huge amounts of it from other nations every year!
The cheap production cost also gives you benefits as a consumer. You get to purchase warm, long-lasting sweaters and winter gear for an affordable price.
Of course, no amount of money saved is worth a risk to your health. Acrylic tends to cause an allergic reaction on sensitive skin. Of course, wool can also cause an allergic reaction despite its natural fibers. Wool contains lanolin, an allergen that strongly affects some people.
If you have an allergic reaction to wool, you may feel more comfortable in acrylic!
On a more serious note, you will also find a lot of concern over the carcinogenic properties of acrylic. To date, no studies link the toxins and allergens in acrylic with causing cancer. On the other hand, the process used to dye acrylic involves many toxic chemicals.
A lot of the time, a formaldehyde wash follows to prevent the yarn from shrinking. All of this means that your cozy acrylic sweater has innate carcinogenic characteristics and all kinds of toxins coating it!
Of course, more than 60% of all the clothes sold these days contain man-made fibers. You could just shrug this off as an unavoidable part of the modern world.
On another serious note, the EPA released a study stating that acrylic production causes a harmful workplace environment. Employees breathing in the chemicals used ended up with symptoms like the effects caused by breathing cyanide gas.
Finally, acrylic can decompose, but it takes more than 200 years for this to happen! This means that acrylic fabric contributes to plastic pollution in the environment.
Acrylic Fabric UsesAcrylic fabric serves as a cheaper alternative to wool, so you often find it in sweaters, hats, or other cold-weather apparel. Any time you browse winter boots, thermal socks, or fuzzy gloves on a clothing rack, you will almost certainly find that these items contain acrylic!
More unexpectedly, this material also shows up in household items such as upholstery, carpets, and rugs. In these applications, the fabric gets serious flame-resistant treatment. You wouldn’t want carpets, curtains, or upholstery that can go up in flames at the slightest provocation!
Also, as a fun fact, acrylic makes realistic-looking wigs and hair extensions! It also makes a lot of faux furs. Because it holds color so well, you can buy this fake fur in any number of funky shades!
Finally, it dominates the hobby yarn market as well. It offers cheap, sturdy yarn in a wide range of colors for the hobby knitter or crocheter.
What is Modacrylic?
Modacrylic is a type of acrylic fabric that has a few unique features. Modacrylic stands for “modified acrylic!”
It contains less acrylonitrile than regular acrylic fabric, for starters. Technically, this amount falls anywhere between 35% and 85%.
Modacrylic offers more heat and flame resistance than flammable regular acrylic. Its slight chemical differences make a huge difference in this regard! It also has greater durability and lasts longer.
Modacrylic has many popular uses, including fake fur, fleece fabric, and paint rollers. You also see it in such diverse items as stuffed animal toys and protective clothing!
Acrylic fabric comes from fossil fuels and goes through a complex manufacturing process that turns it into a polymer and then into fibers. Manufacturers knit or weave the fibers into cloth that resembles the feel and softness of wool. Because of this, acrylic has all the same uses as wool.
These include winter clothes, boot linings, and fuzzy blankets. While acrylic and polyester get made similarly, the types of fabric do not share many characteristics.
If you want a fun challenge, check the labels inside your sweaters and winter coats. Did you find a high percentage of acrylic? Leave a comment below to let us know!