There are good reasons to choose natural rather than synthetic fibers when an absorbent material is required. Before discussing these reasons, it is of interest to consider the development of synthetic fibers, since these have been championed over the past 75 years as examples of the benefits of technology to citizens in the West.
History of Synthetic Fibers
The history of synthetic fibers begins with a researcher at the Du Pont company called Wallace Carothers, who in 1928 first synthesized nylon-6,6 (a high molecular weight condensate of terephthalic acid and hexamethylenediamine that could be drawn into fine fibers). In 1938 the fiber was trademarked Nylon, and went into commercial production. The fiber had very desirable properties of high tenacity and low modulus. Production was quickly scaled up to provide fiber for hosiery after the second World War. Other synthetic fibers, such as polyester, acrylic and acetate quickly followed in the fervor of post-war technological expansion. The rise to prominence of a class of scientific “experts” during the 20th century served to bolster big business’ claims that artificial products were always superior to the natural materials they were rapidly replacing.
What was apparently overlooked in this excess was that these new fibers were generally uncomfortable and lacked most of the properties of the fibers they were intended to replace. Typically, the new fibers had just one outstanding property, such as high strength, that lent itself to mass-scale production. The trade-off was the sacrifice of quality and comfort for ease of production and maximum profitability.
Natural Fibers Try (and fail) to Compete through Technological Change
Even the production of natural fibers was subject to technological change. To compete with synthetic alternatives, the cotton industry was transformed into a giant consumer of pesticides and herbicides, supplied, of course, by the same petrochemical industry that was manufacturing the synthetic fibers.
Synthetic Fibers Do Not Absorb
Synthetic fibers do not absorb moisture. They may attract moisture and trap moisture between fibers, but then the fabric begins to behave like a plastic bag and skin temperature rises, promoting bacterial growth and allergic reactions.
Some highly-engineered fibers, such as Goretex, attempt to mimic the properties of natural fibers, but why bother?
Hemp, wool, and organic cotton are three natural fibers that are highly absorbent and have other beneficial properties that cannot be simulated in a laboratory. By choosing these fibers you will reduce the flow of money to oil-based industry and, if you choose your supplier carefully, you will lessen the impact on the farmers who grow the fibers and the land they farm.
Text copyright © 2001 – 2017 Marc Pehkonen. All rights reserved.