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FOR MIL­LEN­NIA, mankind cre­ated tex­tiles from nat­u­ral fi­bres found in the wild. Many of these nat­u­ral fi­bres were cul­ti­vated or spun, such as cot­ton, wool, and silk. Each of these nat­u­ral fi­bres have their lim­i­ta­tions. For in­stance, cot­ton and linen tend to wear out af­ter mul­ti­ple wash­ings. Wool shrinks eas­ily and at­tracts moths. Syn­thetic fi­bres were in­vented in the early 1880s. Sir Joseph Swan, a prom­i­nent chemist and in­no­va­tor, in­vented the first syn­thetic fi­bre by mod­i­fy­ing the fi­bre in tree bark. The fi­bre pro­duced by Swan closely re­sem­bled the car­bon fil­a­ment used in his de­vel­op­ment of the in­can­des­cent light bulb. Swan re­alised the po­ten­tial for this fi­bre to rev­o­lu­tionise the tex­tile in­dus­try. Hi­laire de Chardon­net took syn­thetic fi­bre pro­duc­tion in a new di­rec­tion. This French en­gi­neer and in­dus­tri­al­ist in­vented the first ar­ti­fi­cial silk, which pre­sented a so­lu­tion to the silk short­age that re­sulted from the de­struc­tion of French silk worms. Chardon­net’s con­tri­bu­tion led to the dis­cov­ery of ni­tro­cel­lu­lose, a vi­able re­place­ment for real silk. C Charles Fred­er­ick Cross de­vel­oped the first suc­cess­ful process in 1894 that led to the dis­cov­ery of the fi­bre called “vis­cose.” He named this fi­bre af­ter the vis­cous so­lu­tion of xan­thate. The first com­mer­cial vis­cose rayan resin came into ex­is­tence in 1924. To­day, man­u­fac­tured fi­bres ac­count for nearly half of all fab­ric pro­duc­tion. Syn­thetic fi­bres can be found in mod­ern ap­parel, home fur­nish­ings, medicine, and even aero­nau­tics. Syn­thetic fi­bres are cre­ated from small mol­e­cules called syn­the­sised poly­mers. These are cre­ated through a process known as ex­tru­sion. The man­u­fac­ture of syn­thetic fi­bres oc­curs by forc­ing syn­the­sised poly­mers through spin­nerets and into the air. This cre­ates a thread, which can be used to pro­duce any num­ber of tex­tiles. The com­pounds used to cre­ate syn­the­sised poly­mers come from raw ma­te­ri­als such as petro­chem­i­cals. These chem­i­cals are poly­merised into a long and lin­ear chem­i­cal that bonds two car­bon atoms. Dif­fer­ent fi­bres are pro­duced from var­i­ous chem­i­cal com­pounds. While there are nu­mer­ous syn­thetic fi­bres avail­able, four re­main dom­i­nant on the mar­ket: acrylic, ny­lon, polyester, and poly­olefin. These four ac­count for nearly 98 per cent of syn­thetic fi­bre pro­duc­tion. The man­u­fac­tur­ing of syn­thetic fi­bres oc­curs when us­ing one of sev­eral meth­ods. The most com­mon method is called melt-spin­ning, a process that in­volves heat­ing strands of fi­bre un­til they start to melt. From there, the melt must be drawn out us­ing tweez­ers and aligned in a par­al­lel fashion. This al­lows the fi­bres to crys­tallise and ori­ent. An­other method is called heat-set­ting, a method that re­quires heat to per­me­ate heat-sen­si­tive fab­ric. Syn­thetic fi­bres pos­sess sev­eral ad­van­tages over their nat­u­ral coun­ter­parts. For starters, syn­thetic fi­bres do not de­pend on agri­cul­tural out­put. Syn­thetic fi­bre is also cheaper than nat­u­ral fi­bre. Fab­ric made from syn­thetic fi­bre is eas­ier to wash and dries more quickly. Lastly, syn­thetic fab­ric is gen­er­ally stain-re­sis­tant. Bugs, fungi, and other rot do not af­fect syn­thetic fi­bre the same way as nat­u­ral fi­bre. The dis­ad­van­tages of syn­thetic fi­bres re­volve around their low melt­ing tem­per­a­ture. For in­stance, they tend to burn more read­ily than nat­u­ral fi­bres. They are prone to heat dam­age and melt rel­a­tively eas­ily. Syn­thetic fi­bres are prone to dam­age when washed in hot wa­ter. Lastly, they tend to pro­duce more elec­tro­static charge than nat­u­ral fi­bres. Com­mon syn­thetic fi­bres in­clude acrylic, ny­lon, olefin, polyester, car­bon fi­bre, and modacrylic.

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