For thousands of years, human beings relied on fibers’ inherent properties found in the natural world. We wore linen, cotton, wool, or sink, and that was pretty much that, right up until the 20th Century. In the 19th Century, first attempts to create artificial threads for clothes were successful, and the first commercial production of rayon (synthetic fabric) was achieved in France in 1891. Still, it was not until the 1900s that commercially viable ‘artificial silk’ companies were formed in the US and worldwide.
Let’s look at the history and evolution of synthetic fibers.
The first fully synthetic fiber was glass. Joseph Swan created one of the first artificial fibers in the early 1880s; today it would be called semisynthetic in well-defined usage. His fiber was formed from a cellulose liquid, formed by chemically altering the tree bark fiber. The synthetic fiber created through this process was chemically similar in its inherent applications to the carbon filament Swan had developed for his light bulb. Still, Swan soon recognized the potential of the fiber to revolutionize textile manufacturing. In 1885, he revealed fabrics he had produced from his synthetic matter at the International Inventions Exhibition in London, United Kingdom.
The next step was taken by Hilaire de Chardonnet, an industrialist and French engineer, who invented the world’s first recorded artificial silk, which he called “Chardonnet silk”. In the late 1870s, Chardonnet worked with Louis Pasteur to remedy the epidemic that was killing French silkworms. Failure to wipe a spill in the darkroom resulted in Chardonnet’s invention of nitrocellulose as a potential replacement for real silk. Realizing the value of such a finding, Chardonnet began to develop his new product, which he presented at the Paris Exhibition of 1889. Chardonnet’s material was extraordinarily flammable and was subsequently replaced with other, extra stable materials.
The first successful process was revealed in 1894 by English chemist Charles Frederick Cross and his partners Clayton Beadle and Edward John Bevan. They named the fiber “viscose” because the result product of carbon disulfide and cellulose in necessary conditions gave a highly viscous xanthate solution.
The first commercial viscose rayon was created by the UK company Courtaulds in 1905. The name “rayon” was chosen in 1924, with “viscose” being used for the viscous organic liquid used to make both cellophane and rayon. A similar product known as cellulose acetate was seen in 1865. Acetate and rayon are both artificial fibers, but not truly synthetic, being made primarily from wood.
Nylon, the first synthetic fiber in the “fully synthetic” sense of that term, was created by Wallace Carothers, an American researcher at DuPont’s chemical firm in the mid-1930s. It soon made its appearance in the United States as a replacement for silk, just in time to introduce rationing during World War II. Its use as a material for women’s stockings overshadowed more practical uses, such as replacing the silk in parachutes and other military services like ropes.
The first polyester fiber was registered in Britain in 1928 by the International General Electric company. It was also presented by British chemists working at the Calico Printers’ Association, James Tennant Dickson and John Rex Whinfield, in 1941. They produced and patented one of the first polyester fibers named Terylene, also known as Dacron, equal to or surpassing nylon in resilience and toughness. DuPont and ICI went on to produce their own variants of the fiber.
The world generation of synthetic fibers was 55.2 million tonnes in 2014.