In this guide, we’ve outlined the main types of fibres used for textiles.
We give a summary of what synthetic, natural, regenerated and also cellulose fibres are, give examples of each, and describe a few differences.
Summary – The Different Types Of Main Fibres Used In Textiles
As a summary of the main types of fibres …
Synthetic Fibres (& Filament) & Natural Fibres – The Two Main Types Of Fibres
There’s two main types of fibres and filaments used in textiles:
– Synthetic fibres (and synthetic filaments)
– And, also natural fibres
These main types of fibres can then be broken down into sub-categories.
Plant fibres and also animal fibres are examples of sub categories of natural fibres.
They can then be further broken down into individual fibres (under the main fibre type, and sub category type), and also the variations of these individual fibres.
For example, polyester is a synthetic fibre, but the variations of polyester fibre are PET, PCDT, plant based, and other types of polyester fibre variations.
According to masterclass.com, even cotton has different variations, such as Pima, Egyptian, Upland and Organic cotton.
Regenerated Fibres (also called Regenerated Cellulose Fibres)
Some sources indicate that regenerated fibres are synthetic fibres (such as globalspec.com)
But, other sources indicate that they are actually a hybrid fibre (half natural, half synthetic), or semi-synthetic, because although they are processed with a chemical mix and produced into a fibre similar to how synthetic fibres are, they come from a natural cellulose base material, instead of being made from petrochemical derived compounds and chemical reactions like synthetic fibres are.
Regenerated fibres may therefore be grouped as their own fibre type.
Although, some sources will group them as a synthetic fibre.
Cellulose Fibres (also called Cellulosic Fibres)
Cellulose fibres can either be natural cellulose fibres, or manufactured cellulose fibres (which are essentially regenerated fibres coming from a natural cellulose source)
So, when discussing cellulose fibres, a distinction needs to be made between the two, as they are different types of cellulose fibres
We explain the difference between them, and give examples of each in the guide below.
Which Fibres Types Are Produced & Used The Most?
At the moment, synthetic fibres are the most produced fibre type, and polyester makes up a significant % of total synthetic fibre production.
Synthetic Fibres (& Synthetic Filaments)
What Are Synthetic Fibres
Synthetic fibres are man made fibres.
They are usually made from compounds derived from petrochemicals
Polyester for example largely comes from petroleum feedstock, but different compounds from different raw petrochemicals can be used to make materials for different synthetic fibres
To make the materials that are the basis of a synthetic fibre, monomers (such as petroleum based chemicals) are first created with a chemical reaction.
Monomers then undergo another chemical reaction, called polymer synthesis or polymerization, to join the monomers together and create polymers.
A synthetic fibre might then be formed when these man made materials are extruded from the reaction chamber, and then extruded through spinnerets, and finally the fibre is finished.
sewport.com has a good infographic showing the 5 step process of creating a monomer, creating a polymer, extruding, spinning and finishing, when creating polyester fabric.
They also mention the different variations of polyester fibre such as PET, PCDT, and plant based polyester fibre, and also mention how PET fibres can be made with filaments, staples, tow (a filament), or fiberfill fibers (a filament)
rilonfibers.com provides one of the best explanations of the difference between fibres and filaments. Length is the key difference, with fibres tending to be shorter in length staple fibres, and filaments being longer fibres of a continuous length. Examples are given of fibre types that are shorter staple fibres, and those which are longer filament fibres
wikipedia.org also mentions how shorter staple fibres might be used in everyday clothes, whilst longer and smoother filaments fibres might be used in silkier items of clothing and silkier textiles, such as women’s clothing and dress shirts specifically
Synthetic fibres are more likely to be filament fibres, whereas natural fibres are more likely to have shorter staple fibres.
globalspec.com outlines the difference between filaments and monofilaments: ‘Single fibers are called filaments and a monofilament is when a single continuous filament is rolled on a spool’
Wikipedia.org also has a list of pros and cons of synthetic fibres in general
Some of the most commonly used synthetic fibres in textiles are polyester, acrylic, polyamide (Nylon), and polyolefin
Others include elastane (Lycra), polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and polypropylene (used in carpets)
sewguide.com and textileschool.com list synthetic fibre and fabric examples, along with profiles or descriptions
What Are Natural Fibres
Natural fibres are made of material that comes from a natural source
They don’t rely on synthesizing compounds with chemical reactions to create a fibre material like synthetic fibres do
Natural fibres can be sub-categorized into plant based fibres, and also animal based fibres
An example of a common plant based fibre is cotton
An example of a common animal based fibre is wool
FAO.org has a good resource that you can find in the resources list where they list the major plant and animal fibres in the world, along with their traits and features. Plant fibres include abaca, coir, cotton, flax, hemp, jute, ramie and sisal. Animal fibres include alpaca, angora, camel, cashmere, mohair, silk and wool
What Are Regenerated Fibres
Regenerated fibres are referred to by some sources as a half natural, half synthetic fibre.
Other sources call them a synthetic fibre that uses a natural cellulose base feedstock.
Regenerated fibres are fibres that:
1. Come from a natural cellulose material
Such as wood pulp from trees, or plant material such as bamboo (as just one example)
heddels.com mentions that ‘Other materials modified to produce [regenerated] fibres include protein, glass, metals, and rubber’
2. And, are then dissolved into a soluble mix (like pulp) with chemicals, from which they can be regenerated into fibres (with methods like extrusion and precipitation)
Turning the cellulose material into a soluble mix can be done via different processes, such as the viscose process, the cupro process, and the lyocell process, just as a few examples (wikipedia.org lists these processes)
The process of dissolving cellulose, and then converting the cellulose solution into a fibre, is what is described as the regeneration process by some sources. This is where the term ‘regenerated fibre’ comes from for fibres like rayon.
Sciencedirect.com has this definition of regenerated cellulose fibres ‘Regenerated cellulose is a class of materials manufactured by the conversion of natural cellulose to a soluble cellulosic derivative and subsequent regeneration, typically forming either a fiber (e.g., rayon) or a film (e.g., cellophane)’
Wikipedia.org mentions that rayon can use either the viscose process, the cupro process (although this isn’t used widely in the US anymore because of environmental concerns), or the lyocell process to turn cellulose into a soluble that can be regenerated into a fibre
The wikipedia.org resource also lists the different chemicals each process uses
Rayon might use different natural cellulose sources as the base feedstock, with wood from trees being one example.
Acetate, and triacetate are mentioned as other regenerated fibres, whilst modal, TENCEL (which is a trademarked fiber product range from the Lenzing Group), and Lyocell might be some of the more eco friendly regenerated fibres
Wikipedia.org mentions that lyocell was developed as a more eco friendly option to viscose, although it’s not used on the same scale because of cost
Sciencedirect.com mentions that TENCEL is a branded lyocell fibre – it’s branded by Lenzing
Globalspec.com lists regenerated fibres that involve the transformation of natural polymers as being ‘Cellulose, rubber, triacetate, lyocell, acetate and rayon’
Globalspec.com has a flow chart that shows the division of natural and synthetic fibres, which shows regenerated fibres ultimately as a synthetic fibre (they show the different regenerated fibres in the chart), and also synthetic polymer fibres
ecofashionsewing.com indicates that eco friendly regenerated fibres exist too:
During the last few decades, under the demand of more environmentally friendly processes from renewable sources, other regenerated fibres have been developed.
They are made from a protein – either from a vegetable, such as soya beans, or from an animal, such as milk.
The respective protein structure is modified by bioengineering techniques … [and] Then the resulting solution is spun into a fibre. [The resulting] Soya fibres have natural antibacterial properties.
To be real eco-friendly though, soya fibre needs to be grown in organic water-wise way, with no genetic modification.
Unfortunately, this results in very expensive production (even more than the organically produced cotton), which makes it less desirable from the fashion industry point of view.
What Are Cellulose Fibres
Cellulose fibres, also called cellulosic fibres, are fibres that use a natural cellulose source as the base fibre material.
There’s two types of cellulose fibres – natural cellulose fibres, and also manufactured cellulose fibres.
According to wikipedia.org, natural cellulose fibres ‘are only processed as much as needed to clean the fibers for use’
Manufactured cellulose fibres on the other hand are essentially
Also according to wikipedia.org ‘Manufactured cellulose fibers come from plants that are processed into a pulp and then extruded in the same ways that synthetic fibers like polyester or nylon are made’
Cotton is an example of a natural cellulose fibre
According to wikipedia.org ‘Rayon or viscose is one of the most common “manufactured” cellulose fibers, and it can be made from wood pulp’
What’s The Difference Between Synthetic, Natural & Regenerated Fibres?
The main differences between these types of fibres are:
1. The source of the feedstock for the fibre based material
Synthetic fibres generally tend to come from compounds derived from petrochemicals
Natural fibres generally tend to come from natural plant or animal sources
Regenerated fibres generally come from a natural cellulose source, but can also come from other sources
2. How the fibre based material is formed or produced
Polyester as one example of a synthetic fibre undergoes chemical reactions to turn the petrochemical compounds into monomers, and then a polymer material
Cotton as one example of a natural fibre has the lint removed from the harvested cotton plant, which is then cleaned in preparation for fibre production
Regenerated fibres generally involve turning the cellulose into a soluble mix with a specific process (viscose, cupro or lyocell process) that contains certain chemicals to dissolve the cellulose
3. How the fibre itself is formed/produced from the fibre base material
Polyester as one example of a synthetic fibre might be extruded into a fibre. studystack.com mentions that ‘… only manufactured fibers go through spinnerets’, and shopvirtueandvice.com mentions that ‘synthetic fibres are not spun, they are extruded’
sewport.com has a good graphic that shows how cotton fibres are formed. After the cotton plant has been defoliated, the cotton is machine harvested, ginned (with a cotton gin that separates seeds from bolls, and removes dirt and other unwanted material), carded (where cotton is formed into long strands), spun (strands are spun into yarn), dyed, and then weaved into a product like a t shirt. mastercalss.com also outlines the cotton fibre production process
Regenerated fibres are usually extruded like synthetic fibres before being spun in a spinneret. shopvirtueandvice.com mentions that ‘In rayon production, viscose rayon fibers are extruded into a chemical bath, and then, yarns can be spun … Fiber is extruded through a spinneret …’. They explain the extrusion process in their guide
4. The traits and characteristics of the finished fibre
Ultimately, each individual fibre has it’s own finished traits and characteristics.
DIfferent fibres can even be mixed/blended together in a finished textile product to obtain the benefits of these different fibres
Different resources like sewport.com will also give fibre profiles that list traits and characteristics of individual fibres
As one direct comparison between natural, synthetic and regenerated fibres though, globalspec.com mentions that ‘… generally … [synthetic fibres] are stronger than natural and regenerated fibers’
4. Various Better Meets Reality guides