Synthetic fibres can be engineered to offer specific properties and design flexibility

Synthetic fibres can be engineered to offer specific properties and design flexibility

Synthetic fibres have seen a surge in popularity as global oil prices decline, and this growth is set to continue – making the next decade a perfect time for clothing brands to incorporate these materials into their products.

According to Will Chapman, director of fibres at consultancy PCI Wood Mackenzie, in total the demand for synthetic fibres is heading towards 100m tonnes within the next 20 years.

"Prices for oil-based fibres are low as supply is large and so availability is not an issue – [they are] everywhere," Chapman explains, adding: "Man-made fibres are nearly always cheaper than natural fibres and most of the world's population cannot afford wool, for example."

Polyester accounts for 60% of synthetic fibre consumption, and is by far the most commonly used fibre in the textile industry, adds Nicola Mentore, a consultant at US-based textile and fashion consultancy Werner International.

He confidently predicts that use of polyester fibres will continue to grow, and that for clothing manufacturers looking to save money in production, synthetics are the way to go.

"With so many campaigns encouraging people to pay more attention to what material their clothes are made of, a lot of people have begun switching to natural fibres, which could affect petroleum-based fibres. I believe it will reach a balance sooner or later, but until then, polyester will continue to be the most important fibre going forward."

Synthetic production

Asian countries remain the biggest producers of synthetics, notes Mentore. According to data published in September 2015 by IHS Markit, a UK-based market research firm, while the industry was once led by fibre producers in the US and Western Europe, today's top five producers are based largely throughout Asia.

China remains dominant, being by far the largest manufacturer of synthetic fibres, accounting for 66% of global production in 2015. India is second-largest producer with over 8% of global production after surpassing Taiwan and the US as an artificial fibre powerhouse in the mid-2000s, thanks to a huge expansion in its polyester fibre-making capacity.

Taiwan and the US are relatively equal in the third position, each accounting for about 4% of global production, says the report, concluding that a polyglot region of Africa, the Middle East, and Oceania, (which includes Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Fiji and other islands in the tropical Pacific Ocean), became the fifth-largest output source in 2014, surpassing Western Europe. The Western European region was sixth in synthetic fibre production in 2014.

In 2015, global production of synthetic fibres reached 60.7m tonnes, up from 57.1m tonnes in 2014 and significantly higher than the 28.4m tonnes the industry registered in 2000, according to Statista, an online statistics portal.

Technological advances

With technological advances continuing, the advantage that synthetic fibres offer clothing companies in terms of properties and design flexibility continues to become more profound.

They can be made to be softer, hang better and have better moisture absorbency than cotton or other natural fibres, explains Chapman. These fibres can also be engineered to deliver specific performance, such as maintaining the right climate around the body, protecting the body against chemical or hard and abrasive surfaces, and usually at a lower weight and higher comfort level than with natural fibre fabrics.

He cites the example of firefighters wearing Nomex fire retardant suits (the outside of which is made from an aluminised glass fibre fabric), while climbers often wear nylon (polyamide) jackets.

Mentore says it is both the comparative low cost of synthetics compared with natural fibres, and the versatility they provide, that give them their competitive edge. "They can be used to make outerwear, socks and underwear garments, bedwear, virtually anything you can possibly imagine."

The sportswear segment will continue to be a growing niche given most synthetic fibre-based garments are easy to wash, do not wrinkle and dry quickly.

Future growth

Besides these well-regarded physical benefits, Chapman says growing land and water shortages will continue to clip the growth of natural fibre production – and with population growth ongoing, artificial fibres will have a ready clothing market, as both standalone fibres and in combination with naturals.

"The area of land under cotton is not growing and the crop only just meets annual demand (over 20m tons)." As a result, artificial staple fibres will increasingly eke out the cotton crop and at the spinning stage.

A good example of this kind of sustainable growth is in denim, which is regularly blended with certain synthetic fibres such as elastane to reduce costs, increase stretch, and vary colour, notes Mentore.

Expanding on this, Chapman says the ability of fairly cheap fibres (such as polypropylene) to be blended to give the look of natural fibres – for example, worsted wool suiting – will be a key engine of growth in the synthetic fibres market.

Writing on just-style last month, PCI Wood Mackenzie's Will Chapman looked at the wider implications of excess polyester capacity in China and how it could reshape global fibres trade to 2017. 

How overcapacity in China could reshape fibre markets

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