Poly What?

1. PolyWhat?
All fibers are “poly-something” — long strings of repeating chemical units (poly is Greek for many). Think of a very long train where all the cars are alike. Some fibers come from ground plants that synthesize connected units of cellulose — like ramie, sisal, cotton. Others are protein chains found on animals — wool, alpaca — or — the hair on your head. Other fibers are spewed from insects and worms — like spider webs and silk.

The modern age of fibers started just over a century ago in France when rayon was produced from reconstituted wood pulp. Later, acetate was invented in a similar way. More new fibers followed when chemists learned how to make them in the laboratory. You know these by some names that start with “poly” — like polyolefin and polyester — and by some that don’t — like nylon, spandex, and acrylic. But just like all fibers they are synthesized chains of chemical molecules — “poly-somethings”, every one.

2. Tell Me More.
These modern manufactured fibers are of two types:

Cellulosic, produced from raw materials from trees or plants that make cellulose. Rayon, acetate, and lyocell are the primary cellulosic manufactured fibers.
Synthetic, produced from chemicals made from refined petroleum or natural gas. The main synthetic fibers are polyester, nylon, acrylic, polyolefin, and spandex.

All manufactured fibers can be engineered to produce desired qualities. Take thinness, for example. Both cellulosic and synthetic fibers can be made today that are many times thinner than common fibers from plants or animals. Yarns from these fibers are often called “microfiber” and they have a magnificent touch in fabric — a great combination of quality and performance.

For a nifty basic primer on these fibers, go to FabricLink, (but come right back!).

3. What’s New in These “Poly-Somethings”?
It’s a never-ending show. New fibers are being created all the time for countless modern uses. For a touch of real luxury go to your favorite clothing retailer and ask for the latest microfiber garment. While you are at it check to see if any of the spectacular new lyocell shirts or jeans are there. Don’t miss the new stretch fabrics either — especially in suits and activewear.

For high-performance sports of any kind check out the latest in upscale catalogs and retail outlets — from track to mountain climbing to skiing, the very best in performance and safety comes from the new synthetics.

4. What Do the Pros Wear?
Nothing but modern synthetics. Major League baseball uniforms have been 100% polyester for as long as we can remember. NBA uniforms are nylon; in the NFL they are nylon, polyester, and spandex; in the NHL, ditto. All of the leagues require synthetic socks for health and safety. Visit this website for more on the latest professional sportswear: Sports Fan.

It’s no coincidence that new records have been set and re-set as modern synthetics have made their stunning contributions to all active sports. Just imagine trying to steal a base in a baggy old wind-resistant 1930’s baseball uniform.

5. What’s That About Socks?
Ask any athlete — feet take a real beating in most sports. And the right socks go a long way in warding off the biggest problems.

Like blisters, for example. Here’s what Men’s Health magazine has to say: “Friction blisters are the bane of an athlete’s feet. But you can protect the bottoms of your feet from blisters by wearing acrylic socks,” according to Bryan P. Bergeron, M.D., a Massachusetts physician and triathlete. “These synthetic socks are superior to cotton socks because they’re made in layers designed to absorb friction and reduce the sheer force on the skin”. (Fitness Bulletin # 373)

Polyester, nylon, olefin and spandex are also widely used by athletes in all high-energy sports. The June, 1997 issue of the Wellness Letter of the University of California at Berkeley notes the importance of wearing socks that “wick” away moisture. Only synthetics have that capability — one reason they are universally used in professional sports.

A February, 2006 Associated Press article titled “Sweaty Cotton Socks Worst for Blisters” stated that, “Sweaty socks made from 100 percent cotton are the worst when it comes to causing nagging blisters, a study found”.

It goes on to say:

Biological engineering students at the University of Missouri-Columbia tested 10 popular brands of athletic socks and separated the good from the bad with a device that measured moisture and friction, which causes blisters.

All-cotton socks are most likely to cause blisters on sweaty feet, according to research data, while nylon socks performed the best. Socks that were a cotton-synthetic blend scored somewhere between the two.

“The uniqueness of this study is they took a wide variety of socks and examined different levels of moisture,” said John Viator, the assistant professor who advised the researchers.

The findings showed that the sock’s material matters most, not brand or price, he said.

Check out the high-end products available from these two leading providers of athletic socks: WrightSock™, and Twin City Knitting.

6. How Much Manufactured Fiber is Being Used These Days?
At the moment, a little more than half the fiber used across the globe is manufactured fiber. In the highly developed U.S. economy, it’s about two-thirds. Most experts agree that, as world economies and populations continue to expand, all the future growth in fiber consumption will be manufactured fiber. For the facts, go here.

7. What About Fire Safety?
Just about everything will burn under the proper conditions. However, most synthetic fibers resist ignition because they melt and shrink away from heat sources. This is why synthetic fibers are used so extensively for children’s sleepwear, which must pass a demanding flammability test to be sold in the U.S. Synthetics are also widely used in upholstery fabrics for furniture, especially when the strict California flammability standard for public occupancies must be met.

For some high-risk uses, the inherent ignition resistance of synthetics is not enough to provide adequate fire protection. Flame retardants may be added during manufacturing to impart a higher degree of fire resistance. There are also special fibers, such as the aramids, PBI and sulfar, which provide a very high degree of protection. These fibers are made from heat-stable polymers that do not melt or burn.