Synthetic fibers (British English: synthetic fibres) are fibers made by humans through chemical synthesis, as opposed to natural fibers that are directly derived from living organisms. They are the result of extensive research by scientists to improve upon naturally occurring animal and plant fibers. In general, synthetic fibers are created by extruding fiber-forming materials through spinnerets, forming a fiber. These are called synthetic or artificial fibers. Synthetic fibres are created by a process known as polymerisation, which involves combining monomers to make a long chain or polymer. The word polymer comes from a Greek prefix “poly” which means “many” and suffix “mer” which means “single units”. (Note: each single unit of a polymer is called a monomer). There are two types of polymerisation: linear polymerisation and cross-linked polymerisation. Example are rayon, nylon and polyester.
Joseph Swan created the first synthetic fiber.
Joseph Swan invented the first artificial fiber in the early 1880s; today it would be called semisynthetic in precise usage. His fiber was drawn from a cellulose liquid, formed by chemically modifying the fiber contained in tree bark. The synthetic fiber produced through this process was chemically similar in its potential applications to the carbon filament Swan had developed for his incandescent light bulb, but Swan soon realized the potential of the fiber to revolutionise textile manufacturing. In 1885, he unveiled fabrics he had manufactured from his synthetic material at the International Inventions Exhibition in London.
The next step was taken by Hilaire de Chardonnet, a French engineer and industrialist, who invented the first artificial silk, which he called “Chardonnet silk”. In the late 1870s, Chardonnet was working with Louis Pasteur on a remedy to the epidemic that was destroying French silkworms. Failure to clean up a spill in the darkroom resulted in Chardonnet’s discovery of nitrocellulose as a potential replacement for real silk. Realizing the value of such a discovery, Chardonnet began to develop his new product, which he displayed at the Paris Exhibition of 1889. Chardonnet’s material was extremely flammable, and was subsequently replaced with other, more stable materials.