The main disadvantages of synthetic fibres


A lot of clothing is made from synthetic fibres. It’s everywhere!

The term ‘synthetic fibres’ is a catch-all for man-made fibres. These are generally made of long polymers using plastics from oil and two examples of this are polyester and nylon.

Synthetic fibres were originally developed as cheaper and more easily mass produced alternatives to natural fibre fabrics. They are often based on natural fibres and further developed to improve on them, including increasing their waterproof ability or improving stain resistance.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of environmental issues with using synthetic fibres, mainly that they don’t biodegrade.

Some practical disadvantages of synthetic fibres

Synthetic fibres like nylon can be damaged by high temperatures, therefore you wouldn’t take an iron to them unless it’s on the lowest possible settings with lots of care. Washing synthetic fabrics on a high heat can cause warping of the fabric, meaning you might end up with twisted t-shirts and stretched jumpers.

Some synthetics such as acrylic and nylon are not very absorbent of water or sweat, which means the fabric doesn’t breathe. This can cause the fabric to stick to the skin in warm or wet conditions. Not ideal!

Environmental issues with synthetic fabrics

Any synthetic fabric is non-biodegradable, which in turn is a major source of pollution. Whether it’s the off-cuts from making the clothes or the clothes themselves that are sent to landfill synthetic fabrics won’t break down back into the earth. Did you know that Nylon may take thirty to forty years to decompose, while other synthetic fabrics like lycra or polyester can take more than five hundred years.

And as synthetic fibres are made of plastic, they also come from a non-renewable source... oil.

Another unfortunate issue with synthetic fibres is that they release microplastics. Microplastics are pieces of plastic between five millimetres and microscopic in size. They are found from small pieces that tear off, tiny balls of fibres from pilling, or microscopic bits of fibres that come loose from washing.

Time to make some positive changes! Here are a few ideas:

Choosing to buy more natural based fabrics like wool, cotton and silk is a great positive change you could make. We’re not suggesting you overhaul your entire wardrobe - starting small is what makes changes like this more manageable. How about making your next clothing purchase natural-fibre based.

Making your current synthetic fabric clothing last as long as possible - we recommend paying special attention to washing instructions (Read this blog ‘Caring for your Knitwear at Home’ for some guidance on that) and not over-washing or over-ironing. ‘Make do and mend’ as they say - getting the sewing kit out and fixing those holes as soon as they appear will save your garments from an early throw away.

Passing on, reusing or upcycling - if it’s really time to bin your garment, think first if any of the below is the way forward for it rather than chucking it away. Some ideas could be:

  • Donating to charity
  • Holding a clothes swap with friends
  • Creating a quilt from fabric swatches - the more variety the better!
  • Using old jumpers as cosy cushion covers
  • Every home needs a bundle of rags
  • Upcycling clothes into clothes for childrens toys

We are huge advocates for natural fibres, so here are a few alternatives to consider including natural fabrics, plant and animal based options:

Possible replacements for synthetic fibres

Animal based natural fibres:

Leather is one of oldest forms of material used for clothing, shoes, handbags and accessories. Made of tanned animal hide. It can be treated to be water-resistant.

Silk is another animal based fibre, made from the cocoons of silkworms. It has a unique smooth texture and holds dye and print well.It is seen as a luxury fabric due to the expense to make it.

Wool is made of animal based fibres, most commonly from sheep, but also from goats, ox, bison, rabbits and camels. New Zealand is especially known for merino wool, which is extra soft and light.

If you want to know more about merino wool, check out our blog here.

Plant based natural fibres:

Cotton currently makes up about 20% of global fibre use. It’s known to be a ‘low maintenance’ fabric.

Viscose, or semi-synthetic fabrics, is made of natural fibres but processed in a similar way to polyester production. This avoids the issues with decomposition that synthetic fabrics have, and so reduces the environmental impact of production

Bast fibres, such as linen or hemp, are traditional plant based fibres. Hemp is mostly known as a rough fibre, used for shopping bags, but it can also produce very fine fibres that can be used similarly to cotton. Linen is created using fibres from the flax plant (aka linseed) and is very sturdy and durable.

Another way to step away from the synthetic is by returning to using wood and metal rather than plastic for things like zips and buttons. These are all natural, environmentally friendly products.

It’s fair to say that mother nature knows what she’s doing and natural fibres have excellent properties. They are always a better alternative both in terms of durability and sustainability. However, there are occasions when a little synthetic fibre can go a long way, and we don’t shy away from that.

How we use the good properties in some fibre blends

We’re proud to select the best natural fibre based blends for comfort, durability, fit, health and warmth in every layer we sell.

This means that here at NZNC we sometimes use synthetic fibres in our products. If we look at Nylon for example, it is strong and helps to keep the garments shape due to its flexibility. Allowing garments to move and stretch without losing their shape is especially handy for modern day machine washing. Nylon as well as wool has moisture wicking properties so blending the two makes for a great match.

For a synthetic, nylon is strong and helps to keep the garments shape due to its flexibility (Allowing garments to move and stretch without losing their shape is especially handy for modern day machine washing!) Nylon as well as wool has moisture wicking properties so blending the two makes for a great match.

We have been trialling, ordering and selling ‘blends’ for years. Here are some of our favourite products which have blended fibres:

70% merino + 30% nylon

55% merino + 20% Acrylic + 25% nylon

20% cotton + 50% merino + 20% nylon

28% short fibre possum + 42% wool + 28% nylon + 2% lycra

Using synthetic fibres to create a whole garment is something we need to step away from. Moving away from the manmade and edging closer to sustainability is the direction we are working towards.

Let’s incorporate more natural fibres into our wardrobe. We're with you all the way.


Further Reading