Synthetic Fibres and Plastics

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Clothes are made of fabrics. Fabrics are made from fibres (natural or artificial). Several household articles are made using fibres. Cotton, wool, and silk are examples of natural fibres. Meanwhile, synthetic fibres are made by human beings. Hence called synthetic or man-made fibres.

What are synthetic fibres?

A synthetic fibre is basically a chain of small units which are joined together. Several small units combine to form a large single unit – a polymer. The word ‘polymer’ is derived from Greek. ‘Poly’ means many and ‘mer’ means part or unit. Hence, a polymer is made of several repeating units.

Polymers are found in nature as well. For example, cotton is a polymer called cellulose, which is made up of glucose units. 

Types of Synthetic Fibres


Silk fibre is obtained from silkworm. It was discovered in China and was a closely guarded secret for a long time. Fabric obtained from silk fibre was very expensive. However, people were fascinated by its beautiful texture. Several attempts were made to make silk artificially. By the end of the 19th century, scientists were successful in obtaining a fibre which had properties similar to that of silk. The fibre was obtained by chemical treatment of wood pulp. It was known as rayon/artificial silk. Despite being obtained from a natural source (wood pulp), rayon is a man-made fibre. Being cheaper than silk, it can be woven like silk fibres. It can be dyed in different colors as well. Rayon is usually mixed with cotton for making bed sheets or mixed with wool inorder to make carpets. 


Nylon is another example for a man-made fibre. It was made in 1931 without using any natural raw material. Being the first fully synthetic fibre, it was prepared from coal, water and air. 

Since it is strong, elastic, light, lustrous and easy to wash, it is widely used for making clothes. 

Several materials are made from nylon including socks, ropes, tents, car seat belts, curtains etc. It is also used for making parachutes and ropes for rock climbing. A nylon thread is said to be stronger than a thread!

Polyester and Acrylic

Polyester is yet another example for a synthetic fibre. The fabric does not get wrinkled easily. It will remain crisp and is easy to wash as well, making it ideal for making dress material. Terylene (popular polyester) can be drawn into very fine fibres which can be woven like any other yarn. 

PET (polyethylene terephthalate) is a form of polyester which is used for making bottles, films, wires and other useful products. 

While polycot is a mixture of polyester and cotton, polywool is a combination of polyester and wool.

Most of the sweaters/shawls we use in winters are not actually made from natural wool. They are prepared using synthetic fibre called acrylic. Clothes made from acrylic are comparatively cheaper when compared to the wool obtained from natural sources which are usually quite expensive. Acrylics are available in a variety of colors as well. Being more durable and affordable, synthetic fibres are more popular than natural fibres. 

Synthetic fibres melt on heating. It will stick onto the body of the person wearing it. Hence it is advised not to wear synthetic clothes while working in the kitchen or in a laboratory.


Plastic is also a synthetic fibre. All plastics do not have a similar type of arrangement of units. They can be either linear or cross-linked. Plastic articles are available in different shapes and sizes. Being easily moldable, plastic can be shaped in any form. It can be recycled/reused/colored/melted. Plastic can even be rolled into sheets or made into wires. 

Polythene is widely used for making bags. 

Thermoplastics deform easily on heating. Examples: polythene and pvc. They are predominantly used for manufacturing toys, combs, and different types of containers. 

Meanwhile, certain plastics, if molded once, cannot be softened by heating. They are called thermosetting plastics. Examples: bakelite and melamine. Bakelite which is used for making electrical switches and handles of various utensils is a poor conductor of heat and electricity. 

Melamine is a versatile material which can resist fire and tolerate heat better than several other plastics. And therefore it is used for making floor tiles, kitchenware and fabrics that resists fire. 

Plastics - Materials of Choice

Owing to their light weight, lower price, good strength and easy handling; plastic containers are the most preferred these days. 

Being lighter as compared to metals, plastics are used in aircrafts and spacecrafts.

As they do not react with water and air, plastics do not corrode easily.

Being cheap, plastics are widely used for industrial/household purposes.

We all know that plastics are poor conductors of heat and electricity. 

Other uses of plastic

  • Finds extensive use in the healthcare industry. (for packaging of tables, syringes etc.)    
  • Special plastic cookware is used in microwave ovens.
  • Teflon is used as a non-stick coating on cookwares.     
  • Fire-proof plastics are used by firemen. The coating of melamine plastic makes their uniforms flame resistant.

Plastics and the Environment

Disposal of plastics has always been a challenge!  

Biodegradable materials get decomposed via natural processes. For example, with the help of bacteria. A non-bio degradable material will not easily decompose by natural processes.

Plastic is not environment friendly, it takes several years to decompose causing pollution. 

Lot of poisonous fumes are released into the atmosphere as we burn plastic.


  • Avoid use of plastics as much as you can.
  • Use cotton/jute bags while you go shopping.
  • Biodegradable and non-biodegradable wastes should be collected/disposed of separately.
  • Most of the thermoplastics can be recycled.       

As a responsible citizen, always follow the 5R principle. (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Recover and Refuse). Develop environment friendly habits!

Check Your Knowledge

Cotton, wool, and silk are examples of natural fibres.

Coal, water and air.

Polyethylene terephthalate. 

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