Artificial fibers are part of the broad family of chemical fibers. Unlike natural fibers, they are manmade from renewable natural resources.
Artificial fibers are created by transforming organic, cellulosic or protein materials. Ever since viscose was invented in 1884, artificial fibers have both proliferated and diversified. Initially derived from beech wood, they’re now made from other cellulose sources, from bamboo, eucalyptus and agro-industrial waste and recycled cotton textiles. Meantime, new transformation processes are helping to reduce their consumption of water, energy and chemicals.
While artificial fibers have grown more popular over the years, they have, since the middle of the 20th century, met with stiff competition from synthetic fibers, which are cheaper to produce. In 2022, artificial fibers accounted for 6.4% of global production, the majority being viscose.
Here is a list of artificial fibers (and filaments), classified by origin:
Cellulose (extracted from wood)
Conventional viscose is the oldest artificial fiber. It is obtained by chemically transforming woods such as eucalyptus, beech or spruce.
Modal is an artificial fiber derived from the chemical transformation of beechwood cellulose. Modal production is inspired by that of viscose, but uses a different recipe and solvents. Modal is more resistant than viscose, especially when wet.
Lyocell is an artificial fiber, but it has a different, more eco-friendly transformation process than conventional viscose or modal. Cellulose (from the wood of pine, eucalyptus, or bamboo) is processed in a single step, thanks to NMMO monohydrate, a non-toxic, recyclable solvent. This solvent is 99.7% recoverable, making lyocell production an almost closed-loop, short-circuit process.
Cellulose acetate and triacetate are produced by a chemical reaction between cellulose (from wood or cotton) and acetic acid. This artificial fiber can be spun for use in the textile industry but is also used in its solid form.
Cellulose (extracted from textile industry waste)
Cupro is an artificial fiber derived from the chemical transformation of cotton linters (the downy part surrounding the seeds).
CIRCULOSE® BY RENEWCELL
CIRCULOSE® is an artificial fiber derived from the chemical transformation of recycled cotton (production or post-consumer waste).
Other glucides and proteins
SeaCell™ is a fiber combining an additive made from seaweed powder with a lyocell base.
QMILK® fiber is a derivative of casein (milk protein). It is used in blends with natural fibers such as wool, or with cellulose or synthetic fibers.
CRABYON is an artificial fiber derived from the chitin in crab shells. Chitin is a carbohydrate molecule with a structure similar to that of cellulose. It is found in mushrooms, the exoskeletons of arthropods such as crustaceans and insects, and the beaks of cephalopods.
CRABYON can be used pure or blended with conventional viscose, where it varies from 1% – 100% in compositions.
Soybean Protein Fiber or SPF is a chemical transformation of soy protein (derived from food industry waste).
First invented in France in 1884, viscose is made from wood cellulose. Through a succession of chemical and physical processes, the cellulose is transformed into a malleable pulp, which is extruded into filaments or fibers.
Initially developed as a cheap alternative to silk, this “artificial silk” has gone on to enjoy great success. There are two types of viscose: rayon (viscose filament) and fibranne (short viscose fibers).
In 2022, viscose accounted for 5.8% of all fibers produced worldwide, making it the most popular artificial fiber.
Production & Transformation
Viscose can be made from wood pulp, usually from trees like eucalyptus, beech, spruce and bamboo, or from cotton (from short fibers that can’t be spun), for a pure cellulose base. The viscose process transforms cellulose into a soluble aqueous compound.
A transformation using caustic soda and a mechanical stirring process produces a compound known as alkali cellulose. This compound matures for 2 or 3 days before attaining perfect viscosity. Then comes the xanthation stage, where the alkali-cellulose reacts with carbon sulfide to form cellulose xanthate, a product that is readily soluble in an aqueous sodium hydroxide solution. The xanthate is then dissolved by adding dilute caustic soda, to obtain a spinnable material, viscose.
In the final stage the solution is filtered and extruded into a bath of sulfuric acid, neutral sodium sulfate and zinc sulfate. In this stage, the xanthate is broken down and the cellulose is regenerated (known as regenerated fiber). In parallel to the spinning process, the filaments are bleached and twisted. The filaments are combined into tows and cut into fibers.
Viscose is light, soft, fine and shiny. It is also comfortable, easy to dye and absorbs moisture well.
Viscose is fragile when washed. It tends to shrink, wrinkle and is fairly flammable.
In recent years, viscose has been singled out for its various impacts on the environment, biodiversity and health. There’s no denying that its transformation processes require the use of toxic chemicals, such as caustic soda. And the matter of raw material sourcing is also an issue – it’s essential to ensure that the wood needed for its production comes from eco-managed forests. And social issues must be considered too, especially in terms of managing chemicals and their potential impact on human health.
The textile manual, Fashionary, 2020
Le dictionnaire des textiles, Maggy Baum et Chantal Boyedieu, 2006