Material Matters is a series providing a quick overview of different materials we find in our clothes, where they come from, their uses, and some quick facts that provide a general understanding of their properties. In this article we will be going over the popular synthetic fiber:
Environmental impact: Medium-High
A Brief Description
Elastane, otherwise known as spandex or lycra in most of Europe was invented in the late 1950’s by a Dupont scientist named Joseph Shivers. Sure he sounds like he could be a mad scientist in a some middle issue of a Spiderman comic book and definitely had the nickname “Joe Shmoe” but what he invented changed the world of fashion forever. Elastane is a plastics-based fiber capable of being stretched up to 6x its resting length and still be able to return to it’s original shape. Originally spandex was invented to replace the rubber used in women’s girdles after WWII which made them cheaper due to the global rubber shortage caused by the war. Eventually, as girdles became less popular, the fabric made its way into the athletic wear world in the mid-1960s when the French Olympic ski team wore full spandex suits to compete in the ‘68 games. Skip ahead to the 80’s when the first athleisure movement hit big, style icons started wearing tight vibrant colored spandex shorts. The fabric was hailed as the perfect workout fabric because it dried quickly, moved with you, and didn’t wear out too quickly. Now, spandex is blended into almost everything we wear today in order to help it keep its shape and add add comfort. Elastane can be found in clothing from shirts to belts but most notably for guys, pants. The 2-5% of spandex you’ll typically find in chinos, jeans, and khakis are essential to these garments retaining their shape over time, and making slim and skinny cuts actually wearable, not to mention reducing the appearance of the plumber’s crack, which we are all thankful for.
Things to Consider
Spandex/Elastane/Lycra is a fully synthetic fiber meaning it is not biodegradable. Many companies now will boast about having eco-friendly garments and using recycled cotton, however if these garments include a lycra or elastane blend, they are much harder to recycle so they tend to be found in landfills at the end of their life.
Elastane, Spandex, and Lycra are all technically the same chemical compound. The different names were made to appeal to different markets around the world.
This stretchy material can be found in almost all categories of clothing including socks, jeans, biker shorts, undergarments, waistbands, wetsuits, shorts, athletic wear, shoes, headbands, etc.
General Tip: Avoid bleaching elastane at all costs, it’s also not a great idea to use fabric conditioner with the stretchy-fiber-blended fabrics as both degrade the integrity of the fibers, shortening the life of the garment.