The new synthetics: dry but not drippy

Annalisa Barbieri on the latest generation of man-made fabrics
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The Independent Online
Got any nylon in your wardrobe? Any cellulosics?

The chances are that you have, and you're about to get more. Synthetics are finding their way back into your closet, in the guise of Tactel (nylon), Tencel (lyocell, a cellulosic), Supplex (nylon) and Coolmax (polyester).

For those to whom synthetic fabrics mean hot sticky summers, the rag trade's embracing of man-made fibres is a depressing prospect for the months ahead. But this time, say the fashion cognoscenti, things will be different.

Customers have been made promises before, back in the Fifties and Sixties when fibres such as polyester and nylon took the world by storm. They were exciting and they offered the prospect of easy-care clothes. But it all went wrong.

"The attractiveness of these fibres was that they were machine-washable and some of them were wrinkle-free," explained David Wilkinson, director of Courtauld, the firm that founded the viscose industry in 1905 and now manufactures Tencel.

But manufacturers became greedy and put their fibres into applications for which they weren't suited - bri-nylon shirts are a prime example - and their image became tarnished.

"People started to realise that wonderful though these fibres were, there were limits to their comfort because they didn't breathe," says Wilkinson.

But breathe they now do. The key, say manufacturers, is that thanks to technological advances the new fibres are hydrophilic - in other words, they can absorb moisture.

The result is that instead of being seen as cheap and nasty, Du Pont's Tactel, Supplex and Coolmax are among the most successful fabrics around. Such diverse names as Marks & Spencer (which uses all three fibres), Prada and Romeo Gigli (Tactel) and Reebok and Speedo (Supplex) supply synthetic clothes.

Today's shoppers, according to the Research Institute for Social Change, want style, performance and, above all, comfort from their clothes. "Tactel," explained Robin Noakes, European marketing manager for Du Pont Nylon, "has a very contemporary feel. Old nylon couldn't have done what Tactel does."

But the key to dominance of the summer clothes market is to be able to beat cotton at its own game, and this is the target in the manufacturers' sights. Les Jacques, development and strategy manager at Du Pont Nylon, predicts "new era Tactel being able to hold as much (or even more) moisture than cotton fabric, but it would dry more quickly".

Tencel may sound artificial and man-made, but it is a cellulosic (made from woodpulp), as are linen (made from flax), cotton (harvested from cotton plantations) and silk (silkworm cocoons, essentially digested mulberry leaves).

So confident are the makers of Tencel (it is short for high tenacity cellulose) that they have already invested some pounds 300m in its production and development, and last week won a legal battle with Lenzing, an Austrian company which held a patent over part of Tencel's manufacture. When news reached the City, Courtaulds' share price rose.

Designers quickly spotted Tencel's advantages. Helen Storey, for example, used it for her stunningly soft jeans, while Katharine Hamnett used it for the first time last year and praises "its beautiful handle". She continues to use it, as does Giorgio Armani, who introduced it in his current (spring) collection.

Now the high street is catching on with Next, Principles and Racing Green using Tencel for its drape, handle, softness, and, depending on its blend partners, its washability. Retailers who use Tencel in their garments proudly advertise the fact with swing tickets. Tactel, Supplex and Coolmax are also billed at point of sale, promising class and kudos. The style "as seen on TV" was many years ago. In the days of bri-nylon shirts.

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