What Is Microfiber Made Of And How Easy Is It To Work With?

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Microfiber — or microfibre — you’ve seen it. You’ve probably used it. Perhaps you’ve even read about the pollution that microfibers cause. But aside from being an ultra-fine denier synthetic fabric, what is it, really? Buckle up. We’re going to tell you.

What is microfiber?

multicolored microfibers cloths

The term “microfiber” covers a variety of cloth types, each with its own fiber content, characteristics, and applications. What unites them all is this: they are made from synthetic fibers, and those fibres are all less than 0.7 denier in thickness. [1]

Microfiber is incredibly versatile, and once you know what to look for, you’ll start seeing it everywhere. Microfiber fabric comes in woven and knit varieties. You’ll find it in clothing, upholstery, and housewares. Some industrial filters use microfiber. And there’s nothing like a microfiber cloth for certain cleaning jobs.

But as useful as microfiber technology is, it also has a huge environmental impact. Just like the microbeads that many countries have banned, microfibers are proving devastating to aquatic life. And a recent study found that microfibers comprise 85 percent of human-made debris that washes up on shorelines around the world. [2, 3, 4]

So, microfiber: gift or curse? That’s the decision that we, the consumers, have to make.

What is Microfiber Made From?

microfiber fabric close up

The term “microfiber” refers to any fabric made from synthetic fibers that are less than 0.7 denier in thickness.

Microfiber technology dates back to the 1950s. The first widely available microfiber fabric, Ultrasuede, a high-end synthetic suede, became widely available in the 1970s. The number and types of microfiber fabrics have exploded since then. [5]

Ultrasuede is made from ultra-fine polyester fibers, but it’s just one type of microfiber. [6]

Some other common types include:

  • Polyamide (nylon)
  • Polypropylene 
  • Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET)
  • Combinations of different synthetic fibers

What is Microfiber Used For?

The reason microfiber is so ubiquitous is that it’s so good for so many things. Here are some of its main applications.

Leather Substitute

The first widely commercially available microfiber fabric was Ultrasuede, a suede substitute. Ultrasuede and similar microfiber fabrics are less expensive than leather. They’re also an appealing option for people who wish to avoid leather. 

You’ll find microfiber used as a leather substitute in clothing, shoes, handbags, wallets, upholstery, sports equipment, and more.

Clothing and Activewear

A different type of microfiber is widely used today in athletic wear and compression garments. Its water resistance and moisture-wicking ability make it a natural for shirts, leggings, and shorts. Other types of microfiber appear in compression garments for athletic and medical use. You’ll even find microfiber in shoe construction.

Linens and Housewares

Some microfiber fabrics are soft and fine, and can mimic more expensive fabrics like silk, cotton, and linen. Also, unlike these fabrics, microfiber fabrics are generally machine washable and hard-wearing. Some varieties are highly absorbent, too. And it goes without saying that microfiber is a lot less expensive.

For these reasons, you’ll find microfiber in products like:

  • Table linens
  • Bed linens
  • Upholstery
  • Towels and washcloths

Cleaning Products

Some microfiber fabrics have a magic combination of softness and absorbency that make them the material of choice for certain cleaning jobs.

Do you need a soft cloth that won’t scratch glass lenses or other delicate surfaces? That’s microfiber. How about a super-absorbent towel for a quick cleanup? It’s microfiber to the rescue. Microfiber absorbs grease and oil, as well as other liquids. And it doesn’t leave dust or lint. 

Also, instead of moving dirt and dust around, microfiber actually traps it and lifts it away. It can also remove dust mites without the use of chemicals. For this reason, microfiber is a boon to allergy sufferers. [7[

Because it can also sweep up bacteria and microbes, microfiber cleaning products reduce the need for chemical cleaners and reduces cleaning time as well. And microfiber (“Swiffer-type”) mops can also reduce cross-contamination. [8]

Common cleaning applications for microfiber include:

  • Lens cleaning cloths
  • Rags
  • Dish cloths
  • Towels and washcloths
  • Wipes
  • Mop heads

For safer, faster, and more effective cleaning, there’s really nothing like microfiber.

Medical Uses

Because of their low cost and comparative disposability, some types of microfiber lend themselves to different medical uses, including:

  • Surgical gowns
  • Hospital drapes
  • Wound dressings
  • Sutures
  • Medical meshes
  • Face masks
  • Protective gloves
  • Surgical packs
  • Hospital bedding and linens
  • Hospital-grade cleaning supplies

The ultra-fine fibers of microfiber cleaning implements can filter out and pick up microbes and bacteria that larger denier thread fabrics miss. From PPE to hospital-grade cleaning, microfiber is making hospitals cleaner and safer.

Construction Materials

Microfibers add strength and stability to certain construction materials, including:

  • Insulation
  • Reinforced concrete
  • Lamination between textiles and boards
  • Liquid transport media
  • High performance air and automotive filters 
  • And more

Why Has Microfiber Become So Popular?

pile of microfiber fabric

Microfiber’s popularity comes down to a combination of unique characteristics which allow it to outperform different sorts of fibers in a huge number of applications. Here are some of microfiber’s best qualities.

Soft

Because microfiber fabrics are made from ultra-fine filaments, many of them are exceedingly soft. Not just soft to the touch, but soft enough to clean lenses and other delicate surfaces without scratching them.

Strong

Microfiber fabrics are hard-wearing and durable. They resist both water and abrasion. When mixed with industrial compounds like concrete, microfibers add strength and stability.

Super Absorbent

Microfiber cloth can hold 16 times the amount of liquid that cotton cloth can hold. This is because of its special structure. Notice how a cotton thread is solid, while the microfiber thread has splits. These splits aid the rapid absorption of liquid.

microfiber vs cotton absorbency

Moisture Resistant

While some microfiber cloth is made to absorb liquids, others, especially the varieties that include nylon, are designed to repel liquid. Some polyester microfiber fabrics have coatings that render them 100 percent waterproof. This makes them suitable for outerwear, backpacks, handbags, and more.

Moisture Wicking

Some microfiber fabrics wick sweat and moisture away from your body while allowing air to circulate. This is a very valuable quality in sportswear, base layers, and warm-weather clothing.

Machine Washable

Many types of microfiber are machine washable. This makes them excellent for a wide range of applications, from clothing to bed and table linens, to other sorts of housewares. But before tossing your favorite microfiber item into the washing machine, always make sure to check the manufacturer’s care instructions.

Semi-Disposable

Because most microfiber materials are less expensive than their organic counterparts, many products can be treated as disposable or semi-disposable. The use of disposable and semi-disposable products in hospitals reduces the chances of cross-contamination during medical procedures, as well as during cleaning.

Inexpensive

Different microfiber fabrics provide less expensive substitutes for luxury materials like silk, leather, and linen. 

Cruelty Free

Some microfiber fabrics provide a high-quality, lower-priced, cruelty free alternative to animal-derived materials like leather and silk. 

Attracts Dust and Dirt

The structure of the fibers in microfiber rags and mops attracts dust and dirt, and holds it in, rather than spreading it around. This makes microfiber an excellent material for a number of different types of cleaning.

Removes Bacteria and Microbes

The tiny fibers in microfiber fabric can also trap some bacteria and microbes. This makes it possible to do a more complete cleaning job while using fewer cleaning chemicals.

Anti-Dust and Anti-Lint

One of the main selling points of microfiber cloth for cleaning applications is that it doesn’t leave dust or lint behind. 

Are There Different Types of Microfiber?

folded microfiber sheets

Oh, yes.

There are a huge number of microfiber fabrics, each with its own fiber content, production method, individual characteristics, and uses. Here are the main types.

Polyamide (nylon)

Polyamide, or nylon microfiber is made from nylon. It’s one of the more expensive types of microfiber. Polyamide microfiber has the following characteristics:

  • Stretchy
  • Soft
  • Easy to clean
  • Lightweight
  • Strong
  • Heat and flame resistant

Nomex and Kevlar are two types of polyamide microfiber. Nylon microfiber is also widely used in apparel and upholstery. [9]

Polypropylene (Prolen)

Polypropylene has a vast range of applications, including microfiber fabric and other products. Some characteristics of polypropylene microfiber include:

  • Lightweight
  • Colorfast
  • Inexpensive
  • Strong
  • Moisture wicking

Polypropylene microfiber is a popular fabric for cold-weather base layers and hot-weather clothing (because of its moisture wicking properties). You’ll also find it in bedding, diapers, and sanitary products. Prolen is a type of polypropylene microfiber used for suturing.

Polyester

Polyester microfiber has the following characteristics:

  • Inexpensive
  • Stiff
  • Moisture-wicking
  • Easy to wash
  • Crinkle resistant
  • Shrink resistant
  • Resists mildew
  • Resists abrasion
  • Chemical resistant
  • Quick drying
  • Weather resistant

Polyester microfiber is a popular material for athletic clothing, outerwear, backpacks, and handbags. 

PET

If a fabric is advertised as being made from recycled plastic, chances are it’s PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic. Whether you know it or not, the following fabrics are made from PET plastic, recycled and otherwise.

  • Dacron
  • Trevira
  • Terylene

PET fabrics are strong and water resistant. They’re used in clothing manufacture and carpeting.

Microfiber Blend

You might also come across cloth labeled as “microfiber blend.” What does that mean? It’s fairly self-explanatory. Manufacturers may blend two or more types of microfibers to create a fabric that has properties of both.

Woven Microfiber

Microfibers can be woven to create different types of cloth. You might find woven microfiber cloth in:

  • Cleaning cloths and rags
  • Apparel
  • Linens and bedding
  • Handbags and backpacks
  • Industrial cleaning

Split Microfiber

In order to make some microfiber fabrics super-absorbent, manufacturers split the fibers during the manufacturing process. Split microfibers are multi-stranded, which creates the open spaces that result in increased absorbency.

Non-Woven Microfiber

One of the primary uses of non-woven microfiber is disposable and semi-disposable cleaning supplies, including:

  • Wipes
  • Cleaning sponges
  • “Swiffer”-type mop heads

How Easy is it to Work With?

pink microfiber material

This, of course, depends on which microfiber fabric you’re talking about. In general, the types of microfiber used in garments and bags are fairly easy to sew. Many types are fray resistant, and many types (but not all) hold their shape well.

If you’re sewing woven microfiber fabric, treat it as you would any fabric with a tight weave. Use sharp needles and use a new needle for every project. Sharp, new needles will minimize damage to your fabric, and will help stop the fabric from puckering around your stitches. 

And always match your needle gauge to your fabric type. Microtex needles are made to sew ultra-fine fibers.

For knit microfiber fabrics, choose a ballpoint needle. Also, if your fabric is stretchy, make sure to choose stretch stitches when sewing.

If your microfiber is a stretchy variety, use polyester thread instead of cotton thread. Polyester thread also has some stretch, and will work better than cotton thread. Make sure to match your thread weight to your fabric as well: light thread with light fabric, heavier thread with heavier fabric.

Consider using a stabilizer for lightweight microfiber fabrics, especially when sewing around curves. An iron-in stabilizer could harm the drape and flow of your fabric. But if your fabric is machine washable, you could use a washable spray stabilizer. You could also pin tissue paper to the bottom of the fabric during sewing, and remove it when you’re done.

Remember that all microfiber is synthetic. This means that most microfiber fabrics you’ll be working with are sensitive to heat. So iron on a low heat setting suitable for synthetics, and use a press cloth to minimize damage.

Should We Really Be Using Microfiber Fabric Anyway?

Microfiber fabrics are amazingly versatile, and what they do, they do better than pretty much any other material. But they have a large and undeniable environmental impact. Finding the balance between this material’s benefits and its environmental costs is one of the most important tasks that stands before us.

Pollution

The pollution caused by microbeads, those tiny bits of plastic that add a mild abrasive quality to cosmetics and cleaning supplies, is well documented. Many governments have banned microbeads as a result. Unfortunately, microfibers cause similar environmental damage, and on a similar scale.

One major source of microfiber pollution is the gray water from our own laundry. When we wash our microfiber items, they shed a lot of those tiny fibers into the water. How many? Try around 9 million fibers per wash! Those fibers then make their way into lakes, rivers, and oceans. [10, 11]

When we wear or use microfiber items, we’re also releasing fibers into the air.

Animal Life

When PET-based microfiber fleece came on to the market, a lot of us rejoiced. Finally, a way to recycle all of those soda bottles into something beautiful and useful! Unfortunately, microfibers have been a disaster for marine life. 

Some two million tons of microfiber is released into the ocean every year. Of that, 700,000 tons come from domestic laundering of microfleece. [12]

Marine animals ingest the fibers. Not only are the fibers potentially toxic, but they are also indigestible. This can cause problems with feeding, digestion, reproduction, and other vital life functions. And those problems can pass up the food chain, all the way to us.

Human Health

Microfibers make their way into the water supply and into the air. Food animals, particularly seafood animals, swallow them, and they make our way into our bodies, as well. If that’s not enough, microfibers expand in the ocean and absorb bacteria, which we then ingest.

Microplastics present a few different threats to human health. One study shows that microplastics accumulate in the kidneys, liver, intestines, and possibly the brain. Another study showed that phthalates make breast cancer cells grow faster and become more invasive. And in a third study, 87 percent of test subjects had microplastics in their lungs. [12, 13, 14]

There’s a lot of plastic in the environment, and a lot of plastic in us already. Microfibers are only adding to the problem.

Petroleum based

Finally, let’s not forget that microfiber fabrics are derived from different types of plastic. And plastic is a petroleum product [15], with all of the attendant environmental impact, including:

  • Oil spills 
  • Release of toxic refining chemicals 
  • Climate change
  • Ground and surface water contamination
  • Soil contamination
  • Air pollution

So just don’t buy microfiber? All right, but you’d have to work very hard to avoid it. Over 60 percent of garments on the market today have microfiber content.

And what about all of microfiber’s unique benefits?

For some applications, particularly hospital-level cleaning, microfiber’s benefits are undeniable. Microfiber cleaning products eliminate dirt and prevent cross-contamination without leaving dust behind. In addition, their unique properties mean that you can get things cleaner while using fewer cleaning chemicals.

As always, there’s a balance to be struck. 

Natural Alternatives to Microfiber

Are there natural alternatives to microfiber? Well, considering the fact that many microfiber fabrics were invented as alternatives to natural fibers, we’d say yes. Of course you may pay more for them. Here are a few.

Leather

The first commercially available microfiber fabric was Ultrasuede, a suede substitute. There are also microfiber fabrics that mimic full-grain leather. The lower cost of microfiber has made it a popular material for traditionally leather goods like wallets, handbags, clothing and sports equipment. 

For people who don’t mind leather’s animal origins, and are willing to pay more for materials, leather is a natural alternative to microfiber.

Silk

Some types of microfiber mimic the soft, lightweight, drapey characteristics of silk. Microfiber is much cheaper than silk, however, so it’s become a very popular apparel fabric.

In addition to the cost, some people object to silk’s animal origins. However, silk is another natural alternative to microfiber.

Cotton

Cotton is a natural alternative to some types of microfiber, especially when it comes to bed linens. They’re both soft. However, cotton is absorbent, while microfiber wicks moisture away. Cotton also requires ironing, while microfiber is wrinkle-resistant. On the other hand, cotton is much more breathable than microfiber. 

It may take time getting used to the differences, but cotton is another natural alternative to certain types of microfiber.

Linen

Linen, which is made from flax fibers, is another natural alternative to microfiber. It’s breathable and easy to work with, too. On the other hand, linen is a bit more difficult to care for than microfiber. And it goes without saying that linen can be more expensive.

Bamboo

Cloth made from bamboo fibers is an increasingly popular alternative to synthetics. Bamboo grows quickly and is very sustainable. Bamboo-based fabrics tend to be soft and breathable. Many are lightweight and have a lovely drape, as well.

Different types of bamboo fabric vary on sustainability, however. Bamboo viscose, for example, is a type of rayon. Rayon is a semi-synthetic fabric that relies on heavy chemical processing of natural materials. And its production is highly polluting.

Other bamboo fabrics, however, are made by spinning the strong bamboo fibers themselves into yarn. And these are very environmentally friendly and sustainable.

Final Thoughts

“Microfiber fabric” refers to a range of synthetic materials whose fibres are less than 0.7 denier in thickness. These fabrics are made from a variety of materials, using a variety of processes. There are both woven and non-woven varieties of microfiber fabrics. The fabrics may be composed of whole or split fibers.

Different microfiber fabrics have different characteristics that equip them for a wide variety of purposes, from apparel to industrial, from medical equipment to housewares to cleaning equipment. Some microfiber fabrics provide high quality substitutes for more expensive natural materials like silk, linen, or leather.

As versatile and useful as microfiber fabrics are, their production and use take a terrible environmental toll. Microfibers comprise a large percentage of the human-made waste that washes up on beaches around the world. Microfibers poison aquatic life and pollute water, air and soil. 

How can we strike a balance between microfiber’s outstanding utility and the environmental damage it causes? Is it worth the harm to oceans, animal life, and our own health, to have a cheaper alternative to silk and leather? On the other hand, can we afford to disregard a technology that is so useful, inexpensive, and effective?

This is the question before us.

microfiber and the environment

REFERENCES:

  1. BusinessDictionary | Denier | http://www.businessdictionary.com/definition/denier.html
  2. Leah Messinger | How your clothes are poisoning our oceans and food supply | https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/jun/20/microfibers-plastic-pollution-oceans-patagonia-synthetic-clothes-microbeads
  3. Andrew J. R. Watts, Mauricio A. Urbina, Shauna Corr, Ceri Lewis, and Tamara S. Galloway | Ingestion of Plastic Microfibers by the Crab Carcinus maenas and Its Effect on Food Consumption and Energy Balance | https://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/acs.est.5b04026?journalCode=esthag&
  4. Mark Anthony Browne, Phillip Crump, Stewart J. Niven, Emma Teuten, Andrew Tonkin, Tamara Galloway, and Richard Thompson | Accumulation of Microplastic on Shorelines Worldwide: Sources and Sinks | https://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/es201811s
  5. Toray Industries Inc. | 1970s | https://www.ultrasuede.com/about/history/his_1970.html
  6. Toray Industries Inc. | The Science of Ultrasuede | https://www.ultrasuede.com/about/science.html
  7. Textile Course | Applications of Microfibers and Microfilaments | https://textilecourse.blogspot.com/2018/03/applications-microfibers-microfilaments.html
  8. EPA | Using Microfiber Mops in Hospitals | https://archive.epa.gov/region9/waste/archive/web/pdf/mops.pdf
  9. Science Direct | Polyamide Fiber | https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/chemistry/polyamide-fiber
  10. Rojalin Priyadarshini Singh, Sunanda Mishra, Alok Prasad Das | Synthetic microfibers: Pollution toxicity and remediation | https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0045653520313928
  11. Ocean Clean Wash | What are microfibers? | https://www.oceancleanwash.org/the-issue/
  12. Rojalin Priyadarshini Singh, Sunanda Mishra, Alok Prasad Das | Marine microfiber pollution: A review on present status and future challenges | https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0025326X19300451
  13. Yongfeng Deng, Yan Zhang, Bernardo Lemos, Hongqiang Ren | Tissue accumulation of microplastics in mice and biomarker responses suggest widespread health risks of exposure | https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28436478/
  14. Tsung-Hua Hsieh, Cheng-Fang Tsai, Chia-Yi Hsu, Po-Lin Kuo, Jau-Nan Lee, Chee-Yin Chai, Shao-Chun Wang, Eing-Mei Tsai | Phthalates induce proliferation and invasiveness of estrogen receptor-negative breast cancer through the AhR/HDAC6/c-Myc signaling pathway | https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22049059/
  15. John Misachi | What Is The Environmental Impact Of The Petroleum Industry? | https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/what-is-the-environmental-impact-of-the-petroleum-industry.html

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