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What is Acrylic Fabric: Properties, How its Made and Where

by Boris Hodakel  • December 13, 2019 • 11 min read

Fabric name Acrylic fabric
Fabric also known as Polyacrylonitrile, acrylic, acrylonitrile
Fabric composition Synthetic polyacrylonitrile polymer
Fabric possible thread count variations 18-100
Fabric breathability Low
Moisture-wicking abilities High
Heat retention abilities High
Stretchability (give) High
Prone to pilling/bubbling Very high
Country where fabric was first produced USA
Biggest exporting/producing country today China
Recommended washing temperatures Warm
Commonly used in Sweaters, hoodie, boots, boot lining, hats, gloves, athletic wear, carpeting, blankets, roller brushes, upholstery, area rugs, protective clothing, wigs, hair extensions

Woven Acrylic Outdoor Fabric in NavyWoven Acrylic Outdoor Fabric in Navy

What Is Acrylic Fabric?

Acrylic fiber fabrics are made from a synthetic polymer called acrylonitrile. This type of fiber is produced by reacting certain petroleum or coal-based chemicals with a variety of monomers, which means that acrylic fabric is a fossil fuel-based fiber.

Since acrylic fabric is one of the least breathable forms of textiles in the world, it is desired in heat-retention applications. For instance, it is commonly used in athletic equipment, and it’s common to see tracksuits, hoodies, and athletic pants made from acrylic fabric. However, there are concerns that acrylic may be carcinogenic, so it may be prudent to avoid contacting this fiber with your skin.

While acrylic fiber might contain smaller amounts of other synthetic compounds, this fiber must contain at least 85% acrylonitrile to be considered authentic. Depending on the compounds that acrylonitrile is mixed with, the final fabric will have different attributes.

History

Like many other synthetic textile fibers, the American DuPont Corporation originally developed acrylic fiber. This firm had already become famous around the world for the development of nylon and the mainstreaming of polyester production, and when acrylic fiber was invented in the 1940s, the world saw this development as simply the next step in DuPont’s rapid ascent to a dominant position in the world’s textile markets.

However, acrylic fiber didn’t become notably popular until the 1950s. It’s possible that the success of DuPont’s other synthetic textiles contributed to this slow mainstreaming of acrylic fiber; this company had already replaced silk with nylon and cotton with polyester, which may have reduced consumer receptivity to this company’s new wool replacement, acrylic.

Acrylic Paint Tie-DyeAcrylic Paint Tie-Dye

Over the period of around a decade, the benefits of acrylic became more apparent, and this fabric gained greater and greater market share. At the time, consumers and industrial players were optimistic that synthetic fibers would eventually replace natural textiles altogether. Gradually, however, consumers became concerned about the flammability of acrylic, especially given the fact that wool, which acrylic was supposed to replace, has one of the best flammability profiles of any fabric.

By the 1970s, the environmental movement had soured public opinion against synthetic fabric, and at around the same time, information about the potential toxicity and carcinogenic attributes of acrylic was also coming to light. While the popularity of synthetic fibers in the United States has encountered a steady decline over the last few decades, the opening of other markets in Asia and Africa has helped keep the production of acrylic fiber afloat.

DuPont, however, is no longer the foremost producer of acrylic fiber. Other companies in China, India, Indonesia, and other ASEAN countries have supplanted this American manufacturer as the leaders of the acrylic fiber market. Similarly, the American consumer market demands far less acrylic fabric than emerging markets in developing countries do.

Washing

Keep in mind that both cold and hot water can be harmful to apparel composed of acrylic fabric. Therefore, you should always wash acrylic clothing with warm water. When you wash acrylic on cold, it can start to become firm and inflexible, and when you wash this fabric in water that’s too hot, it can melt and damage your washing machine or other items in the load.

Also, acrylic fabric is more prone to pilling than practically any other fabric. If you wash an acrylic garment with garments that don’t closely match its color, you’ll end up with a pierce of apparel covered in pills that are the same color as the garments you washed it with.

How Is Acrylic Fabric Made?

how is acrylic fabric made

Acrylic fiber is generally made in facilities that also produce other forms of synthetic textiles. To begin the process of acrylic fabric production, the acrylonitrile polymer polyacrylonitrile is created in a water-based solution using a reaction technique called free radical polymerization.

This polymer is dissolved using a powerful chemical solvent, and the resulting gel-like material is then ready to be extruded through a spinneret to form acrylic fiber. These fibers are usually coagulated in a solution of the same solvent, which is called wet spinning.

However, a process called dry spinning can also be used, which is more efficient and environmentally friendly. Dry spinning involves evaporating the solvent with a stream of heated gas.

The resulting fibers are then washed, stretched, and crimped to make long, thin filaments that can be spun into yarn. Like other synthetic textile fibers, stretching is necessary to create a usable end textile; the process of stretching fibers like acrylic renders them many times their original length, which reduces costs and results in more production efficiency.

Marbling with acrylic paint on fabricMarbling with acrylic paint on fabric

Once acrylic fibers have been spun into yarn, they are loaded onto bobbins and shipped to textile product manufacturers. These manufacturers then weave this acrylic yarn into apparel, carpeting, or a variety of other applications, or they may sell the yarn as-is with minor alterations as supplies for knitting hobbyists.

Either at the manufacturing plant or the textile product production facility, workers may also expose acrylic fiber to various dyes and treatments. For instance, flame retardants are strictly necessary for acrylic fabrics; without these admittedly toxic treatments, acrylic fabric would be highly dangerous.

It’s important to point out that it’s possible to create colored acrylic fiber in the chemical production process, which eliminates the need for dyes.

How Is Acrylic Fabric Used?

how is acrylic fabric used

Since acrylic fabric is designed to be similar to wool, it is used in many of the same applications as this highly popular natural fiber. For instance, apparel manufacturers make acrylic fiber into sweaters, mittens, gloves, pants, hoodies, and a variety of other types of cold-weather clothing. Additionally, acrylic is a popular material for carpeting, upholstery, rugs, and other traditionally wool-dominated homeware product categories.

While acrylic is highly similar to wool in its natural state, it can be made to resemble other fabrics, such as cotton, depending on the spinning mechanism that is used. Manufacturers can make types of acrylic that resemble fur, which can be useful for props or costumes.

Acrylic fiber is used as one of the constituents of carbon fiber, which is in high demand in industrial applications. Otherwise, however, acrylic fiber doesn’t have a lot of industrial applications; while this fabric is highly durable, its flammability makes it ineligible for use in many industrial environments.

One of the most prominent applications of acrylic fiber is in knitting. While most people who knit prefer wool for high-end products, many amateur knitters use acrylic as a “learner fiber” or as a yarn for cheap, low-effort projects. While there are significant detractors to using acrylic as a knitting material, its inability to lose its color and inexpensiveness afford it a valuable position within the knitting hobbyist market.

Where Is Acrylic Fabric Produced?

acrylic fabric in the world

China is theglobal leader in acrylic fabric production. This country produces more than 30% of the world’s acrylic fabric and apparel, and it also has the largest market for acrylic clothing. The acrylic market and production efforts in China continue to grow at a steady pace, but the South American market is the world’s fastest-growing acrylic marketplace.

As markets in ASEAN member countries like India and Indonesia continue to grow, acrylic fabric production in China and other countries will steadily grow with them to meet the needs of this increased acrylic fiber consumption. While China is the largest acrylic fabric producer in the world, the title of largest acrylic fiber-producing company goes to the Indian firm Aksa Akrilik Kimya Sanayii AŞ. The next-largest acrylic-producing company is also Indian, but the Chinese firm Dralon takes third place.

How Much Does Acrylic Fabric Cost?

No data are available on the current price per pound of acrylic fiber or woven acrylic products. Like other synthetic fibers, however, the main allure of acrylic fabric is its low production cost. This low price of producing acrylic fiber is then passed on to consumer textile producers, and the end consumer ends up benefiting from the price reduction of acrylic as compared to natural textiles.

What Different Types of Acrylic Fabric Are There?

different types of acrylic fabric

There are four main types of acrylic fabric:

1. Acrylic

To be considered normal acrylic fabric, this type of fiber must contain at least 85% pure acrylonitrile.

2. Modacrylic

This acrylic fiber variant is composed partially of acrylonitrile, but a variety of other polymers are also used in its production. For instance, modacrylic contains a high degree of vinylidene chloride As such, fabrics made from modacrylic fiber generally have better drapability, wrinkle-resistance, and durability than normal acrylic fabrics.

Modacrylic may also resist pilling and abrasion better than acrylic fiber. Furthermore, modacrylic is flame-resistant while normal acrylic is highly flammable. Lastly, modacrylic fabrics may hold their shape better than normal acrylic fabrics.

3. Nytril

Unlike acrylic fabric, which is mainly composed of acrylonitrile, nytril is primarily composed of vinylidene dinitrile. While nytril hasn’t been made in the United States since the 1960s, it is still produced in the Asian markets. Since nytril is hard to dye, however, it never became highly popular, and it isn’t produced in large quantities anywhere in the world.

4. Lastrile

Lastrile is an elastic form of acrylic that is made by mixing a type of chemical called a diene with acrylonitrile. This fabric is used in similar applications to acrylic in which greater elasticity is desired.

Acrylic Watch Hat | Hamilton BrownAcrylic Watch Hat | Hamilton Brown

How Does Acrylic Fabric Impact the Environment?

Since acrylic fabric is not biodegradable, its environmental impact is largely negative. Also, the production processes used to make acrylic fabric harm workers and the ecosystems surrounding manufacturing facilities.

The production processes used to make acrylic fabric are highly volatile, and production plants that manufacture this fiber are constantly at risk of exploding if necessary safeguards fail. A variety of toxic substances are used in the production of acrylic fabric, and if these substances aren’t handled or disposed of correctly, they enter surrounding ecosystems and harm wildlife and human inhabitants. The gases produced in acrylonitrile manufacturing are so harmful that legislation requires they be properly filtered in a closed environment before they can leave a production facility.

Unlike polyester and some other synthetic fabrics, it is practically impossible to recycle acrylic fabric, which means that there is no effective means of disposal of acrylic garments once they are produced. Acrylic fiber is not biodegradable, so it simply accumulates in the environment and will stay there for hundreds of years until it slowly starts to break down.

The tiny fiber fragments produced when consumers wash synthetic fabrics enter the water supply and poison ecosystems. This microfiber crisis is threatening to make water undrinkable in high-density urban areas in which high water consumption and inadequate drinking water filtration techniques result in high concentrations of fibers in the hydrosphere.

For instance, a British scientist recently found that a single load of washed clothes can create up to 700,000 microfibers, and these microfibers then end up on shorelines all over the world. These microfibers simply add to the pandemic crisis of plastics in the oceans.

Additionally, as a volatile organic compound (VOC), acrylonitrile has the potential to create ground ozone, which poisons plants and reduces crop yield. It’s unclear, however, how frequently acrylic fiber production causes this environmentally harmful effect.

Like most other synthetic fibers, acrylonitrile is a fossil fuel derivative. Therefore, production of acrylic fabric furthers human consumption of fossil fuels, and it also takes up fossil fuels that could have been used for vital energy production applications.

Belham Living AcrylicBelham Living Acrylic

Health Risks

In addition to being hazardous to the environment, acrylic fabric may also be hazardous to your health. As early as 1979, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) became concerned that residual monomers in acrylic fabric may be carcinogenic. This suspicion has since been substantiated by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; every time your skin comes into contact with acrylic fibers, your chances of developing cancer increase.

On its own, acrylic fabric is highly flammable, which means it must be treated with toxic flame retardants to avoid the possibility of grievously injuring the wearer. The types of flame retardants used are called organophosphates, and these toxic compounds gradually accumulate in the body.

Exposure to synthetic fibers in general during the production process increases breast cancer rates in postmenopausal women. Synthetic fibers like acrylonitrile also serve as breeding grounds for bacteria, which could cause skin conditions and general discomfort.

Acrylic Fabric Certifications Available

acrylic fabric certifications

Since acrylic fabric is made from synthetic fibers, it is not eligible for organic certification from either state-operated or independent organizations. However, this type of fabric is eligible for certification as a genuine product by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).

To determine whether acrylic fabric is genuine, ISO subjects product samples to rigorous chemical testing processes. As a result, ISO-certified acrylic is guaranteed to be 100% acrylic, but at present, there is no technology capable of effectively recycling acrylic, which means that there are no recycled fiber certifications available for acrylic fabric.

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About the author:

Boris Hodakel is the founder and CEO of Sewport - an online marketplace connecting brands and manufacturers, former founder of various clothing manufacturing services. He is passionate about e-commerce, marketing and production digitisation. Connect with Boris on LinkedIn.