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

by Boris Hodakel  • December 11, 2019 • 6 min read

Fabric name Neoprene
Fabric also known as Polychloroprene, scuba fabric
Fabric composition Synthetic chloroprene stretched into textile fiber
Fabric breathability None
Moisture-wicking abilities None
Heat retention abilities High
Stretchability (give) High
Prone to pilling/bubbling Medium
Country where fabric was first produced USA - DuPont Corporation
Biggest exporting/producing country today USA
Recommended washing temperatures Cold or warm - do not exceed 80° C
Commonly used in Wetsuits, scuba gear, swimsuits, electronics cases, sportswear, sports bras, gaskets, industrial equipment m

What is Neoprene fabric?

Originally produced by the American DuPont Corporation, Neoprene is a brand name of polychloroprene, which is used as a substitute for rubber. Among other things, Neoprene is entirely waterproof, which makes it an ideal material for wetsuits and other gear designed to insulate against wet and cold environments.

The history of Neoprene

Like many history-altering inventions, chloroprene rubber was born out of necessity. By the first few decades of the 20th century, a global rubber shortage became a primary concern of industrial giants in the Western nations, and American companies like DuPont began watching leading universities like hawks in the hopes that they’d find the answer.

In 1930, a professor of chemistry at the University of Notre Dame named Fr Julius Arthur Nieuwland gave a lecture that a leading DuPont executive happened to attend. The lecture was on the subject of divinyl acetylene, a plastic material that Nieuwland had developed himself. DuPont recruited Nieuwland to develop a mass-producible compound based on divinyl acetylene, and together with top scientists in the field of plastics, Nieuwland was successful in 1930. Neoprene burst onto the market in 1930, and the rest is history.

As a viable alternative to rubber, Neoprene played a critical role in the Allied efforts in World War II. Everything from Jeep tires to wetsuits were suddenly issued in Neoprene instead of real rubber, and without DuPont’s miracle invention, it’s possible the war would have gone very differently.

Neoprene today

Since then, Neoprene and generic forms of polychloroprene have found their way into many different niches of consumer and industrial life. This versatile, petrochemical-based material has the following unique benefits:

1. Impermeability

Neoprene forms a solid barrier between the wearer and the elements. While this attribute completely eliminates breathability, it also provides insulation from environmental conditions that would otherwise be uncomfortable or harmful.

2. Elasticity

Despite providing a perfect barrier against moisture, Neoprene fabric is also quite stretchy. It’s a good thing, too—otherwise, divers and surfers wouldn't be able to get into their suits!

3. Heat retention

While Neoprene and all other petrochemical-based fibers melt at the slightest touch of heat, this particular synthetic fabric provides excellent insulation against cold. Thanks to polychloroprene, surfers are able to hang 10 in climates that would otherwise be far too forbidding.

4. Formability

While most fabrics are woven, Neoprene is formed. Therefore, it can be pre-made into practically any shape and size, which saves work for fashion designers.

The latest on Neoprene

Neoprene remains the trademark of the DuPont Corporation, and this American industrial icon remains highly active on the world stage. Even though the majority of DuPont’s manufacturing has moved to China and other cheap-labor, authoritative East Asian nations, this company’s Los Angeles plant remains the world’s highest-volume polychloroprene production site.

Chloroprene rubber is made all over the world by hundreds of different companies. Despite the fact that all polychloroprene should be molecularly identical, variations in manufacturing processes play a role in the end result. While there are no clear data to support this supposition, it’s likely that genuine Neoprene made by DuPont will offer higher-quality results than knockoff chloroprene rubber. Then again, you might be surprised.

How is Neoprene fabric made?

Neoprene is a petrochemical substance, which means that it is made from petroleum in a factory. Polychloroprene is made with a process called free radical emulsion polymerization, which turns natural chloroprene into synthetic polychloroprene. These two substances are molecularly very similar, but they have very different attributes.

Polychloroprene is usually delivered to textile factories in liquid form. Once it arrives, it is combined with additives to increase elasticity or highlight other traits. Next, it is placed in a mixer and baked in an industrial oven. The hardened chloroprene rubber is called a “loaf,” and this loaf can then be sliced into chunks of various widths.

This slicing process is performed by a large industrial machine. There are a variety of widths of Neoprene material available, and the thicker the polychloroprene, the more insulative and waterproof it is. The average thickness for Neoprene is 3-5 millimeters.

The sliced Neoprene is loaded onto pallets and shipped to apparel manufacturers. Upon arrival, patterns are traced on the polychloroprene “slices,” and entire wetsuit faces or other apparel items, accessories, or industrial products are then cut from a single slice.

Lastly, the cut slices are sewn together to make the final products. Waterproofing or fireproofing spray may be applied, and then the finished item is packaged and shipped to the retailer.

How is Neoprene fabric used?

This unique type of fabric is used in various sectors:

1. Apparel applications

While Neoprene use in apparel is sparing, it isn’t uncommon to see this substance used in summertime womens garments and other apparel geared toward younger women.

2. Accessory applications

Neoprene is commonly used as a material for electronics cases. While this plastic does not absorb shocks especially well, it provides a minimal buffer that protects electronics from scratches and minor drops.

3. Sporting applications

Scuba suits and wetsuits are common applications of chloroprene rubber. Since this substance is waterproof and insulative, it keeps divers warm and dry even in fully submerged conditions.

4. Military applications

From gaskets to wetsuits, militaries and paramilitary organizations around the world come up with endless uses for Neoprene—it helps that DuPont has always been one of the U.S. government’s biggest contractors.

5. Industrial applications

Neoprene is commonly used to make industrial machines that require gaskets or other Neoprene products.

Where is Neoprene fabric produced?

Even though China is the largest producer of synthetic fibers in general, the USA remains the largest producer of polychloroprene. DuPont’s factory in the Los Angeles area continues to produce more chloroprene rubber than any other facility on the planet, and there are no signs that this trend will reverse any time soon.

How much does Neoprene fabric cost?

Among the petrochemical-derived fabrics, Neoprene is one of the most costly. This textile is relatively difficult to produce, and its beneficial attributes drive its price upward even further. Neoprene costs the least in raw “loaf” form, and it becomes more expensive the further along in the production process it progresses.

If you want to save on Neoprene, it’s likely that non-branded polychloroprene made in China might cost less than genuine DuPont Neoprene. The further you stray from the source, however, the more likely it is you’ll come across manufacturing defects and mishaps that will make you wish you’d stuck with the genuine article.

What different types of Neoprene fabric are there?

At present, there are two main varieties of Neoprene fabric on the market:

Synthetic polychloroprene

Almost all types of Neoprene on the market are made with petrochemicals, and they are, therefore, synthetic.

“Organic” polychloroprene

Ultimately, there’s no way to make Neoprene a fully natural substance. A handful of intrepid textile entrepreneurs, however, have taken it upon themselves to prove that usable quantities of chloroprene rubber can be produced not with petrochemicals but with natural limestone instead.

Limestone-based polychloroprene has only been on the market for a few years, but it’s already a smash hit among divers who love the smooth feel of its closed-cell structure. Unfortunately, limestone-based polychloroprene doesn’t appear to be any more biodegradable than its petrochemical-derived cousin. Since the Earth is constantly renewing its limestone reserves, however, this form of chloroprene rubber is technically more sustainable.

How does Neoprene fabric impact the environment?

Like all petrochemical-derived fabrics, Neoprene has a significantly negative impact on the environment. If it weren’t for this textile’s impressive beneficial attributes, it’s likely that there would be more of an outcry about its contribution to global pollution.

At the same time, polychloroprene only makes up a tiny fraction of each year’s total plastics production, and efforts are underway to make chloroprene rubber production cleaner and more sustainable. Neoprene clearly has a place in the worlds of fashion and industry, and it’s only a matter of time until we find out how to make this useful fabric friendlier toward the environment.

Neoprene fabric certifications available

Since it is a synthetic fabric, polychloroprene is not eligible for organic, non-GMO, or other forms of certifications sometimes awarded to natural fibers. Polychloroprene is also not recycled, so it is not eligible for certification from the Global Recycle Standard (GRS) or similar organizations.

Neoprene is, however, available for ISO certification, which provides consumers with some degree of peace of mind. ISO is an organization that verifies the purity of various synthetic substances, and it offers a wide array of certifications based on the intended use of the product.

For instance, polychloroprene is eligible for ISO 9001 certification if it can be demonstrated to have a certain level of purity. ISO 13485 certification is also available for polychloroprene used in medical equipment.

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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.