Log inSign Up

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

by Boris Hodakel  • April 25, 2019 • 10 min read

Fabric nameSpandex
Fabric also known asLycra, elastane
Fabric compositionPolyether-polyurea copolymer
Fabric breathabilitynHigh breathability
Moisture-wicking abilitiesHigh
Heat retention abilitiesLow
Stretchability (give)Exceptionally high
Prone to pilling/bubblingHigh
Country where fabric was first producedUnited States
Biggest exporting/producing country todayChina
Recommended washing temperaturesWarm or cold
Commonly used inAthletic wear, stretch pants, yoga pants, skinny jeans, underwear, bras, socks, motion capture suits

fuchsia foil metallic spandex fabricFuchsia Foil Metallic Spandex Fabric

What Is Spandex Fabric?

Spandex is a synthetic fabric that is prized for its elasticity. Contrary to popular belief, the term "spandex" is not a brand name, and this term is used to generally refer to polyether-polyurea copolymer fabrics that have been made with a variety of production processes. The terms spandex, Lycra, and elastane are synonymous.

This fabric can stretch to 5-8 times its normal size, and it is commonly used in form-fitting consumer apparel. In most cases, pure spandex isn't used in garments, and instead, small quantities of this fabric are woven into other synthetic, semi-synthetic, or organic fibers.

The base material used to make spandex is polyurethane, which was developed in 1937 by IG Farben in Germany. At the end of World War II, hundreds of top German scientists began new careers in the United States, and many of the textile engineers at IG Farben transferred to the DuPont Corporation, which was the era's unquestioned leader in synthetic textile development.

how to sew spandex fabricHow To Sew Spandex Fabric

Using polyurethane research, DuPont sought to create a new polymer fabric with high elasticity. During the development process, scientists at DuPont referred to this fabric as "spandex;" once this fabric was completed, it was sold under the brand name Lycra, but consumers seemed to prefer to call this material spandex, and it was this term that entered the public lexicon to refer to this synthetic fabric.

Like other polymers, spandex is made from repeating chains of monomers that are held together with an acid. Early in the spandex development process, it was recognized that this material is highly heat-resistant, which means that notoriously heat-sensitive fabrics like nylon and polyester are improved when combined with spandex fabric.

Elastane's stretchiness immediately made it desirable around the world, and the popularity of this fabric persists to this day. It is present in so many types of apparel that practically every consumer owns at least one article of clothing that contains spandex, and it's unlikely that this fabric's popularity will decrease in the near future. Regrettably, however, elastane has a significantly detrimental environmental impact after it is introduced into the consumer market.

How Is Spandex Fabric Made?

how is spandex fabric made

Since spandex is a fully synthetic fiber, no organic components are used to make this material. Instead, all of the constituent parts of this fiber are made in a laboratory setting, and they are then combined under specific stimuli to create spandex fabric.

In the years since the invention of elastane, a number of different methods for making this fabric have emerged. Some of these methods are more efficient than others, and, over time, methods like reaction spinning, melt extrusion, and solution wet spinning have mostly been discarded. Nearly 95 percent of the world's spandex is now made with a method called solution dry spinning, and it is this manufacturing process that we will examine in detail.

To begin the spandex fabric production process, a substance called macroglycol is mixed with a diisocyanate monomer under specific heat and pressure. The temperature and pressure conditions must be exact to produce the desired results, and the macroglycol and diisocyanate monomer must also be in a ratio approximate to 1:2.

If the right conditions are applied, a substance called a prepolymer is formed, and this substance is then used in the remainder of the production process. Once it has formed, the prepolymer is exposed to diamine acid, and a chemical reaction called chain extrusion reaction is initiated.

subrtex 2 piece print jacquard spandex fabric stretch chair slipcovers graySubrtex 2-Piece Print Jacquard Spandex Fabric Stretch Chair Slipcovers, Gray

The resulting substance is highly viscous, and it must be diluted with a solvent before it can move on to the next step. When it is thin enough to work with, the prepolymer is loaded into a machine called a fiber production cell or a cylindrical spinning cell.

Inside this machine is a device called a spinneret, which has dozens of tiny holes. As the fiber production cell spins, the prepolymer solution is forced through these holes, and it takes on the form of strands of fabric. These strands, however, are still in a liquid state when they emerge from the spinneret, and they are then exposed to heated solvent gas and nitrogen to render them into a solid state.

These solid fibers are then pushed out of the cylindrical spinning cell, and when they are exposed to pressurized air, they form into twisted strands. This compressed air can form strands of many different sizes.

Lastly, the spandex fiber is immersed in a finishing agent consisting of magnesium stearate or a similar chemical. Once it is loaded onto a spool, it is ready to be woven into fabric.

How Is Spandex Fabric Used?

how is spandex fabric used

Spandex fabric is used in any consumer or industrial application in which elasticity is desired. Since its inception, this type of fabric has become more and more popular, and these days, it is present in thousands of different types of garments, and it is used by consumers all over the world.

In some cases, pure spandex fabric may be used to make incredibly stretchy or fully form-fitting garments. However, this fabric is relatively expensive, which means that these types of garments are quite costly to the consumers of professionals who use them. Instead, it's much more common to see spandex fabric woven into other types of textiles.

When spandex fabric is added to cotton, for instance, this fabric becomes much more elastic, and spandex can also be used to add elasticity to traditionally rigid fabrics like polyester. Even if small amounts of this fabric are added to other textiles, these fabrics become much stretchier; since spandex can stretch up to eight times its original size, the elasticity imparted by adding this fabric to other textiles can be determined by dividing this stretching potential by the percentage in which it is included in a garment.

snowflake rhinestone mystique spandex leotardsSnowflake Rhinestone Mystique Spandex Leotards

The most common application for spandex is in fabrics that are form-fitting. For instance, it is included in many different types of underwear for men and women, and even if it isn't present in the main fabric of an underwear garment, it is almost always present in the waistband. In fact, spandex fabric is found in the waistbands of almost every type of stretch garment.

Spandex is also used in relatively high percentages in cotton and wool socks. Using this fabric in socks helps these garments stay on your feet, and it also facilitates the wearing and removal of socks.

This fabric is highly popular in sportswear. In most types of athletic pursuits, wearing clothes that ride close to the skin is important, so spandex fabric is used in swimwear, bicycling apparel, and types of clothing that are used in competitive team sports.

Lastly, spandex fabric is sometimes used in industrial applications. For instance, it is used in the film industry to make motion capture suits, which are special types of bodysuits that actors wear in front of green screens. Spandex makes it easier to generate realistic 3D characters by making sure that these suits ride close to the bodies of actors.

Where Is Spandex Fabric Produced?

spandex fabric in the world

Spandex fabric is made by many different international corporations. Some of these corporations, such as DuPont, have factories in dozens of different countries, but others may be localized to one country in particular.

The majority of the world's spandex manufacturing plants are located in China. In the past, most of this fabric was produced in the United States, but reduced labor costs have driven the manufacture of many different types of textiles to China over the last few decades.

plus prime flared cotton spandex capriPlus Prime Flared Cotton Spandex Capri

A recent revival in the U.S. manufacturing economy may preside over a return of spandex production to American shores, but whatever the case may be, market reports project the future of spandex production to be bright. While many types of synthetic textiles have lost popularity in recent years, there is no replacement for spandex, which means that this fabric industry will continue to enjoy increased growth until at least 2023.

How Much Does Spandex Fabric Cost?

Due to its novelty and the relatively laborious manufacturing process used to make it, spandex fabric commands a relatively high market price. It is, for instance, more expensive than polyester and nylon, and it is also usually more expensive than organic fabrics like wool and cotton.

Since elastane is generally only used in small quantities in apparel, however, this increased price does not usually make itself apparent at the consumer level. The more spandex fabric that is included in a garment, however, the more expensive that garment becomes. For instance, certain types of cycling gear and professional dance garments that contain high levels of spandex are quite costly.

What Different Types of Spandex Fabric Are There?

different types of spandex fabric

Even when different production methods are used to make spandex, the end result is chemically the same. However, confusion can ensue due to the different terms that are used to describe this fabric:

  • Spandex: This term is not a trademark, and it is, in fact, an anagram of "expands." Spandex was never intended to be the primary term used to refer to elastane fabric, but the term stuck in the consumer mind, and most Americans and Canadians now refer to this textile with this term.
  • Elastane: Most Europeans use variants of the term "elastane" to refer to this type of fabric. Elastane is the most chemically correct way of referring to this fabric.
  • Lycra: This term is a registered trademark of the DuPont Corporation. Only spandex made by DuPont can be called Lycra, but this fabric is chemically identical to fabrics that are called spandex or elastane, and it has the same attributes.

How Does Spandex Fabric Impact the Environment?

Overall, spandex has a negative impact on the environment. This impact is not as pronounced as the negative impact of other types of synthetic fabrics, but it is certainly present, and at this point, no feasible solutions have been suggested to curb the environmental degradation caused by spandex fabric.

If only the production methods used to make spandex are considered, then this fabric does not appear to have a significantly detrimental effect on the environment. Certain synthetic materials, such as nylon, are directly derived from non-renewable resources like coal and petroleum oil, but elastane is made entirely from chemicals that are synthesized in lab settings.

marine matte tricot spandex fabricMarine Matte Tricot Spandex Fabric

The production of elastane is, therefore, highly energy-intensive, but if renewable energy sources are used to produce the prepolymers that this fabric consists of, this problem can be solved. There's a possibility that the same health issues that workers encounter in the production of polyurethane are encountered in the production of spandex, but no research has been done into this subject. Additionally, it's possible that isocyanates, which are toxic chemicals commonly found in polyurethane, may also be present in spandex, but there is no clear indication that this is the case.

The notable environmental impact of elastane comes into play only after it is sold to consumers. It has been determined that 60 percent the trash in U.S. waterways is composed of non-biodegradable textile fibers, and spandex garments and fibers make up a large portion of this waste. Even if spandex is disposed of properly in landfills or other designated trash disposal areas, tiny fibers of this substance are introduced into the waterways whenever elastane garments are washed, which harms aquatic life, reduces drinking water quality, and ultimately contributes to the giant trash islands that are steadily accumulating in the world's oceans.

Elastane and other non-biodegradable textiles will be around long after human civilization has departed the planet, and at this time, there are no known methods for converting spandex fabrics and similar materials into biodegradable substances. Safe disposal and limited washings are the only ways to mitigate the environmental impact of this fabric.

Spandex Certifications Available

spandex fabric certifications

Since spandex fabric is entirely synthetic, organic and non-GMO certifications do not apply to this product. It is, however, possible to have this fabric certified by the Global Recycled Standard (GRS) if it is made from 100 percent recycled materials. This type of manufacturing process is, however, somewhat rare, and using recycled materials does not mitigate the environmental effect that spandex causes once it is introduced into the consumer market.

Share

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.