The Story of Spandex

what is spandex

If you haven’t heard of Spandex, you will definitely have heard of Lycra or elastane and you probably wear it everyday; you don’t have to be head to foot in sportswear to be wearing spandex.

All three names are used to describe the same fabric; spandex is the generic name for elastane fibre in North America, but in the UK and Europe, DuPont’s brand name for their elastane fibre – Lycra is more commonly used. I don’t know where the word Lycra comes from, but according to Wikipedia, Spandex is just an anagram of the word “expands”. I like that!!

WHEN WAS SPANDEX INVENTED?

This remarkably elastic and widespread fibre is completely synthetic; a derivative of oil and was first invented in 1959 by an American textile chemist called Joseph Shivers while he was working at DuPont on a project to develop a synthetic replacement for rubber. Its impressive ability to stretch and recover makes it perfect for close-fitting garments and clothing worn by athletes. Until the invention of spandex, natural rubber was used in elastic and added to textiles to make them stretch but crucially, rubber is damaged by sunlight, oils and sweat and it also gradually reduces in elasticity and strength over time.

WHY IS SPANDEX USED IN FABRICS?

Spandex isn’t just for cycling shorts! Its presence is inescapable and it can be found in almost all of the clothes we wear today, bringing with it the benefits of improved comfort, fit, ease of care (no ironing required!) and durability. Here are just a few of the everyday garments that often contain Spandex:

  • comfortable underwear that keeps its shape and gives great support,
  • jeans that don’t feel like cardboard,
  • suits that won’t crease and are comfortable enough to wear for long days,
  • leggings and tights that don’t get baggy knees,
  • and socks that stay up!

There are also lots of places you might be surprised to find spandex:

  • some disposable nappies,
  • bandages,
  • car interiors,
  • shoes,
  • home textiles such as curtains, cushions, throws and carpets.

Spandex is never used on its own and can be blended with other natural and man-made fibres and this is probably what has helped its incorporation into so many of the textiles we wear and use today.

When writing this piece I did a quick search on the Marks & Spencer website just to get an idea of how widespread the use of spandex is in our wardrobes:

  • when I searched “lycra” – 27 products came up, mostly underwear
  • when I searched “elastane” – another 44 products came up, mostly footwear and clothing
  • and when I searched “spandex” another 68 products came up – exclusively underwear and hosiery, that’s a total of 139 products.

Interestingly when I did the same on the Zara website, searches for lycra and spandex brought back nothing, but a search for “elastane” brought up a total of 2670 items across every department.

HOW TO CHOOSE THE RIGHT SPANDEX CONTENT?

The actual spandex content of fabrics can vary widely. If you’re not sure what spandex content is best for your project when you’re out fabric shopping, here’s a quick guide (note – fabrics in the UK will most likely be labeled elastane or Lycra, not spandex):

  • 3-5% will give added comfort for close fitting garments, for example, cotton/elastane single jersey for fitted t-shirts and stretch denim for skinny jeans,
  • 10-12% provides better recovery (ie. avoids baggy knees) for really fitted garments such as leggings and some activewear,
  • 20%+ will be best for high performance sportswear and swimwear.

HOW TO PROLONG THE LIFE OF YOUR SPANDEX GARMENTS?

  • Don’t tumble dry
  • Don’t iron
  • Don’t bleach
  • Wash on a gentle cycle.

To avoid sports clothing with spandex hanging on to that stale sweaty smell from your workouts here are my top tips for laundering your sportswear:

  • don’t exceed 40 degree water temperature,
  • don’t use the most vigorous cycle on your machine,
  • and here are my secret weapons – I add soda crystals to my regular detergent liquid and use distilled white vinegar in the fabric conditioner drawer, the added bonus being that these products also keep your washing machine clean, soften water, reduce limescale and are a lot cheaper than the specialist detergents you can buy for washing sportswear – white vinegar is around £1 a bottle, soda crystals are around £1.20 a bag.

My secret spandex laundry weapons! 

Then air dry indoors on an airer or outside on the line, never using a direct heat source (ie. on a radiator or in a tumble drier) as it can damage the elastane fibres.

There are more great tips on caring for spandex garments here: https://www.loveyourclothes.org.uk/guides/how-care-spandex-lycra-or-elastane

WHAT IS THE ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT OF SPANDEX?

As spandex is derived from oil and essentially a type of plastic, current environmental concerns over plastic pollution might also be relevant to spandex (although less so than fabrics like fleece which tend to shed more fibres).  There is growing evidence that when we wash our clothes they shed tiny particles (microfibers) of synthetic fibres that are small enough to by-pass the filters not only in our washing machines, but also in our sewer systems, ultimately finding their way into our rivers and seas. There are growing concerns that this might also happen with elastane.

These two investigations on the Guardian website are particularly interesting:

https://www.theguardian.com/science/2016/sep/27/washing-clothes-releases-water-polluting-fibres-study-finds

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/jun/20/microfibers-plastic-pollution-oceans-patagonia-synthetic-clothes-microbeads

https://www.teenvogue.com/story/your-yoga-pants-are-polluting-the-water-you-drink?

ACTIVEWEAR PATTERNS FOR SPANDEX FABRICS:

Fehrtrade http://blog.fehrtrade.com

Seamwork https://www.seamwork.com and Closet Case https://closetcasepatterns.com have a few swimwear patterns.

Of the big pattern brands, Kwik Sew has the most comprehensive range of underwear, nightwear and activewear patterns. You can search by category on the website https://kwiksew.mccall.com

Sewaholic has a small range of activewear patterns. https://www.sewaholicpatterns.com

There are patterns for t-shirts, tank tops, lounge pants and more in my book Beginner’s Guide to Sewing With Knitted Fabrics.

WHERE TO BUY ACTIVEWEAR / SPANDEX FABRICS IN THE UK:

Funkifabrics https://funkifabrics.com

Penine Outdoor http://www.pennineoutdoor.co.uk

UK Fabrics Online https://ukfabricsonline.com

Discovery Knitting http://discoveryknitting.co.uk

(A shorter version of this piece was originally published in the UK in Love Sewing magazine issue no. 61 in November 2018.)

4 responses to “The Story of Spandex

  1. What alternatives do those of us have who don’t want to add particles of no value to the environment each time we wash clothing?

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    • A great question….I guess the only way is to choose fabrics that are natural fibre and spandex blends rather than synthetic and spandex. Natural fibre versions tend not to have very high spandex contents though, so wouldn’t be great for sports/performance garments.

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  2. I really enjoyed reading this post. Found it so informative. Cannot wait to read more about other fabric types!

    Like

  3. Pingback: Wednesday Weekly #153 – Helen's Closet

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