Man-made fibers are gaining popularity compared to natural fibers in recent times. One of them is the spandex fiber which has captured the garment industry. Spandex is a lightweight, soft smooth synthetic fiber that has a unique elasticity. Due to its elastic property, it is used in making stretchable clothing. It is also known as 'elastane' in Europe and many other parts of the world.

Spandex is made of a synthetic polymer called polyurethane which has extraordinary stretch ability. The long chain of polymer is produced by reacting polyester with diisocyanate which contains at least 85% polyurethane. Spandex is strong, durable and was first invented at DuPont's laboratory in 1959, in Virginia. Many areas of the garment industry were transformed after its arrival.

Characteristics of Spandex Fiber

The spandex fiber is of better quality, light, supple and more adaptable compared to rubber. The fibers are made of innumerable polymer strands, because of which it possesses a unique elastic property. Moreover, this fiber can stretch up to 500% of its length. The fiber is resistant to wear and tear caused by sweat, detergents, body oils, lotions, etc. When spandex fabric is used in garments, it prevents bagging or sagging of the material.

Garments made of spandex give a perfect fit and comfort. Further, in spite of repeated stretching, it will retain its original length and shape. Fabrics with spandex are abrasion resistant and have negligible damage from 'needle cutting' when sewn, whereas in other elastic materials the needle sometimes causes damage.

Production of Spandex fiber

Melt extrusion, reaction spinning, solution dry spinning and solution wet spinning are the main methods of producing spandex fibers; the first step being the production of prepolymer in each process, which further is reacted in various methods to produce long spandex fiber. 'Solution dry spinning' method is the most used method to produce spandex. Almost 90% of spandex fibers produced in the world are manufactured using this method.

Uses of spandex

It is well known that spandex is highly used in the apparel industry. However, this is also a useful fabric for hospitality and industrial organizations. Spandex fabrics are mostly used in garments where comfort and fit both are required like hosiery, swimsuits, exercise wear, socks, surgical hose, undergarments, gloves, cycling shorts, wrestling suits, rowing suits, specialized clothing like zentai suits, motion capture suits, denims, etc.

Sports apparel and accessories industry particularly make use of spandex in making many items. Spandex garments are perfect for athletes and cyclists, as it helps to reduce any resistance to wind. This makes it an ideal garment for competitive cyclists and runners. Spandex fabric is also known to provide support due to which sport bras are produced using this fabric.

Spandex is not only used in sport garments but even used for manufacturing sport accessories like volleyballs and soccer balls. Just as spandex is useful for apparel industry, similarly it is also favorable for the industrial applications. Items made from rubber are now made with spandex. Medical industry is using spandex instead of latex in producing many products such as rubber tubing, hosing and knee or back braces.

It is also used in producing household products like fitted sheets and microbead pillows. One of the lesser known uses of spandex is for interior decoration and event planning. For example, spandex fabric is used for table coverings and latex chair coverings.

Instead of the conventional table cloth, a well fitted spandex table covering will give a modern look to the dining area. Nowadays, chair covering and chair bands made from spandex are more used as cloth shrinks after long use, while spandex fabric fits perfectly and can be used for a long time.

Disadvantages of Spandex

As discussed earlier, there are many advantages of spandex fabric with its flexibility, durability, comfort, fit and so on. However, it also has few disadvantages. Spandex material is not a breathable fabric and traps moisture, sweat, bad odor within the garment which may lead to skin infection. These issues can be removed by combining cotton or other breathable materials with spandex.

Spandex is very sensitive to heat due its chemical formation and does not absorb liquid. Hence, washing spandex in hot water, using iron or machine drying can permanently damage the fabric. Further, the smooth and slippery surface of spandex creates lack of friction, which may sometimes pose risk to the wearer. Blending spandex with other fibers will resolve most of its disadvantages. Hence, one can find variety of garments in blend with spandex in the stores.

Spandex has come out far from its origin days and has become the most popular fiber on fashion front today. Whether it is sportswear or men's suits, bed linens to shoes, women's wear to medical products, this fiber has captured every field and is in great demand globally. According to a report almost 80% of the clothing sold in America contains spandex.


Current market trends

The demand for spandex is anticipated to increase at the rate of 6% annually by 2017. The latest reports published in March 2013, states that Asia (excluding Japan) had a total consumption of 70% spandex in 2012, as it is the major producer of spandex and will cover nearly three-fourth of the total global consumption by the year 2017.

It further states that China contributes towards 30% of global production and 50% of global consumption of spandex. There are upcoming new projects in China that will cater to the country's rapidly growing demand for spandex. At present, a Korean company is the largest spandex producer in the world. Today's consumers are educated and demanding. With new consumers entering the market, the fiber is developing in various dimensions to give complete consumer satisfaction.

Since its inception, the quality of spandex fibers has improved and will continue to improve with the help of research and technology. The development in the spandex fibers will result into more superior fabrics that can be produced combining traditional fibers with spandex fibers. Also, new improved methods for manufacturing spandex more efficiently are needed.

It has already entered the auto sector and is used in making door panel, as it sticks to the door properly. In future, spandex will also dominate the market for fashionable furniture and can be truly termed as the 'Gen-next fibre'.