Acetate fiber is a semi-synthetic polymer also known as cellulose acetate used to make textile fabrics for clothing. It's a type of rayon, a regenerated cellulosic fiber, made from wood pulp, like viscose, modal, cupro, and lyocell.
Many people don't know much about acetate, how it's made, its properties, and its advantages. Acetate fabric has a luxurious feel and appearance.
Acetate fibers are generally made of filaments of cellulose created from wood pulp in trees. Acetate fabrics are made with spun acetate fibers.
Although it's made from a natural and renewable raw material, wood pulp, acetate fabric is considered a semi-synthetic or chemical fiber textile. The main advantage of semi-synthetic acetate fiber compared to natural fibers is its very low cost.
Acetate flakes are formed by the combination of acetic acid with cellulose from wood. Acetate fiber is the second-oldest man-made fiber in the United States and was used as a coating for airplanes.
Cellulose acetate is the acetate ester of cellulose. It was first discovered in 1865 by French chemist Paul Schützenberger.
Acetate fabric was first introduced in 1924 in the United States and later commercially produced once chemists found a solution to easily dye the fabric with durable colors.
But semi-synthetic fabrics made of acetate fibers aren't the most environmentally friendly. Their manufacturing has a disastrous environmental impact.
Here is everything you need to know about acetate fiber fabrics, its uses, manufacturing, properties, advantages, downsides, environmental impact, and sustainable alternatives.
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Acetate fiber uses
Acetate fibers are the second most used man-made cellulosic fiber after viscose globally. They are semi-synthetic fibers and very cheap to produce.
Man-made cellulosic fibers like acetate, viscose, cupro, or lyocell are slowly replacing petroleum-based synthetic fibers such as nylon, acrylic, and polyester.
Acetate fabrics are regularly used in fashion to produce clothing and accessories because they are smooth, sheen, and affordable. They resemble luxurious silk.
In the textile and apparel industry, acetate fabric is often used to make knitwear, evening dresses, wedding attires, formal shirts, suits, blouses, coats, sweaters, sportswear, hats, and undergarments.
Acetate is also used in umbrellas, furniture, upholstery, drapes, curtains, carpets, and home decor, like other soft and luxurious fabrics.
Cellulose acetate is widely produced to make cigarette filter tow used in the majority of cigarette filters worldwide. It helps remove tar and nicotine while keeping a convenient taste.
The overall cellulose acetate fibers market has been declining due to a decreasing number of smokers globally. The market is expected to slightly rise in the coming years, as new apparel and home furnishing applications develop, especially in China.
Acetate fibers are often blended with over types of synthetic or natural fibers such as nylon, cotton, wool, silk, and more to lower raw material costs.
Many fashion brands and designers around the world choose acetate fabrics to create relatively affordable and low-quality clothes. Acetate fiber is used in cheaply produced garments as the primary fiber content or a substantial part of the fiber composition.
Every year, 6.7 million tons of man-made cellulosic fibers are produced globally, according to Lenzing. They account for 6.2% of all fiber production worldwide.
Viscose rayon is the most widely used semi-synthetic fabric. It has around 79% market share with 5.3 million tons produced in 2018, as reported by the Textile Exchange.
Types of acetate fibers
Acetate fibers refer to fibers made of cellulose acetate. There is a difference between acetate and triacetate fibers. There are separated based on the number of cellulose hydroxyl groups that are acetylated.
The most common form of cellulose acetate fiber is classified as diacetate or secondary acetate. It has an acetate group on approximately two of every three hydroxyls. It contains at least 76% but no more than 92% by weight of acetylated cellulose hydroxyl groups.
Fibers that contain at least 92% by weight of acetylated hydroxyl groups are called triacetate or triacetate cellulose. Triacetate fiber is often blended with wool to mix heat retention and quick-drying properties. It's also used in sportswear and other garments that keep their shape because of its low moisture absorption.
How is acetate fiber made
Acetate is manufactured by deconstructing wood pulp into a purified fluffy white cellulose using acetic acid, acetic anhydride, sulfuric acid, and acetone.
Acetate fibers can also be manufactured by treating cotton linters, the relatively short fuzz left on cottonseed after the cotton ginning process.
Treating cellulose with acetic acid produces secondary acetate fibers or acetone that can be converted into triacetate using acetic anhydride and an acid catalyst, such as sulfuric acid.
The resulting cellulosic solution is extruded by spinning to form filaments that are finally spun into acetate fibers. Spinnerets transform the viscous solution into acetate fibers.
A lot of chemicals and water are needed to condition wood pulp, treat cellulose fibers, dissolve cellulose triacetate, purify, and wash the regenerated fibers.
Spinning is a manufacturing process used to create polymer fibers like acetate fibers. It's a specific form of extrusion that employs a spinneret to produce multiple continuous filaments. The various types of spinning are wet, dry, dry jet-wet, melt, gel, and electrospinning.
Wet spinning is the oldest type of spinning. Polymers that need to be dissolved in a solvent to be spun often use this manufacturing process. Acetate fiber is usually produced via wet spinning, like many other synthetic fibers, such as nylon and acrylic.
Dry spinning has much lower productivity than wet spinning. The solution is extruded through controlled nozzles with extremely small pore diameters ranging from 30 to 50 micrometers. The solvent is then evaporated in warm air to form long filaments of cellulose acetate.
Dry spinning is being abandoned for most synthetic fibers. It's used only for expensive specialty fibers, such as spandex, that cannot be spun by any other process.
During the wet spinning extrusion process, the polymer is dissolved and extruded through several thousand holes into a large spin bath, washing rolls, and drying rolls. After being purified and extended to make long filaments, the acetate fiber is ready to be spun into threads.
Making extended filaments is an important step in acetate fiber production. Fiber extension is a crucial process to make commercial textiles. It creates acetate fibers many times longer than their original length, which increases production efficiency and lowers the overall cost.
Once spun into yarn, acetate fibers are shipped to textile manufacturers who weave them into various fabrics to create apparel and other applications.
Common trade names for acetate include Celaire, Chromspun, Estron, Soalon, Lynda, Tenite, Arnel, Tricel, Acele, and Avisco.
Here are some of the most well-known manufacturers of acetate fiber and additives to improve the quality of fibers and garments.
In the United States:
Acetate fiber properties
Acetate fiber is a unique material with many unique properties. It's generally used in the same applications as silk. Cellulose acetate fiber is one of the earliest synthetic fibers.
Semi-synthetic acetate fabrics look and feel like luxurious silk. They are comfortable, soft, and lightweight. They are very pleasant to the touch. They are also resistant to moths and mildew.
Acetate fiber drapes and hangs well. It has excellent resistance to pilling but a rather low tensile strength.
It also has multiple sheens and color options. It can be dyed only with special types of dyes, which are unsuitable for most other fibers.
Unfortunately, acetate fabrics aren't very strong or durable. They lose strength when wet. They rip and don't resist high temperatures. They wrinkle easily as well.
When blended with other synthetic or natural fibers, acetate fiber lowers the overall cost of the garment but also reduces its lifespan considerably.
Acetate fiber advantages and disadvantages
Here are some of the best advantages of acetate fabrics:
- High comfort and softness
- A luxurious feel and look
- Good pilling resistance
- Moth and fungus resistance
- Easy to wash
The main drawbacks of using semi-synthetic acetate fibers are:
- Low heat resistance
- Low thermal stability
- Low wrinkle resistance
- Low abrasion resistance
- Poor elasticity
- Poor tensile strength
- Poor resilience
- Poor durability
- Low chemical protection
- Low resistance to UV and sunlight
- Gathers static electricity
How to wash, dry, and iron acetate fabrics
Take good care of your garment to ensure that they last longer. It's one of the best ways to be more sustainable with clothes. Give special attention to acetate fabrics, as they are delicate and easily melt.
Before washing acetate fabrics, read the care instructions that can be found on the care tag. This way, you can easily determine if the acetate fabric is washable.
The washing instructions may vary depending on the fabric’s blend. Pure acetate fabrics generally need to be hand washed.
Prefer cold water and hand wash it without any chlorine-based detergent. Cleanse and rinse acetate fibers in cold water and avoid the dryer.
Semi-synthetic acetate fabrics made with blends of acetate with other fibers are usually easier to wash. They can be washed in the washing machine on the cool wash setting.
Use a gentle cycle and avoid high spin speeds. Otherwise, acetate fabrics may become very creased.
To avoid dye bleeding, make sure to soak the fabric for the least amount of time.
When the acetate fabric is washable, don't wash it at high temperatures. It not only consumes an unnecessarily high amount of energy but also can melt and damage the fabric.
Do not dry acetate fabrics in a tumble drier. They have very low thermal resistance and will melt under high temperatures.
Wash acetate fabric carefully and air dry it. Lay the fabric down on a towel for a while, then flip it over. Or you can hang it up on a hanger to help it dry naturally.
To iron acetate fabrics and acetate blends, use the lowest temperature setting. Iron the fabric through a damp cloth if possible. Acetate fibers can easily melt and too much ironing will eventually damage the fabric.
Acetate doesn't resist chemicals very well. Keep chemical-based glues, perfume, and nail polish remover, and alcohol-based solvents far away from acetate fabrics in your clothing and furniture.
Don't use acetone or organic solvents to remove stains either. They will dissolve acetate fibers and cause irreversible damage to the garment.
Are Acetate fiber fabrics sustainable
Like viscose rayon, acetate production involves toxic solvents. In Europe and the United States, environmental regulations have made acetate production more expensive than it used to be.
Acetate fiber production is usually associated with massive deforestation. It isn't generally eco-friendly or sustainable.
Even if cellulose acetate is made of natural renewable materials unlike petroleum-based fibers, its production is very polluting and wasteful.
Acetate production in poorly regulated facilities not only damages the nearby environment but also endangers workers' health. Acids and other toxic chemicals can easily leak into waterways and pollute water sources.
Manufacturing fabrics from plants or wood requires heavy processing. The large majority of acetate is created with a chemically-intensive process that’s harmful to people and the environment.
Acetate fiber fabrication requires a lot of energy, water, and toxic chemicals, such as acetic acid, acetic anhydride, sulfuric acid, and acetone. These highly dangerous substances irritate the nose and throat and harm the nervous system at high concentrations.
Through skin contact, ingestion, or inhalation, they can lead to dizziness, drowsiness, confusion, nausea, and headaches.
They are highly corrosive chemicals that can severely burn the skin and eyes. These toxic compounds can cause severe lung damage at high concentrations.
Sustainable alternatives to acetate fiber
Making acetate fiber in highly regulated and sustainable production facilities could improve its eco-friendliness.
A better alternative to acetate fabric is lyocell. Tencel, a very popular brand of lyocell, is an environmentally friendly cellulosic fiber produced sustainably.
Tencel lyocell is made of cellulose from wood pulp like acetate. It's a semi-synthetic fiber made from renewable materials. Lyocell isn't natural but its impact on the environment is very low compared to other synthetic fibers.
Closed-loop processes can almost fully recover and reuse all water and chemicals used during the manufacturing of lyocell.
Here are some successful fashion brands that produce sustainable clothing from Tencel lyocell:
- Thought makes classic shirts and dresses from natural and sustainable fabrics.
- Reformation makes sustainable women's clothing and accessories.
- Everlane, modern, and beautiful essentials, at the best factories, without traditional markups.
- Patagonia, industry leader in ethical and sustainable active and outerwear.
- prAna makes clothing for positive change, to inspire new generations to thrive and stay active.
- People Tree (UK), a fair trade fashion pioneer, and online garment retailer making clothes from environmentally-friendly materials.
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About the Author: Alex Assoune
Alex Assoune (MS) is a global health and environmental advocate. He founded Panaprium to inspire others with conscious living, ethical, and sustainable fashion. Alex has worked in many countries to address social and environmental issues. He speaks three languages and holds two Master of Science degrees in Engineering from SIGMA and IFPEN schools.