Better known by the brand names Lycra and Spandex, elastane probably brings to mind faintly unpleasant images of shiny black cycling shorts and neon-coloured swimsuits. But the elastane fibre itself is a colourless crinkly looking yarn that has revolutionised the clothing industry and whose use now reaches far beyond the sportswear that first popularised it.
What Makes Elastane Special?
Elastane is unique due to its molecular structure. Put simply, it is made up of a tangle of soft segments bonded to rigid segments. When tension is applied the soft segments straighten out up to seven times their original length, but elastane's important selling point is that when the tension is released the fibre will immediately return to the exact same shape and length it was before. No other fibre will do this - most of us at some point will have experienced the disappointment of an acrylic jumper that becomes baggy and shapeless after only a few wears. But if as little as 2% elastane is added to the fabric then the garment can move with the wearer's body and always retain its original shape. Another vital property of elastane is that it will always be undetectable. The fabric will always look and feel like the fibre or blend that is used alongside the elastane, as the elastane fibres themselves are sheathed with another fibre, usually the fibre that makes up the bulk of the rest of the garment.
History of Elastane
It was first discovered by the US Rubber Factory in the 1930s when they tried extruding liquid latex into fine filament form. They found that they had made a fibre that was even more stretchy than rubber, without rubber's unhelpful tendancy to fall apart in sunlight and water.
But as is the case with many great inventions no one at the US Rubber Factory quite knew what they had discovered. It wasn't until 1959 when Du Pont patented the fibre as Lycra that it was used commercially, at first only in women's underwear, then in woolen ski pants that didn't bag at the knees and swimsuits that fitted like a second skin.
It was the 1980s that made Lycra a household name, however. Those two essential components of every '80s woman's wardrobe, leggings and the bodysuit, were only made possible by the addition of elastane. Possibly the most unflattering garments ever invented due to the fact that they cling to and highlight every bulge and roll of fat, they are an extreme example of what elastane can do.
These days most of us without even realising it are wearing garments that contain a small amount of elastane, from denim jeans that allow easier movement to socks that don't fall down and knitted tops that cling in all the right places.