Material world

When the NBA switched to microfiber balls, people asked, `What is this stuff?' Turns out, it's in everything from shirts to cleaning supplies

November 24, 2006|By Chris Emery | Chris Emery,Sun reporter

Microfiber is weaving its way through our lives.

It's in the chamois that dries your car and the bath towel that dries your body. It's in dress shirts, underwear, surf shorts, hiking boots, raincoats, sofas, hospital mops and surgical masks.

In October, the ubiquitous fiber crossed a new frontier: The National Basketball Association announced that it would replace the traditional leather that covers the league's basketballs - a change that outraged purists.

So what is this stuff? And why the hoopla?

"Microfibers are any fibers finer than silk," said Ingrid Johnson, a professor at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology.

More precisely, the textile industry defines a microfiber as having a density less than one denier - the scale it uses to measure the fineness of fabric. Fine silk, for example, is about 1.25 denier. Some microfibers are 100 times thinner than a human hair.

Most are made from well-known petroleum derivatives such as polyester and nylon, but feel and wear a lot better than synthetics of decades past.

They are produced by methods borrowed from nature's fiber experts. Silkworms and spiders make their thread by forcing a fluid through tiny holes in a perforated appendage known as a spinneret. In the early 1900s, textile makers came up with mechanical versions of these spinnerets that worked like pasta makers.

By extracting cellulose from trees and plants and forcing it through the holes in the spinneret, they created rayon, the first manmade fiber. Manufacturers later figured out how to extrude molten petroleum derivatives through spinnerets to produce other synthetics.

Nylon made its early mark in women's stockings, parachutes and toothbrush bristles. Polyester, which was first manufactured in the 1940s, gained notoriety in the double-knit bellbottoms and butterfly-collar shirts of the '70s. They were cheap, durable, wrinkle-free and famously uncomfortable.

While polyester was coming and going, manufacturers were working on finer fibers. A Japanese company, Toray Industries, claims to have produced the first microfiber fabric, Ultrasuede, in 1970. DuPont was the first American manufacturer in 1989, as the fabrics were gaining a foothold in the United States.

"Microfiber was in Calvin Klein raincoats by the '80s - and then in Beanie Babies," said the fashion institute's Johnson.

One early but enduring use of the high-tech fabric was in the long underwear popular with outdoor enthusiasts. The thin, flexible threads produced tight weaves that wicked moisture away, but felt better against the skin than wool or the scratchy polyester of the '70s. New petroleum-based fiber also absorbed less water than natural fibers.

"It dries quickly and it's more resistant to UV light," said John Weld, owner of Immersion Research Inc., a Pennsylvania company that makes microfiber paddling shorts for kayakers, rafters and canoeists.

Some microfiber weaves are so tight that they block wind and water, yet breathe much better than early polyester fabrics, experts say. The fibers are also known for their good "hand," textile industry jargon that means they are pliable and pleasant to the touch.

Fashionistas and furniture makers also fancy them. The durable fibers are used as upholstery in cars and living rooms, and clothing that runs the gamut from Victoria's Secret bras to Donna Vinci dresses to skintight Under Armour warm-ups.

"If I gave you a swatch of polyester microfiber, you would say it is the finest silk you ever felt," Johnson said. "Under the fingers, it just feels wonderful at times."

Johnson said many clothing designers like to work with microfiber and its blends because the quality is more predictable than natural fabrics. "The thing about technology," she said, "is that it can consistently make a product the way you want it."

Slippery when wet?

NBA officials said consistency was a major reason for the switch this fall to Spalding microfiber-covered basketballs - the league's first ball change in 35 years. They said the absorbent but quick-drying fabric provided better feel and grip than leather basketballs when they got moist from players' sweat.

Miami Heat center Shaquille O'Neal and some other NBA players disagreed. They complained that the balls were indeed consistent - consistently slippery. But NBA Commissioner David Stern has insisted the artificial stuff is here to stay.

Microfibers have also threaded their way into cleaning products such as kitchen towels, mops and car wash cloths. These products often use fabrics in which the already-thin fibers have been split into even finer strands, according to Curt Rodenhouse, chief executive of Excello Products LLC, a Chicago-based company that sells a variety of microfiber products.

The split fibers provide greater surface area for capturing dust and dirt and holding water, he said. "They are really making it big-time into the janitorial markets."

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