Stretchy Material: 10 Different Types
If you’re familiar with modern fashion, you’ve heard the buzz around stretchy materials. Some think they are the key to comfort, while others think they are the downfall of clothing traditions like 100% denim jeans (which now contain a good portion of spandex in most cases).
Whether or not you’re fond of super stretchy jeans, one thing is for certain: stretch material is a must-have in your activewear. From high-intensity workout gear to athleisure attire, pretty much all clothing in a modern, active lifestyle ought to have some stretch capability — although the amount to which it’s needed may vary.
Today, let’s look at 10 of the most common materials used to add stretchiness to clothes, especially activewear and athleisure styles. We’re going to talk about some pros and cons of each material so that you can better understand what you’ll get when you buy clothes that use them.
There’s no need to stretch this intro any longer, so let’s get started!
10 Types of Stretchy Material To Know About
Some people may not realize it, but there are actually many materials used to provide stretch capability in our clothes.
First up on our list isn’t the oldest synthetic stretchy fabric, but it may be the most common one today.
Elastane was created by a man named Joseph Shivers in the 1950s. Working at a lab for the Dupont Company, Shivers built off the progress of the first synthetic fabric ever made, nylon, which arrived just 20 or so years earlier through the same company.
He was also inspired by work done by Otto Bayer, a German chemist working around the same time to create a synthetic material called polyurethane.
It was the latter material that would be the sole building block of elastane when used in its elastic fiber form. Thanks to polyurethane plastic, the resulting fabric achieved the stretch Shivers and the Dupont Company wanted without the discomfort of rubber, another material on the table at the time.
Today, elastane is still popular for its impressive ability to stretch and recover its original shape quickly. You’re doubtless familiar with elastic waistbands, one of the most common ways you’ll see elastane in clothes.
Although spandex takes the second spot on our list, it’s actually the same thing as elastane! Despite common misconceptions, there aren’t any significant differences between elastane and spandex besides the name, at least on a scientific level.
Colloquially, we often see the name spandex more often when it comes to the material used for an entire piece of clothing, such as spandex shorts. Elastane might be used to refer to the material that creates elastic bands at the extremities of clothing, such as an elastane waistband.
In any case, the material is definitely great for achieving stretch but not without its problems. For one, spandex isn’t biodegradable. Spandex that is created will stay in the environment forever since nature can’t break it down.
This pollution problem is a common theme across many synthetic fabrics. Thankfully, with responsible recycling, longer-lasting clothes, and less fast fashion, it is possible to minimize that problem, but nothing’s better than natural fabric alternatives when possible.
Now that we’ve covered the most common stretchy synthetic fabric, let’s jump back to the oldest one! Nylon was created in the 1930s at the same company where Shivers invented Elastane about 20 years later, Dupont.
Unlike elastane, nylon is actually created from organic mineral materials: fossil fuels. Specifically, nylon is made from coal.
It’s no secret how detrimental the use of fossil fuels has been and continues to be for our planet. Due to fossil fuel pollution concerns, it’s fair to say that while nylon has an impressive history, it’s time to move into a better future with more sustainable stretchy fabrics.
Mesh fabrics are more about how they are made than what they are made from. Mesh can be made from fibers, such as polyester, or even from metal. Mesh is very recognizable thanks to its net-like appearance, with each strand spaced apart by micro-gaps to allow airflow and promote excellent stretch.
While mesh can be beneficial for those qualities, it also tends to lack coverage and doesn’t wick moisture as well as a fabric like bamboo that provides great coverage to your skin.
Depending on the materials used, mesh is also often unsustainable.
5. Neoprene Rubber
One of the less common stretchy materials used in clothes today is neoprene rubber. You’re likely familiar with neoprene from your tires, tubes, cables, and even wetsuits that divers wear. Due to those common uses, it may seem strange that this material is used in some activewear!
However, neoprene does have impressive stretch capability, plus it's resilient to extreme temperature changes, tough, and durable.
This can make it the ideal material for certain items. At the same time, rubber is not comfortable on the skin and poses serious problems for the environment, like most synthetic fabrics.
Like mesh, jersey isn’t an actual material but rather a way of turning material into clothing-ready fabric. Jersey is a knit fabric traditionally made from wool. Now, jersey can be made from wool, cotton, synthetic fabrics like polyester, or a blend of multiple materials.
Overall, jersey fabric has excellent potential for breathability, moisture-wicking, and stretch capability. However, it all depends on the material used and the production process. Synthetic materials used in jersey may lack a soft touch, while cotton jersey won’t be able to dry as quickly.
While lycra is often billed as a unique fabric by marketers, it is actually the same exact thing as elastane and spandex. Lycra is simply the “brand name” for the same material, much like how Band-Aid is a term used to describe bandages or how Kleenex is used to describe tissues.
Where does the brand name come from? This history trip takes us right back to the origins of the first elastane fabric with Joseph Shivers at the Dupont Company. Lycra is simply the name branded to the material by the Dupont Company to sell it.
There’s really nothing more to know about this fabric compared to elastane and spandex since it’s exactly the same chemically!
However, we should always keep in mind that any material — from cotton to spandex to silk — can vary in terms of quality and composition depending on the producer's processes and goals. This means that buying a spandex shirt from five different brands could result in five very different feels — and performance outputs.
Tulle is a variation of mesh fabric not seen commonly in everyday attire. You’re most likely to encounter tulle in something like a wedding gown since it's a very fine mesh with a fairly stiff feel (although it is still quite stretchy). Tulle can be made from silk, but synthetic fabrics like polyester and rayon are more common.
9. Viscose Jacquard
Another fine, drapey material like tulle is viscose jacquard. Fabricated from the synthetic material viscose, this fabric is most easily recognizable by the patterns woven into it, the trademark feature of textured Jacquard jacquard.
You’re unlikely to encounter this fabric in activewear or casual wear.
The oldest fabric on our list by far, and certainly the most sustainable, is wool. A natural fabric from animal fleece fibers, wool is soft, stretchy, and capable of moisture-wicking, UV protection, and odor resistance.
Depending on how wool is knit, it may be more or less capable of stretch and performance qualities. For example, wool can be knit with french terry fabric to improve its moisture-wicking capabilities.
Which Stretchy Material Is Best?
When it comes to stretchy materials, elastane, nylon, and jersey may be the most common for modern activewear. Although these materials pose serious environmental problems when synthesized originally, they can be recycled to create new clothes more sustainably.
Choosing recycled synthetic fabrics or wool is the best way to go when looking for clothes that have stretch capabilities. At Tasc, we’re proud of our bamboo and organic cotton blend, which achieves the highest levels of performance while being exceptionally environmentally friendly.
The Bottom Line
Ultimately, the best stretchy material is one that is sustainable. No amount of short-term comfort is worth long-term detrimental effects on the environment, which is why being aware of what kinds of fabric go into your clothing is so essential.
That’s exactly why we do what we do with guides like this one! For more informative articles, stay right here with our tasc Performance blog.
What Is Elastane, and Is It Sustainable? | Treehugger
Elastane VS Spandex: What's the Difference? | The Eco Hub
The Environmental Impact of Spandex | One Green Planet
Fossil fuels and climate change: the facts | ClientEarth
What Can I Do to Reduce My Risk of Skin Cancer? | CDC