What is a microfiber, really?


Microfiber
Microfiber iStock/Ninetechno

Microfiber can be found everywhere, from cleaning products, furniture, active wear and in filtration, but what is it exactly? The term microfiber, refers to a synthetic fiber that less than one denier in diameter, but larger than 0.3 denier. To be certain that is a very small fiber, as it is thinner than silk and approximately one-fifth the diameter of a human hair. By definition though, that is where the clarity seems to end.   

Microfiber shmicrofiber

Microfiber has many desirable properties, which make it useful for a broad range of products. Many of these items are marketed as simply microfiber, making it complicated to determine what the difference is between one product and the next. 

The most common microfiber is one that is constructed of polyester and polyamides. During the manufacturing process, the fibers are split, which makes them incredibly effective at picking up and trapping dirt or wicking moister. Most specifications have tolerance limits, which are clearly identifiable and are either materially prescriptive or performance based.

To develop a standard definition of microfiber insitu is problematic. Over time the term “microfiber” has grown to describe a technology across a platform of product verticals, much in the same way the term “plastic” has become more of a descriptor for a wide range of materials than a “thing” in and of itself. One example of this is a microfiber towel that is marketed for cleaning. Today there is no specification that determines either performance or material construction of this category. A product can be called a microfiber towel, but there are no specifications to describe the minimum content of fibers or the performance of the product. The technology term microfiber is used to market products with no boundaries, so buyer beware.

Addressing a microfiber standard definition will need to be application specific. There is no current specification method for comparing a woven microfiber cloth to a nonwoven microfiber cloth. There are some attributes each share, like weight and size and potentially even fiber chemistry, but that is where it ends. 

A better definition

Addressing a microfiber standard definition will need to be application specific. There is no current specification method for comparing a woven microfiber cloth to a nonwoven microfiber cloth. There are some attributes each share, like weight and size and potentially even fiber chemistry, but that is where it ends. 

Nonwoven technology produces many analogs to traditional woven and knit products to fill a need. As these technologies evolve, it becomes increasingly difficult to compare and contrast.

INDA, The Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry, and its European counterpart, EDANA, are considering developing a standard around microfiber wipes to help the industry better understand the performance of nonwovens compared to traditional woven technical products. Nonwoven microfiber wipes have the capability to be laundered and/or applied as a single-use material in applications where cleaning is critical, but cross contamination is a concern.

Parting thoughts

Critical cleaning is essential to health and hygiene, as well as in cleanroom environments. The demands of these applications require a highly engineered material. On face value, engineered materials may not seem as eco-friendly as natural fabrics, but it’s worth noting that during the production process of polyester microfibers no pesticides are used and the dyeing methods do not require any water. Comparatively, a huge amount of water is needed in the dyeing process of non-synthetic materials. Nonwoven microfiber materials are also produced at rate that is an order of magnitude faster and at lower weights for equivalent performance than traditional woven products.

In essence, specifications are about data communication and the exchange of that information. It is critical that all interested parties have a means to collaborate around that complex information.

Chris Plotz leads the technical training program at INDA. For a full list of upcoming INDA training opportunities, see inda.org/education/.

* International Fiber Journal is owned by INDA, Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry.

Previous Despite a declining share, staple fibers remain a big piece of the global fiber market
Next OmniBloq passes Cotton Inc’s testing for STORM COTTON and STORM DENIM finishes