Elastication is one of those innovations in clothing and fabric production more generally that we can’t do without. Stretchy fibers and fabrics give us more room to move and make clothing more adaptive during wear, washing, and more extreme activity. Whether we have something a little more stretchy with a small number of fibers in a blend, or something super stretch with a high percentage, it can make a difference. For example, that little bit of elasticity in stretch denim jeans goes a long way. But, there is sometimes some confusion when it comes to the different names for stretch materials and fibers. Are we dealing with elastane, Spandex, Lycra, all of the above, or something else?
Elastane v Spandex: what is the difference?
You may have seen the terms elastane a lot when looking at material compositions and dress-making. You may also be familiar with the term Spandex as a material that provides a lot of stretch in things like activewear and tight-fitting costumes. They seem to do pretty much the same thing in terms of adding more elasticity to a garment, so how are they related.
The surprising answer is that they are actually the same thing. It all comes down to branding. There is a reason that Spandex is capitalized and elastane isn’t. Elastane is the fiber within the garment and Spandex is the name we give to the material. It is also why you might not hear the term Spandex so much outside of the US.
This starts to make more sense when you look at the name as an anagram. Mix up the letters and you get expands. It sounds like a quick pitch in a boardroom that no one ever tried to improve upon. Nevertheless, Spandex is the name that became familiar, to the point where it is almost synonymous with any stretchy material. If it’s tight-fitting, brightly colored, and highly expansive when pulled, we call it Spandex.
So where does Lycra come into this?
If you deal with fabric and clothing in other countries, such as over in the UK, you are more likely to hear the time Lycra for this sort of material than Spandex. Again, there is that trend of turning a brand or trademark into an everyday term. This term is also common in Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, and Latin America. Head to Germany or Sweden and you are looking at Elastan.
This use of a brand as a more general term is actually something we are guilty of a lot when it comes to clothing and dress-making. For example, when researching how to attaches patches without sewing I saw the unusual term “hook and loop tape”. To me, it has always been Velcro even though this was a specific brand. Even the word zipper is a trademark that’s made its way into everyday speech.
Whatever your awareness and use of the terms Lyrca or Spandex, they are the same thing. They are both forms of elastane. The difference comes in their creation.
Which came first Lycra or Spandex?
To get to the bottom of the origins of Lycra and Spandex we need to go back to the creation of elastane as a synthetic fiber. It was invented by chemists at DuPont in Virginia in 1958. The company had been working hard to improve the fabrics available in women’s clothing – specifically hosiery and undergarments. It is hard to believe that women wore rubber in their girdles before the post-war era, but we’ve come a long way! The aim was to create something that was stretchy enough to replace the rubber and more practical. They looked at how they could modify polyester – a common synthetic material – to produce a resilient stretchy fiber. Eventually, Fiber K was born, and this was soon given the trade name Lycra.
It wasn’t until later in the century that the purpose of Lycra transformed and it become the go-to material for athletic wear. Teams at the 1968 Olympics began wearing it and it later became more commercial in exercise clothing. At some point, while the European teams wearing Lycra continued to use its trade name, consumers in the US referred to it as Spandex. The name has stuck ever since.
Whatever we call it, elastane has become an important part of clothing in the last 60 years.
Elastane is in more items of clothing than you might expect. Once we go through the items we wear on a regular basis and how stretchy some of them are, we realize that we use it a lot. Just going through some of my own items I found the following. The briefs I thought were cotton are actually 95% cotton and 5% elastane. 5% might not be much but it makes a difference. In fact, there is just 2% elastane paired with 3% viscose in my stretchiest pair of jeans. It isn’t just for sportswear anymore. Anything that will benefit from a little extra movement and shape retention can have a little bit of elastane.
What is elastane made of?
There is another name for elastane that is never going to catch on because it is so long and scientific. Elastane is a polyether-polyurea copolymer, also known as a long-chain polymer polyurethane. Polyurethane is everywhere and when handled correctly is adaptable into all kinds of materials. Here, you end up with a purely synthetic material that can be created into Lyrca and used in blends with other material.
It is an extensive process, much like creating many other synthetic materials. Manufacturers start with a mixture of macroglycol and diisocyanate monomers and then use dry spinning to create chains. These chains are then diluted with a solvent to thin them out and extruded to cure the elastane. After heating these fibers in nitrogen and solvent you get solid stands of elastane. These are then twisted and treated with magnesium stearate to stop the fibers from sticking together. Finally, makers can weave the material and dye it as needed.
This is a lot of effort and energy to create this man-made substance, which does lead to some environmental concerns. However, there is no doubt that the invention of elastane revolutionized the fashion industry. There are also so many benefits to adding Lycra to other materials for more practical items of clothing.
Why is it so beneficial for these sorts of clothes?
There are lots of great properties to elastane that make it ideal for a lot of activewear and undergarments. Elasticity isn’t just about the ability to stretch out but also the ability to return back to an original form. We need to be able to test these fibers to their limit when moving in Lycra and be sure that they will spring back to normal. That is why they are so good in swimwear, yoga pants, and skinny jeans.
At the same time, the material can do this repeatedly without too much risk of damage. The impact can degrade with time, but you will still get a lot of wear out of items. Then there is the fact that elastane is so comfortable that it doesn’t detract from other materials. You can add it to cotton or polyester and not feel like you are wearing a synthetic material.
Using elastane in your own dress-making projects.
You might have some concerns about using Lycra in your own sewing projects. But, it is worth giving it a go because even a blended fabric can prove to be a good fit for so many clothes. The difficulty in working with any product with elasticity is that it will change form and move as you work with it. Pinning and clipping it can be a problem and your seams could shift a little. It all depends on just how much elastane there is in your material. Practice always makes perfect.
Elastane vs Spandex vs Lycra.
In short, there is a simple way to tell the difference between these terms.
~ Elastane is the adapted synthetic material created in the 1950s for use in undergarments
~ Lycra is the trade name given to the material on completion
~ Spandex is the colloquial term interchangeable with Lycra that has become more common in the US.
Basically, they are different ways to refer to the same thing. Whether you make a point of using the Lycra brand material or refer to it by its alternative name of Spandex, you are still using elastane. What this shows is that elastane has an interesting history in popular culture and fashion, regardless of what we call it.
Can we still call it Spandex?
Don’t worry about calling this material by the “wrong” name because the terms are interchangeable and most sewers and manufacturers allow for this. Lycra may have evolved into Spandex in the US market but the material hasn’t changed. Call it Spandex if that is what you are used to, but don’t forget to look for elastane percentages when buying material. Most importantly, don’t be afraid to use it and see how it can enhance the clothes you make.
I’m a stay at home mom with our two kids. I really enjoy doing crafts with my kids however, that is typically a challenge with how limited their attention span can be and how messy it gets. So, I’m always looking for ways to make crafting an enjoyable experience and creating fond memory for all of us.