What Is The Difference Between Lycra, Spandex, And Elastane? The Ultimate Guide

What is Lycra? What is Spandex? And what is Elastane? These terms seem to be thrown around without much explanation or understanding. Let’s take a look at these three fabrics and see what they mean.

Lycra is a synthetic fiber that has become synonymous with fitness clothing. It was developed in the 1970s by DuPont, who originally called it LYCRA.

Today, the term lycra is often used interchangeably with spandex, which is also a type of synthetic fiber. 

Spandex is a man-made elastic fiber that is commonly used in athletic wear. 

Elastane is a natural fiber derived from plant sources. It is found in a wide variety of garments and other textiles.

What Is The Difference Between Lycra, Spandex, And Elastane? The Ultimate Guide

It is typically blended with cotton or polyester fibers to create stretchy materials.

But what are these different materials used for? What are their characteristics? If you want to know more about these fabrics then keep reading.

We have put together this useful guide to tell you everything you need to know. 

The Creation Of Lycra

The history of Lycra begins in World War Two when a scientist called Otto Bayer was trying to create a substitute material for rubber to use on Nazi fighter planes.

This is because rubber was expensive to make and relied on natural resources which were difficult to get hold of during wartime.

He developed a polyurethane material, but in the process, he also ended up creating stretchy elastomers – elastane. 

Once the war was over, Otto Bayer’s research ended up in the hands of DuPont, an American company.

They also wanted to find an alternative to rubber that was synthetically made and therefore cheaper than harvesting synthetic materials. 

In the 1950s, Joseph Shiver used this research on elastane to create spandex material, which he then named Lycra.

The word Lycra can only be used to describe spandex manufactured by DuPont, and the word elastane does not belong to any particular company but is used to describe one of the properties of spandex fabric. 

The use of spandex in clothing was revolutionary for women as it was much more comfortable and accommodated for different body shapes.

Before this point, most clothing had been designed to fit men’s bodies, so women’s clothing was either very tight-fitting (which could cause health problems) or very baggy (which didn’t suit many modern lifestyles).

However, spandex enabled designers to design clothes that fitted women perfectly.

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What Is Spandex Made Of? 

What Is Spandex Made Of? 

Spandex is an amazing material, but what is it made of?

Spandex is made out of polyurethane, a versatile kind of plastic that is used for many different purposes.

Polyurethane is so widely used that it is surprising to think that it is a relatively modern invention that didn’t exist before the second world war. 

Polyurethane can be found in all sorts of items from mattresses to wall insulation. It is used in paint, outdoor equipment, and even rollerblade wheels. It is also used in various types of clothing. 

But how is polyurethane made into spandex? The elastomers in polyurethane were made into spandex through a complicated chemical process called synthesis.

The polyurethane is created by reacting polymer with diisocyanate which forms a long polymer chain. 

The polymer chain is then spun into a fiber which can be used to make fabric. Stabilizers are also added to the fiber to make it less vulnerable to things like chlorine or harsh light conditions.

Spandex fibers make an excellent alternative to rubber as they are stronger, more lightweight, and can recoil back to shape after being stretched up to almost 500% of their length.

As well as making clothing more comfortable, spandex has other benefits too. 

Characteristics Of Spandex

Now that you know more about the history of spandex and how it is made, we can take a closer look at the characteristics of the fabric. 

One of the best features of spandex is its elasticity. You can stretch it multiple times and it will return to its original shape.

This also means it can stretch to fit over items of different shapes and sizes, making it very versatile. It stretches with your body as you move, allowing you a full range of movement.

Unlike woven cloth, spandex can stretch in all directions rather than just diagonally. 

Spandex is a very lightweight fabric, which makes it cool and comfortable to wear. It also has a very silky feel against your skin and a smooth texture, so it doesn’t cause rubbing or chafing. 

Spandex takes on color very well as the natural color of the fibers is white, so dying it to create different styles for clothing is very easy.

It can also be blended with other types of fabric to create clothing that has an elastic quality but also takes on the properties of the other fabric such as the warmth of wool or the structure of the cotton. 

When blended with other fabrics it helps to keep the garment lightweight and silky. It is also resistant to pilling which means that your clothes will last longer if they are made of a spandex blend. 

Spandex is surprisingly resilient. It doesn’t wear easily and is fairly resistant to abrasion.

It can withstand perspiration, deodorant, washing detergent, oils and chemicals from skin products, etc without discoloring.

It is a very strong material, stronger than rubber, and can outlast many other forms of plastic. Eventually, it will lose its elasticity, but if you look after it properly then it should last for a long time. 

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Are There Any Downsides To Spandex?

Spandex is a great material that has some amazing features, but there are some downsides to it. 

The main issue with spandex is that it isn’t breathable.

If you exercise in clothing that is made entirely out of spandex then the heat and moisture will remain trapped against your skin, making you sweaty and uncomfortable.

This is why sportswear tends to be made of a blend of spandex and more breathable fabric like nylon or cotton. 

Spandex is susceptible to heat damage so be careful not to wash it at a temperature that is too high. It is also possible to scorch the spandex if you try to iron it at a high temperature.

Due to the flexibility of the fabric, it should not become very wrinkly. 

You can use spandex as a base layer, but on its own, it will not be enough to keep you warm on a cold day. It is too thin to provide your body with insulation.

However, if spandex is blended with a warmer material like cotton or wool then it can help to create a warm garment that is also stretchy. 

If you want to buy pure spandex that has not been blended with other materials then it will be quite expensive- often averaging at about 20 dollars a yard.

It is more costly than other synthetic fabrics like polyester or nylon.

However, when a small amount of spandex is blended with other materials then it is much more affordable. 

The other problem with spandex is sustainability.

Whilst the use of spandex instead of rubber cuts down on the harvesting of rubber and therefore the destruction of natural habitats, it also has some detrimental effects on the environment.

To make spandex you need to use toxic chemicals, and if these aren’t disposed of correctly then local wildlife could be harmed. 

Spandex is not biodegradable. This means that when you are finished with your spandex clothing it will end up in a landfill, contributing to the large-scale problem of plastic waste and pollution.

You could try to re-purpose the spandex instead of throwing it away- cut up the clothes and use them as cleaning cloths.

If the clothes are in good condition but are no longer in fashion, you can use the fabric to make cushions or patchwork quilts. 

How Do You Care For Spandex? 

Spandex is very easy to look after. Most spandex materials are suitable to be put in a washing machine.

It is often recommended to turn the garment inside out before washing it to achieve the best results.

If you are worried about snagging then place the garment inside a laundry bag. 

Remember that spandex can be damaged by heat, so it is best to wash it on a low-temperature cycle.

A gentle wash should be all you need as spandex is quite resistant to dirt, oils, and sweat. Always check the label before you add detergent as some types of spandex have special requirements.

You can also hand wash your spandex items if you prefer. 

When it comes to drying your spandex, make sure that you do not put the material in a tumble dryer.

The heat of the dryer will damage the fabric and cause the material to lose its elasticity. Instead, let the spandex air dry. 

What Is Spandex Used For?

The most common use of spandex is in clothing. There are so many different types of clothing that contain spandex that it is impossible to list them all here. 

If you have any kind of clothing that is close-fitting then it will likely have spandex included in the fabric blend- underwear, swimwear, t-shirts, skirts – the list is endless.

Even your socks have elastane in them to help them keep their shape and cling to your foot and ankle or leg. 

Before spandex was invented people had to use various methods to keep their socks up such as ribbons and braces. 

A lot of athletic clothing contains spandex to make it stretchy and flexible. This gives you a full range of movement which is perfect for lots of different kinds of sports and activities.

The clothing is also close-fitting which stops loose hanging material from getting caught in sports equipment like the wheels of a bike or a weights machine. 

Even if you have an item of loose, non-stretchy clothing, there is a good chance that it has a waistband with spandex in it! 

As well as clothing, spandex is also used to make home textiles like bedding and furniture covers. Spandex is also used as an alternative to latex in the medical industry.

You can now get compression socks, surgical hoses, support braces, diapers, and bandages all made out of spandex. 

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Spandex Condoms

Spandex is not only found in clothing, it is also used as a replacement for rubber in the manufacturing of condoms.

When the new spandex condoms were tested, they were found to be far superior to their previous rubber counterparts.

The elasticity of spandex means that the condom stays in place during sex, while the rubber ones tend to slip down the penis. 

Spandex Pants

When you put on a pair of spandex pants, the first thing you will notice is that they feel incredibly soft and comfortable.

This is because spandex is extremely elastic, meaning that it stretches easily and recovers its original shape quickly.

Because of this, it is perfect for sports activities such as running, cycling and swimming.

When you take off your spandex pants, you will notice that they don’t stick to your skin.

This is because spandex has a special coating that repels water and dirt. This makes them ideal for wearing under other garments. 

Spandex is also great at wicking away moisture from the body. When you sweat, your body produces natural oils which can get trapped between your skin and your clothing.

These oils can cause friction and chafing, making your skin look dull and unhealthy. Wearing spandex helps prevent this problem. 

Spandex Blend

There aren’t many clothes that are made entirely out of spandex. It is often blended with other materials to create various fabrics that are ideal for different types of clothing.

By blending spandex you can bring the stretchy, elastic qualities to other materials, and add some of the free-flowing or warmer elements of other materials to spandex- the best of both worlds!

A great example of this is stretch denim. Denim is a very stiff material, but towards the end of the 1970s clothes, designers began to blend a bit of spandex with the denim.

This created stretch jeans, which were more comfortable and often more flattering than jeans made with just denim alone.

Stretch jeans contain between 1% and 3% elastane, but this is enough to make a big difference to the fit and style. 

Other popular blends are spandex and nylon, spandex and cotton, spandex and polyester, and spandex and wool.

If a fabric is too stiff then adding some spandex will make it more flexible, but if a fabric is too loose or doesn’t retain its shape well then adding spandex will help it to be more form-fitting. 

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Why Is Spandex So Significant For Women?

Spandex played an important part in the development of women’s shapewear. Corsets were typically very rigid and uncomfortable, often causing sores and various health conditions.

They were heavily structured with the use of whalebone to hold the body in shape and create a smooth silhouette. 

Many women who wore corsets ended up with an amended bone structure and the position of their vital organs changed to fit with their new shape. 

The corset was already on the way out when spandex was invented, but shapewear was still very uncomfortable and restrictive.

There was still a lot of pressure on women to hold their curves in place and create a perfect body shape. 

Spandex is soft, flexible, and comfortable but still provides support to the body.

When manufacturers started using spandex or spandex blends to make shapewear, underwear, and hosiery, it gave women the opportunity to be much more comfortable every single day. 

Spandex shapewear is still very popular today, especially for wearing underneath formal dresses.

The added comfort means that women can move around freely without worrying about damaging their dress. 

How To Find Out What Type Of Spandex You Are Wearing

If you would like to know what type of spandex you are wearing then there are two ways to do so. Firstly, you could ask the manufacturer of the garment.

However, they may not have any idea as most garments are produced by independent companies. 

In these cases, you should check the label inside the garment. Alternatively, you could look at the tag attached to the item.

Some brands include information about the percentage of spandex used in the product. This is usually printed onto the tag itself.

Spandex Vs. Elastane Vs. Polyester Vs. Nylon

Polyester, nylon, and spandex are all synthetic fabrics.

Each type of fiber has its own set of properties as it is made from different things, but when you combine the fibers it creates garments with lots of excellent qualities. 

Polyester and nylon are more versatile than spandex, but they are quite stiff. They’re used in clothing, but also protect us from the elements.

Most clothing made today contains elastane fibers, even if it is just a small amount. It makes the material stretchy and gives it extra elasticity.

It’s commonly found in activewear, such as sports bras and leggings. 

Elastane is the best choice for those looking for a lightweight, breathable, and stretchy material. It’s great for everyday wear because it keeps us warm in cold weather and cool in hot weather.

It helps keep our skin dry and healthy while providing good ventilation. 

Nylon is another common fiber used in clothing. It’s strong and durable, making it ideal for athletic wear.

It’s also very lightweight, which is why it’s often used in running apparel. It’s also resistant to moisture and stains. 

Sewing With Spandex

Sewing with spandex can be tricky if you haven’t worked with this fabric before. Here are some tips to ensure that you can achieve your desired results:

  • Cutting– Make sure you cut the material carefully when it is not stretched to ensure you get it the right size. 
  • Seam- make sure you pin the seam before you start sewing, as the stretch might catch you off guard. 
  • Needle size– Make sure you choose the right needle size and remember that slightly rounded needle heads tend to work better on stretchy fabrics. Some sewing machines have the option to use special stretch needles. 
  • Thread– you need to use a stretchy thread to go with the stretchy fabric, or the stitches will rip out or damage the spandex. Cotton is not stretchy enough- you need wooly nylon or polyester. 
  • Practice – When you are working with a new type of material, it is always best to practice on a scrap piece first to test out how it feels and how to handle it.
  • Stretch – when you are sewing spandex it is best to keep a little bit of a stretch on the fabric, but not too much. It’s a delicate balance so this is why you need to practice it first.

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Whilst there is some confusion about the differences between Lycra, spandex, and elastane, they are all essentially the same thing.

Elastane is the word used to describe the stretchy fibers that make up the fabric.

Lycra is a trademarked name for spandex that is made by DuPont, but lots of other fabric manufacturers also make their versions of spandex. 

Spandex is a great fabric with lots of benefits- it is stretchy and flexible, resilient, lightweight, and comfortable.

It has some limitations, as it won’t keep you very warm and it can be damaged by heat.

Some people also have concerns over the environmental impact of spandex because it isn’t biodegradable, but the invention of spandex has reduced the negative impact that rubber plantations have on the environment. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Hopefully, you now have a better understanding of spandex, but if there is something you are unsure about then have a look at our frequently asked questions:

What Is Spandex?

Spandex is a synthetic fiber made from processed polyurethane, which means it is technically made from plastic.

It was designed as an alternative to rubber, but it is now used in lots of different types of clothing. 

How Does Spandex Differ From Other Types Of Fabrics?

Spandex is very strong, but it is also incredibly stretchy and flexible. It moves with your body and stretches in all directions, which makes it very different from materials like polyester or cotton.

Why Is Spandex Important?

Since its invention, spandex has had a huge impact on the clothing industry. It helps to make clothes more flexible and comfortable and has significantly improved activewear.

It has also been a big development in women’s clothing and shapewear, accommodating different body shapes and sizes. Spandex provides support to the body without being restrictive.  

Where Is Spandex Manufactured?

The majority of spandex is manufactured in China, though it is also made in other parts of the world. 

Is Spandex Suitable For Every Occasion?

Lots of different types of clothes have spandex in them, from casual wear to sportswear to formal attire.

Clothing made from 100% spandex would not be suitable for every occasion, but spandex blends are very versatile. 

How Long Does It Take To Wash Spandex?

Spandex can be washed on a cool, gentle cycle in your washing machine.

These cleaning cycles tend to be quite quick, but it will depend on which washing machine you have. You can also hand wash spandex if you prefer. 

What Should I Do If My Spandex Gets Dirty?

Spandex is quite resistant to oil, sweat, and dirt so it isn’t likely to stain.

However, if your spandex gets dirty you should try and wash it as soon as possible. If you can’t wash it straight away then sponge off the worst of the dirt to prevent it from becoming ingrained in the fabric. 

How Do I Care For Spandex?

Spandex is an easy material to care for. Simply wash it at a cool temperature, or put it in your washing machine on a cool and gentle cycle.

Avoid using excessive heat on the spandex as this could damage the fabric and reduce the elasticity. This means that you need to air dry spandex rather than putting it in a tumble dryer.

Can I Machine Wash Spandex? 

Spandex is machine washable, but make sure you check the label for specific care instructions. 

Can I Iron Spandex?

Spandex can easily be damaged by heat, so if you iron spandex you risk scorching it. Spandex is stretchy and is therefore relatively wrinkle-resistant, so you shouldn’t need to iron it.

If you do need to iron your spandex, make sure the iron is on a low setting. Alternatively, you could hang it up in a warm steamy room to let the creases drop out. 

Spandex is often blended with other fabrics to make clothing that has elastane properties but also benefits from the features of other materials like cotton or polyester.

Most of your clothes probably have a percentage of spandex in them. 

Spandex is a material with an interesting history. The invention of spandex had a big impact on the clothing industry.

Amanda Brown
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