Metallic fibers are exactly what they sound like. They are fibers made from metals. They may be made entirely from metal, metal coated in plastic, or a core coated in metal.
Historically, metals like gold or silver were hammered into very thin sheets, cut into strips and wrapped around a core of silk or cotton. This was woven into “cloth-of-gold” which has been referenced as far back as the Roman Empire.
Commercially produced metallic fibers were originally introduced to the U.S. in 1946 by Dobeckmun Company which was later absorbed by Dow Badische. These metallic fibers are often used in decorative textiles, such as draperies, ribbons, or table liners and originally focused on aluminum. Many man-made metallic fibers are coated in a clear plastic and then slit into narrow widths, but technology has advanced what a metallic fiber can be.
Stainless steel fiber is a fun metallic fiber. While not widely available, you can occasionally find it for sale for hand spinners. Blue Barn Fiber is one purveyor of stainless steel fiber at the time of this blog posting. Stainless steel fibers can be spun out extremely fine, as fine as two micron diameter. This means that it can be spun into next-to-soft textiles!
While stainless steel fiber does add a nice silver shimmer in blends and provides strength in a yarn, there is one unique use for it — e-textiles. Electronic textiles allow the integration of digital elements into traditional textiles. This could be in the form of LED lighting or sensors. The stainless steel fiber conducts electricity and can be used to form circuits in the fabric. It can also be used to create gloves that can interact with a touchscreen.
The one downfall to using stainless steel fiber is washing. Electronic components incorporated into fabric can be damaged, even though stainless steel resists rusting.
Man-Made Fibers Fact Book, , Man-Made Fiber. Producers Association, Inc. 1978.
Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History