What's in your dancewear fabric?
Have you ever read into the textile label attached on your ballet leotards and wonder what the composition means? What makes a leotard comfortable, stretchy and supportive? What is the difference between nylon/polyamide, polyester and spandex/elastane which is commonly found in leotard fabrics? Dancewear brands do not only use one type of fabric to produce leotards and therefore, the comfort level varies between different styles. Take my experience with Chacott as an example. I bought a 2021 Nela collection long sleeves leotard in black and am absolutely in love with the supple fabric and mesh, and then I bought a ¾ sleeves ombré leotard from the same brand, yet the mesh is stiffer and not as comfortable as the former one. As I checked the textile label, the mesh of the Nela leotard is 94% made of nylon while the mesh of the ombré leotard is 100% made of polyester. I became intrigued with how fabric composition makes a difference in the overall texture and feeling on skin and learnt about the basics of textile through research and experience. Apart from brand and design, take the fabric composition into consideration next time when you are purchasing a new leotard. Let’s dive in.
What features are we looking for in dancewear?
Albert Einstein described “dancers are the athletes of God”, ballet dancers are athletes striving for strength and excellence, as well as artists seeking to express themselves through movements. Same as culinary arts, if skills and techniques in ballet are the ingredients of a dish we are going to cook, then choreography is the recipe. If movements are the cooking process, then dancewear is the garnishing and food presentation, it not only enhances the visual appeal of a dish, but also serves the purpose of complementing the taste of the dish. Both aesthetic and functionality are key to a ballet leotard, since it has to support the great extent of movements and sweating of ballet dancers while dancing. In terms of functionality, the fundamental properties are comfort, stretchability, moisture-wicking ability and durability, which means how soft it feels on the skin, how well it stretches with a dancer’s body movements, how well it pulls moisture away from the skin and how resistant it is to tearing, stretching, pilling and colour fading. Ballet leotards usually comprised at least 2 types of fibers in which the composition can vary between the shell and lining fabric. You may have came across various fabric composition, with nylon, polyester and spandex being the most commonly found fabric composition in most of the ballet leotards, and sometimes you may see licensed fiber with registered trademark, such as Radilon®, TACTEL®, LYCRA® etc.
Common types of fibers used in dancewear
1. Natural fiber
Cotton leotard is often the first leotard for ballet students due to its comfort and comparatively lower price. Cotton is a natural fiber that is breathable, absorbs sweat and hypoallergenic, which makes it ideal for younger ballet students. However, the down side of cotton leotard is that it is more prone to pilling, rips, and tears. Capezio produces cotton leotards for both kids and women, yet the style is more basic, including camisole, tank and short sleeves.
2. Synthetic fiber
Nylon, also known as polyamide in Europe, was invented in 1930s, it is a type of synthetic fiber which is widely used in activewear such as yoga apparel and underwear. Nylon fibers are plastic compounds derived from petroleum, it is stronger, lighter and more durable which is an excellent alternative to the more delicate silk. Nylon is soft and smooth to touch, while being strong and durable at the same time. Cleaning and maintenance of nylon fabric is easy since it does not wrinkle or shrink easily. Therefore, nylon is a very popular fabric composition in ballet leotards due to its properties, it can be found in leotards from most of the dancewear brands including Ainsliewear, Jule dancewear, Zidans, Just a Corpse etc. Under the family of nylon, there are several licesned fabric with registered trademark used in ballet leotards, which are Radilon®, TACTEL® and ECONYL®.
Polyester and nylon have a lot in common, they are both plastic compounds derived from petroleum. As strong and lightweight synthetic fibers, polyester became more and more widely used along with nylon in the 1940s. Compared with nylon, polyester fibers are thicker, stiffer and less glossy. But as technology advances, the properties of polyester improved a lot which can even feel like cotton and its softer counterpart, nylon. One of the most important features that distinguish polyester from nylon in the production of leotard is its heat-resistance and colour fastness. Since it needs high temperature to absorb the dye, polyester fabric is a popular choice for sublimation transfer and digital printing, making it ideal for printed leotards, including leotards produced by Chameleon, Maldire and Luckyleo. Polyester also outperforms nylon in terms of water resistance, since the former has a lower moisture content, after sweat is absorbed into the fiber, it can dry and evaporate quickly, which is why polyester is widely used in high-intensity sportswear.
While pure nylon is a bit stretchy, pure polyester is, by default, not stretchy at all. That is when spandex fiber, also known as elastane in Europe, comes into play that give leotards the stretchability and elasticity needed for dancers’ movements. Spandex (meaning ‘expands’) is a type of synthetic fiber made of synthetic polymer called polyurethane and was developed by DuPont Corporation as well. It is widely known for its elasticity which can stretch to 5-8 times its normal size, which is why it is used in form-fitting apparel such as ballet leotards. Instead of using spandex alone, it is usually being woven with other fibers, such as nylon or polyester, therefore it is extremely common to see the mixture of nylon and spandex or polyester and spandex on the textile label of ballet leotards.
3. Regenerated cellulose fiber
While natural fiber and synthetic fiber are pretty self-explanatory, the category ‘regenerated cellulose fiber’ is somewhat alien to consumers. Instead you may have seen Modal and TENCEL™ on the hang tags of lingerie, beddings or products from SMK dancewear (including the t-shirts, leggings and warm-up tops). Both Modal and TENCEL™ belongs to the family of regenerated cellulose fiber. Regenerated cellulose fiber is neither natural fiber nor synthetic fiber, it sits somewhere in between. Indeed, it is a fiber that is man-made but has natural origin, typically derived from plants, including wood pulp and bamboo pulp. The intense chemical extraction and dissolving process in order to create the yarn sets it apart from natural fiber such as cotton, silk or wool. The manufacturing technology of regenerated cellulose fiber developed over the last 2 centuries, from rayon/ viscose, to modal and lyocell.
Rayon/ viscose (1st generation)
Modal (2nd generation)
Lyocell (3rd generation)
Thank you for reading this blog post to the end! I hope that you are now more well-equipped with basic textile knowledge which will help you to make a well-informed decision next time when you purchase dancewear. Different combination of fibers is not merely a piece of information on the textile label, it does make a difference on the skin, especially for ballet leotards which function as our second skin.
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