With the loss of sewing our own clothing, most of us also lost the ability to recognize the differences between fabrics. When people were sewing their own clothing, much time and thought was put into fabric selection since the finished garments had to endure many years of use and reinvention. Since we no longer construct our own garments, the knowledge of different fabrics has slipped away as well.
As we’ve shared before, we believe that a key part of ethical fashion is buying clothing that we plan to get a lot of use out of, clothing that won’t end up in the trash or donation pile a few months down the road. To do so, we need to select fabrics that we will enjoy wearing – that feel good next to our skin – and that will last.
Fabrics can be broken down into two main categories, and then further broken down within those.
Two main types of fabric fibers:
- Linen (Flax)
- Wool (sheep)
- Cashmere (goat)
- Silk (silkworms)
- Angora (rabbits)
- Mohair (Angora goats)
- Leather (cows)
- Down feathers (ducks and geese)
Natural fibers have the benefit of being made from renewable resources and being biodegradable. Many of these fabrics also tend to feel comfortable. The plant-based fibers generally breathe well and allow air to circulate, while wool, especially in knits, can do an excellent job of keeping us warm.
Let’s discuss the two plant-based fibers that are most common:
- Cotton is typically used for fabrics that will lay close to the skin, like underwear. It absorbs moisture and can help keep you cool in warmer seasons. Pima cotton, which is grown in the southwestern US, is a particularly durable type of cotton due to its extra long staple. The downsides of 100% cotton garments are that they have very little elasticity, little resiliency (if it shrinks, or stretches, it stays that way!), and can wrinkle and pill easily.
- Linen, one of the oldest textiles, requires only 8% of the energy that is required to produce polyester, and requires less water, energy, and chemical pesticides and fertilizers than either polyester or cotton. It is best known for its breathability in hot climates. Because of its molecular structure, linen cloth can absorb as much as 1/5 of its weight in moisture before giving a feeling of being damp.
And here are the three animal-based natural fibers that you come into contact with most often:
- Wool is traditionally used to keep us warm! Think woolen long johns, socks, sweaters and peacoats. Wool is an amazing fiber that resists wrinkles and dirt. It is highly resilient – sometimes referred to as having a ‘memory’ of shape – and it can absorb 30% of its weight in moisture before feeling damp, which makes it an excellent choice for winter wear that comes in contact with rain or snow. Wool from Merino sheep is considered ‘high end’ wool because it is one of the finest and softest from any sheep.
- Silk is made from fibers of the cocoon of the Chinese silkworm. Silk is highly absorbant, breathable, and soft against the skin. Peace or vegan silk is made from the worm casings gathered only after the moths have emerged.
- Leather is a controversial material. While leather is durable, flexible, long-lasting and beautiful, it has a huge environmental impact from the chemicals used in the process of tanning. Additionally, there is the added concern of animal welfare.
While much about natural fibers is good, it’s also worth noting that all natural fibers have to be farmed, just like our food. This leads to problems similar to those we see in the food industry: high usage of chemicals that run off into our water supply, disregard for the safety of workers, and lack of respect for the land. One of the most notable issues is that conventionally grown cotton uses more insecticides than any other single crop, contributing to environmental contamination on a large scale. 99% of all cotton is treated with 25% of the world’s insecticides, which is pretty extraordinary. There are organic options in all of the natural fibers, which contribute to less pesticide exposure to the farm workers and less environmental contamination.
Chemical fibers come in two very different types. Semi-synthetic fibers, while still often heavily processed, can come from recycled or renewable materials. Unfortunately, the method of production for these semi-synthetics is still heavy with chemicals to break down the materials (like bamboo or recycled plastics) to a fiber-like and usable state. They are also commonly produced in countries without strict water regulations, and the untreated chemicals are often deposited into local water systems, contaminating drinking water. Often these fibers are marketed as environmentally friendly since they come from recycled or renewable materials, but it is worth noting that there is a high environmental impact from the chemical process required to produce the fabric.
Completely synthetic fibers are even more problematic. Polyester comprises over 40% of all fabrics currently made, and that number is rising due to fast fashion. It may be low maintenance and cheap, but there is much more to it than that.
We have lamented the woes that polyester and other synthetic fibers bring on us, like the 60-70 million barrels of oil their production requires each year, that they take over 200 years to decompose in landfills, and that they are essentially plastic worn on the skin. Yes, that’s why you sweat profusely when wearing polyester; you are essentially covered in a non-breathing plastic wrap. Nylon production releases nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas that’s 300 times more environmentally damaging that CO2. Phthalates are concerning chemicals often found in artificial leather and other plastic PVC clothing.
When it comes to what fabrics to purchase, there’s not one clear-cut answer (pun intended). In terms of environmental impact, natural fibers are generally the better choice, especially if we look for organic fibers and pay attention to how and where the fiber in our clothing is produced. Personally, I generally enjoy the feel of wearing natural fibers more. But it’s good to keep in mind that the production of any type of fiber will have a significant impact on the environment and on the workers who produce it.
One of the best ways we can make ethical choices here is simply by steering away from the fast-fashion mentality: by purchasing fabrics that we intend to get a lot of use out of, and spending the extra time and money to select fabrics we will enjoy and that will hold up well. In fact, this principal is pretty central to all our ethical fashion choices: whenever possible, learn before buying, and buy items that you want to care for and keep for years to come.
We want to know if you have spent any time thinking about the different types of fibers that we wear everyday. Please join us in the conversation below or over on Instagram to share your thoughts! If you are enjoying this discussion, please share our posts with your friends!