In a previous post I’ve ranted about polyester and how uncomfortable it is, but natural fibres can pose their own problems too. So to start our fabric compendium, let’s discuss the properties of common fibres, and their advantages and disadvantages.
Let’s start at the beginning. There are two different categories to consider here: the type of fibre and the type of fabric. The first refers to the source material used — cotton, polyester, silk, etc. — and the second to how those fibres are woven or knitted together to form fabric. Words like satin, chiffon, denim, bombazine, etc. all refer to this second type and will be addressed on the next part of our compendium.
Today, I will start by the most common natural fibres, go through some of the semi-synthetic and finish with the synthetics. But here’s the disclaimer: information from reliable sources on fabrics is hard to find and often contradictory, so I’ve done my best to only keep either what was repeated in different sources or what I know to be true from experience. Mistakes might still have been made, though, so add a grain of salt to this post.
A natural fibre, as you may have guessed, is sourced from either plants or animals. These are usually the most expensive fibres. They are dependent on crops or livestock and can only be harvested at certain times of the year. These fibres are biodegradable and can be recycled when not blended.
Possibly the most common and versatile natural fibre, cotton is breathable, comfortable and cheap, and although it creases, it can be washed and ironed easily. So what’s the catch?
Well, where to start. Cotton is usually grown in huge monocrops and not only does it require an obscene amount of water to grow, it is normally planted in dry areas, where water is scarce.
Besides this, cotton is historically deeply connected to slavery and unfortunately nowadays it seems to be no different. China, the USA and India are the main producers of cotton worldwide. In China, the Uighur seem to be being forced to labour in the cotton industry. In India, cotton farmers go into huge debts to buy genetically modified seeds and this, too often, drives them to suicide. These are just some examples.
Organic, fair-trade cotton does exist (as well as recycled cotton), and many clothing companies use it. Sources disagree on whether biologically grown cotton consumes more or less water than the genetically modified one. Either way, this might be a better alternative if you are mainly worried about worker’s wages. If the environment is a more pressing concern to you, there are better natural fibres out there.
Ah, linen. Forgotten for too long, it seems to be making a come back as many fast-fashion companies are using it on their collections this year.
Linen comes from flax, a plant that requires little water or pesticides and grows faster than cotton. It is known for being very breathable and strong, making its lifespan longer. Linen becomes softer the more you wash it and some sources say it is stronger when wet. This means it is harder to damage the fibres when washing.
The main disadvantage of linen is how much it creases and how hard it is to iron. The true beauty of linen, however, lies in the character these creases give it, so if anyone asks you why your clothing is so creased, just reply that it is the sign of a strong personality.
In your search through ethical clothing brands, you might come across hemp clothing. (Yes, I will spare you the getting high on a t-shirt joke.)
Hemp, like linen, requires little water or pesticides to grow. It is also breathable and similar to linen in how it feels, drapes and softens with every wash. It is stronger than cotton, making it a more durable option.
I am not aware of any downsides to hemp clothing besides the creasing.
As your 1st grade teacher told you, wool comes from sheep. Except that’s not entirely true. Besides sheep, wool can come from goats (cashmere and mohair wools), rabbits (angora wool), camels, alpacas and llamas, among others. Different animals and breeds produce wool with different qualities.
Wool is strong, durable and breathable. It also provides good isolation, reason why it is often associated with winter. However, very fine wool can be used in warm weather and you will often find brands selling wool products for all seasons (on my last trip to the fabric store, I was told this was called cold wool).
The production of wool, of course, raises strong animal rights and ethical questions, with good reason. These animals are often held in awful conditions, treated horribly, and showered with pesticides and insecticides. However, there are cruelty-free and recycled wools available in most sustainable shops.
When buying wool, be sure to look for tightly knitted fibres, as these garments will hold their shape longer. Also keep in mind that more expensive wool usually comes from better (longer) fibres, that pill less. If treated correctly, that wool coat could last you a lifetime.
If you don’t know how silk is made, I have bad news for you. Silk comes from the cocoons of silk worms just like those you used to grow in a shoe box. To ensure the fibres are as long as possible, these worms are boiled alive while inside their cocoons and then detached from them.
Silk is the strongest of the natural fibres (and therefore quite durable) and can be worn in warm and cold weather. It is known for being extremely soft, having a natural sheen and draping beautifully. However, silk is not resistant to sunlight and weakens with prolonged exposure.
Peace silk (ahimsa) is an alternative to normal silk. This silk is collected when the cocoons are empty, harming no worms. This is unfortunately even more expensive and harder to find.
Semi-synthetic fibres are so called because even though they come from a natural source – wood or bamboo — they have to go through a chemical process that extracts the cellulose and transforms it into fibres. Semi-synthetics are also called cellulosic fibres.
Like natural fibres, these too are recyclable and biodegradable.
Viscose is largely used today in fast fashion because it is a cheap fabric to produce. It is often used to imitate the feel of natural fibres, particularly the drape of silk. Viscose is breathable like a natural fibre and suited for warm weather. It also doesn’t crease easily. However, it is weaker, and thus less durable, than natural fibres. It is also prone to shrinking. In my personal experience, viscose tends to pill easily, although sources disagree.
Coming from wood and being heavily used by fast-fashion companies, the main problem with viscose is, of course, deforestation. The chemicals used to extract the cellulose are also a problem, since they end up released into the environment. Viscose can have an environmental impact similar to polyester (PET).
Modal is an improved version of viscose. It is softer, more wear resistant and holds its shape better when washed. Like linen, this fabric is said to be stronger when wet, making it more resistant to tear from the washing process. It is often used for activewear for being absorbent.
The environmental impact of modal seems to depend on the brand producing it. Some brands will produce modal from sustainable sources (in particular beach trees, that propagate themselves and don’t need irrigation), but this is not always the case. Regardless, the process used to create modal is mostly a closed loop, where the chemicals are captured and reused.
Lyocell / Tencel
Lyocell (or Tencel, the brand name), like the other semi-synthetics, is said to be soft as silk, breathable and lightweight. It is also durable and resistant to wrinkles. Like modal, it absorbs moisture well, meaning it too is often used for activewear.
Made from wood, the main difference between lyocell and other semi-synthetics is that not only is the process kept in a closed loop where around 99% of the solvent is recovered, it is also made with no toxic chemicals, meaning (almost) nothing but water and fibres is released into the environment. Harvested from beach trees or eucalyptus (that also require no irrigation, pesticides or fertilizers) this is said to be the most environmentally friendly option of the semi-synthetics.
Synthetic fibres come from fossil fuels rather than plants or animals. Like all other plastic products, they have a high carbon footprint and take decades to break down in landfills.
These are usually the least environmentally friendly fibres, and although they can be recycled, this process too is energy intensive. Besides this, washing these fibres seems to release microplastic fibres into our water sources.
If a natural fibre is blended with a synthetic one, the garment is no longer biodegradable.
Being plastic, polyester is extremely durable. It is also cheap to produce, doesn’t wrinkle and does not tend to shrink or stretch. Additionally, it is resistant to moths and sunlight exposure.
However, like we’ve discussed earlier, even when you put aside the environmental impact, polyester is still a bad choice all around because it doesn’t breath. That means that the sweat you release, as well as all of the bacteria, gets trapped between your body and the clothing. This is behind that nice sweaty smell we all know from polyester, as well as the fact that it is incredibly uncomfortable to wear, both in warm and in cold climates.
A slightly different plastic, acrylic’s main characteristic is that it resembles wool. It is soft and warm, but all of the aforementioned problems with plastic clothing still apply, including the bacteria and smell. Acrylic is also prone to create static electricity and it pills easily, meaning it tends to have a short lifespan.
Fun fact: while wool is hard to light, and thus sometimes used as a flame retardant, acrylic is the exact opposite, being extremely flammable and hard to extinguish. *Looks apprehensively at acrylic sweaters*.
After having ranted ferociously about how polyester doesn’t breath, here I stand. It is known there must always be an exception that confirms the rule, and microfiber is, indeed, synthetic and breathable.
Microfiber is a broad name that refers to a variety of fabrics, from cleaning cloths to the highest performing activewear. The defining property of this fabric is in its name: it is produced from extremely fine fibres. This is probably the reason why it is more breathable than other synthetic textiles, although I couldn’t find sources to confirm this.
The main properties of microfibre, and why it is largely used for sports clothing, is that it is super-absorbent, wicks moisture away and dries faster than usual. This means that if you’re working out, you’ll be kept dry and comfortable longer. Microfibre has a nice softness and good drapability.
Keep in mind that all of the environmental problems discussed earlier for synthetic fibres still apply.
Quick End Notes
As I’m sure you’re aware, there fibres are often blended together. This means that many fabrics are not 100% made from one type of fibre only. Natural fibres are often mixed with synthetic ones to either make the fabric cheaper or give it properties it wouldn’t otherwise have – polyester, for example, is sometimes mixed with linen to make it crease less. Like mentioned earlier, when a natural fibre is blended with a synthetic one, the garment is no longer biodegradable or recyclable.
Along the text, I’ve added a few videos of how raw materials are turned into fabrics. I encourage you to watch them — seeing the process, not just hearing about it, gave me a whole new perspective on the amount of resources, time and humans still needed to produce fabrics (to say nothing of the garments themselves). We tend to undervalue it since clothing has never been cheaper, but the truth is producing textiles is unbelievably labour-intensive even today.