Knowing where our clothes come from, how they are made and what they are made from is often obscured and unknown in the fashion industry. We live in clothes so why don't we learn and know all the details?
By knowing the what, we can care for our garments properly, making them last longer, and be more conscious with our consumption. An awareness of the materials and environmental impacts drives more sustainable clothing choices. We can also decide whether we want to wear a fibre that has undergone a chemical intensive production process against our skin.
When I think about garment sustainability, I often gravitated towards natural fibres, however are these really sustainable? This month, I thought I would delve into plant-based fibres. Each week of November, I will be writing about a different plant-based fibre to explore whether that fibre is sustainable and the impact on the environment. This post gives a summary of what a natural fibre is and the benefits of using it in sewing or buying clothes made from natural fibres.
Skip to the section that interests you OR read on to find out all about natural fibres.
What are Clothes Made From?
All clothes are made from fibres. These can be split into man-made (often referred to as synthetic), natural and semi-synthetic. Semi-synthetic fibres have a natural source but require intensive processing to transform the natural source into a useable fibre. Semi-synthetic fibres include rayon (also know as viscose), lyocell (sold as the branded fabric TENCEL®) and bamboo.
Fibres are spun into yarn then either woven or knitted to form a fabric. This fabric is cut and sewn to make up our clothes.
Natural fibres occur in nature whereas synthetic fibres are manufactured and made from chemical compounds. An increase in demand for natural fibres over man-made fibres has resulted in increased research and development in materials which can replace synthetic materials.
Natural fibres fall into 2 main categories: cellulose-based (plant-based) and protein-based (animal-based).
Plant-based fibres are as their name suggest; fibres that come from plants. This includes seed hairs, stem (or bast) fibres, leaf fibres and husk fibres. There are many plant-based fibres. The following includes some I hope to delve into over the next month:
Flax (makes linen)
Animal fibres come from animals, these include hair, which includes wool, and secretions, such as silk. When you think of animal-based fibres you immediately think of wool from sheep however, there are many more animal-based fibres which can be used in garments. Each with individual properties, these include:
Benefits of Natural Fibres
Using a natural resource which is easily available in nature.
Can be low cost due to abundance in nature.
Often feels nicer against the skin.
Breaks down/biodegrades in landfill which promotes Circular Fashion.
Have highly specific properties.
Cons of Natural Fibres
Animal welfare for animal-based fibres.
Dyeing process can use harmful chemicals which are worn against our skin. These may be absorbed into our body.
Manufacturing process can harm the environment e.g. high water consumption for cotton production.
Use of pesticides for plant-based fibres can negatively impact biodiversity and agricultural land. Buying organic fibres is better.
Overgrazing by animals which can lead to soil and land degradation.
Natural fibres can be tricky to care for to prolong their life.
Can be more expensive to buy natural fibres.
The Future of Natural Fibres
Each year the world consumes 80 billion pieces of clothing. Producing this volume of materials year after year for our clothing puts huge strains on the planet. The shift to natural, regenerative fibres and therefore regenerative fashion will have a positive impact on the land and the people who grow these fibres.
Natural fibres have provided the human race with a second-skin from the very beginning. The recycling capability of natural over synthetic fibres to turn old garments into new garments is a huge benefit of natural fibres. Plant-based fibres have been seen to endure 5 recycling cycles.
Slowing down our consumption is still equally important and purchasing quality over quantity. If we move to a natural fibre culture, problems may arise on how we grow the quantity required. Integrated food-fibre systems will be essential and biodiversity elements must be incorporated to support pollinators, provide a food source for wildlife and a habitat for migrating birds.
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