Fabrics today are made from a variety of different materials and knowing what your clothes are made of is a very important step of having a conscious closet and being a conscious consumer. It also tells us how we should be disposing of our clothes when we get to that point.
In this blog post we are examining different types of fabrics and what they are made out of. Some of these deserve more in depth research but for now we are just laying down the basics.
Synthetic Fibers: synthetic fibers are those that are essentially made from various types of plastic. Synthetic fibers that are commonly used in clothing include:
As we all know the world is drowning in plastic and clothing made from plastic is generally just contributing to the problem. There are some exceptions in the form of clothing that is made from recycled plastic which brands like Patagonia, Girlfriend, and Everlane are all doing in some fashion. However all fabric made from plastic sheds microplastic particles when washed and should be both seldomly washed and washed inside a plastic catching bag like the guppyfriend bag (not an ad just really cool).
Semisynthetic Fibers: semisynthetic fibers are made using naturally occurring (non-plastic) materials but processing them in the same way that synthetic fibers are processed. Semisynthetic fibers that are commonly used in clothing include:
Semisynthetic fibers are generally made from purified cellulose (material in plant cells) that is chemically changed to produce fibers. Because these fibers are not made from plastic, they do not contribute to the planet’s non-biodegradable plastic waste.
However, the production of these fibers can be very harmful to both the people producing them and the environment but many companies are working to create a safer, cleaner production process. Tencel is a type of rayon made from sustainably harvested trees which are converted to fibers in a closed loop, non-polluting system.
Natural Fibers: natural fibers are made from plant or animal materials that are spun into filaments, thread, or rope.
Plant Fibers: plant fibers commonly used in clothing can be made from seed hairs (like cotton) or stem fibers (linen, bamboo, and hemp).
Approximately half of all textiles in the world are made from cotton. Cotton production provides income for more than 250 million people worldwide and the cotton industry employs almost 7% of all labor in developing countries. This is a very large number of people and the amount of chemicals used is staggering too. While cotton accounts for only 2.5% of the world’s farmland, the industry consumes 16% of insecticides and 6.8% of herbicides. These chemicals interfere with the natural ecosystems and reduce biodiversity both where they are applied and downstream where they are carried through natural and artificial irrigation.
And yes, now that you mention it, cotton in a hugely water intensive crop! Depending on where cotton is grown, 1kg (2.2 lbs) can require 8000-10,000 liters (2100-2600 gallons) of water. For reference an extra large cotton towel weighs about 2 lbs. It’s pretty hard to imagine 2200 gallons of water but that amount of water would fill a small pool or a large hot tub, that is approximately 10 feet long, 10 feet Wide, and 3 feet deep. FOR ONE TOWEL!!! That’s crazy. Not that I’m going to stop using towels or anything but I definitely am going to be keeping the ones that I have around for a while.
Organic cotton is an important alternative to conventionally grown cotton. Organic cotton is grown without the use of toxic, synthetic pesticides and fertilizers and does not use genetically modified seeds (GMOs). While organic cotton is still water intensive, the health and environmental risks of pesticide and fertilizer use are alleviated. Thousands of farmers die every year due to exposure to these chemicals they are among of the most toxic chemicals in the world, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Because organic cotton production utilizes natural fertilizers and natural forms of pest control the soil remains healthier and contains more organic material then is present in conventional cotton production. The additional organic material helps the soil to retain more water and makes the crop slightly less water intensive.
Linen has been used as material for clothing for centuries. It is very laborious to manufacture but is praised for its fast drying qualities and its coolness and freshness in hot humid weather. Today linen is generally an expensive material and is produced in relatively small quantities.
Production of linen has not changed much over the past several centuries. Flax is harvested by either pulling the plant up with the root or cutting the plant very close to the ground. This type of harvesting allows for the longest possible fibers, which nearly eliminates piling. Next seeds are removed and then fibers from the stalks. To loosen fibers from the stalk , the flax is generally soaked in pools or tubs where naturally occuring bacteria help to dissolve the pectin that binds the fibers. The flax is than smashed between 2 rollers to further break up the stalk, after this stage the fibers can be completely separated from the stalk. These fibers are then spun into yarns and threads for weaving and knitting.
Top quality flax is grown in Western European countries and in Ukraine. Some linen production has moved to Eastern Europe and China but it is said that fabric does not have the same quality.
A few years ago bamboo was heralded as an eco friendly alternative to cotton and as an animal friendly alternative to silk. However, the processes that are required to make bamboo silky soft include some seriously toxic chemicals. Bamboo can be processed mechanically or chemically. Mechanical processing is essentially the same as it is for flax: crush the plant until it becomes mush than comb out the fibers. Very little bamboo is processed into fabric in this way because it is very labor intensive. Alternatively, chemically processed bamboo fabric is a regenerated cellulose fiber that is very similar to rayon. To create this fabric the bamboo is “cooked” in a (toxic) chemical solvent that breaks down the plant materials. Once the chemicals have dissolved the plant material and been rinsed away, the plant material is forced through a spinneret and reformed into bamboo fibers.
Like the production of rayon, this process can be detrimental to the health of people making it and the environment in which is is produced. Also like rayon, some more recent technologies have helped to create a closed loop system in which these chemicals do not come into contact with people of the environment.
Hemp has a very long history of being used as a fiber. It has been cultivated for thousands of years on most continents.
Hemp is, by any definition, a weed: it chokes out any other plants that try to grow along side it. Thus it needs very little in terms of chemical herbicides. hemp is also naturally pest resistant and to top it all off it adds nutrients back into the soil.In terms of water, hemp requires far less then cotton while growing and in processing.
Hemp fabric is made from the stalk or stem of the hemp plant. fibers are separated from the stalk and are than spun together to create a continuous thread that can be woven of knitted. This process, like bamboo and flax, can be done mechanically or chemically. The chemical process is much less labor intensive and is less expensive.
Animal Fibers: commonly used in clothing can be made from animal hair (wool) or other animal products (silk).
There are several different types of wool but most are just referred to as “wool” here we will break these out a little bit.
Wool comes from sheep and tends to be a bit itchy and can shrink and pil if it isnt cared for properly. Wool traps air and so is a great insulating layer.
Lambswool comes from a lamb (a very young sheep) and is very soft and smooth. It is also more expensive because it can only come from a lamb’s first shearing.
Merino comes from merino sheep. These sheep have finer wool which makes this wool smoother and less itchy. It is also a good temperature regulator and is popping up in workout gear. Today about 80% of all Merino comes from Australia.
Cashmere comes from the cashmere goat (native to India, Tibet, Turkistan, Iran, Iraq and China). It is considered a luxury wool because the fiber is finer, stronger, lighter, and less itchy than traditional wool. It can also take the wool of 2 goats to make just one cashmere sweater, much more than other types of wool.
Mohair comes from an angora goat. It has a silk like texture and is very soft and shiny. It also has a lot of insulation and will not wrinkle easily.
Angora comes from angora rabbits. This type of wool offers great insulation and is even warmer then traditional wool while still being very light. It is also a fairly fragile fiber so is often mixed with other fibers to increase strength.
Alpaca comes from alpaca which are animals that are similar to llamas. This fiber is lightweight, soft, silky, and durable. It is warmer and less itchy than traditional wool. There are two types, one used primarily in knits and one used for woven garments.
Sericulture is the production of raw silk, which dates back thousands of years in China, by means of raising caterpillars, which includes growing mulberry trees that silkworms feed on and the care of silkworms from eggs through the production of the cocoon.
Once the cocoon is formed (made from one long, silk filament) the cocoons are boiled which prevents the developed moth from breaking through the cocoon and also breaking the filament. The filament from each cocoon is 600-900 meters long. After boiling the cocoons are softened in water and unwound, generally a few at a time, and twisted together to create a yarn thick enough to weave. Raw silk still contains the binding agent produced by the silkworm sericin. To remove sericin, which protects the silk through the process of making fabric, the silk is boiled in soap and water, after this the filament will be smooth and shiny.
Traditional silk production requires the death of thousands of silkworms for a single garment, and these practices continue today. There are, however, some companies that are trying to produce silk without killing silkworms, though the price is much higher.
We hope that this blog post has shed some light on the garment industry as well as on your clothing!