Clothing Content 101: Natural Fibers

Updated: Aug 14, 2020

Being able to read the clothing label and understanding what the content means can help you not only make better environmentally friendly choices, it can also help you partially understand the price. 9/10 times you're going to pay more for a 100% cotton t-shirt than for a 100% polyester t-shirt. Why? Because the price of cotton is more expensive. Why? Because it's considered to be more labor intensive. When you compare the two, cotton tends to be more favorable and better for the environment (in some ways, not all) when compared to polyester. Also knowing about fibers can help you decide if this is something that will serve you in the way that you're looking for it to. For example, natural fibers tend to be more breathable. So if you're looking for summer clothes - look for linen or cotton rather than polyester or rayon. Over the years we have become more conscious about the foods we eat- organic, grass fed, non GMO, etc. Why not start being more aware of what we are putting onto our skin everyday? Throughout the next few weeks I will be explaining different types of fibers, what they are, where they come from, and the pro's and con's of wearing them. Today I want to share with you more information on some of the most popular natural fibers you may come

across when reading a clothing content label.





Natural Fibers


A natural fiber comes from a plant or animal and has minimal processing to be turned into a fiber, then a yarn, then fabric, etc. Most natural fibers are either cellulose based (plants) or protein based (animals). Natural fibers biodegrade much quicker when compared to manmade fibers (some manmade fibers don't biodegrade at all). A study done by Cotton Works found that in a compost setting cotton is over 50% degraded after only 12 weeks. Natural fibers tend to be naturally absorbent, think of towels which are almost always cotton.




Cotton

Cotton is probably the most used and well known natural fiber. It is controversial in the environmental realm because the crop requires a lot of water in order to flourish. Non-organic cotton to be specific, requires the most water and pesticides. Organic cotton that is certified typically uses less water. Non-organic cotton seeds are made to be immune to pesticides allowing the farmers to apply mass amounts of it. These pesticides kill the soil and its nutrients leaving the soil weakened and not able to store much carbon or water. Organic farming has healthier soils due to no pesticides which in return leave the soils healthy and able to hold carbon and water more efficiently. Pesticides have been labeled carcinogenic, who wants that in their clothes? There are different types of cotton as well, pima, supima, Egyptian, Turkish are a few, but lets just stick to basics today. Cotton is biodegradable meaning it will fully decompose back into the earth. Cotton is also versatile, it's soft enough for cotton balls, q-tips, and under garments, but also strong and durable for denim jeans, jackets, and towels. Cotton is grown in many different parts of the world, the top places cotton is grown are China, India, and the US. When shopping for cotton try to opt for certified organic or BCI certified, it's pricier but safer for you, the environment, and the farmers.






Linen

Linen comes from the flax plant. Linen is lightweight, breathable, and known to be a summertime staple. Linen is also hypoallergenic, making it great for those who have sensitive skin. Remember often clothing has treatments or dyes that are still chemical intensive that can still irritate one's skin. Because linen is a natural fiber it is also biodegradeable. The biggest downside to linen is that it wrinkles like crazy, but most people can overlook that. Linen is woven into fabric making it not stretchy. So loose fitting garments are they best way to wear linen. The cost of linen tends to lean on the pricier side, the process of turning the fiber into a fabric requires manual labor and takes some time. A few places linen is grown in are: France, Belgium, China, Italy, and Canada.


Photo: purepranalabel.com




Hemp

Hemp is a great crop that doesn't require much irrigation or fertilizer to grow. Hemp is extremely strong, anti-microbial, biodegradable, and lightweight. It has a rough hand feel at first but get softer with wear and time. Hemp is typically blended with other fibers to achieve an acceptable hand feel. Like linen, hemp also tends to wrinkle easily. Because hemp is a strain of the marijuana plant, it is not yet legal to grow everywhere yet. China is the biggest exporter of hemp at 70%, next in line are the US and Canada. Hemp has a lot of potential in the fashion industry due to it's ability to grow fast and with minimal care. While hemp has been around for thousands of years, fashion brands like Levi and Patagonia are a few of the first integrating hemp blends into their products.








Silk

Silk is a protein based fiber that comes from silk worms. Silk is known for its drape-ability, shine and soft (silky) hand feel. Silk is biodegradable, but over an extended period of time. Silk is controversial on how it is extracted from the worm. Once the worm makes a cocoon it is then boiled to extract the silk filament and then woven into a fabric. Because it takes many cocoons to get a substantial amount of filament, silk is expensive, and is considered a luxury fabric. Silk is very strong, and absorbent but also has a high shrink rate when washed and it's recommended to be dry cleaned.



Silk worm cocoon




Cashmere/Alpaca/Mohair/Wool

All of these protein based fibers come from animal fur or hair. The type of animal is the difference between the name. Sheep, goat, llamas, alpaca, are some examples of animal's fur we use. Wool is usually from sheep, for example Merino wool comes from the merino sheep. Cashmere is from particular goats that have a soft underbelly fur, like the angora goat. This particular fur from the underbelly gives cashmere it's soft and cozy feeling it's known for. Mohair is also made from the angora goat but uses all fur from the goat, so it's not as soft as cashmere but softer than wool. While all of these come from an animal, it's not like rabbit, raccoon, or fox fur, where the animal has to be killed. These animals have the ability to live a happy life and make lots of fur for plenty of sweaters, scarves, hats, etc. It takes time for an animal to grow it's fur and has to undergo manual labor to cut, clean, and make into a soft beautiful yarn leaving them on the pricier side of fabrics. But they are super warm and insulating during colder months giving them a huge leg up when compared to other fibers. It's common to see these fibers blended with other fibers to reach a lower price point. I would recommend looking into the source of the fur and if theres any genuine transparency or certifications on the farm the fur is coming from. There are farms that mistreat animals and only care about getting a profit.


Goat used for cashmere




SOURCES:

Degree from the Fashion Institute of Technology (lol)

https://www.masterclass.com/articles/natural-vs-synthetic-fibers#5-examples-of-natural-fibers

Burgess, Rebecca, Fibershed

https://www.chelseagreen.com/product/fibershed/