Cotton Field via Getty Images

Fibers 101, Part I: Plant Fibers

Fabrics; we may think we know what to look for when it comes to buying sustainably made pieces, but a lot of the time even the most well-marketed products are made at an environmental cost much greater than we could imagine.

Why is it important to learn about fabrics and fibers? Well, knowing what to look for on clothing labels can help you make informed decisions about which pieces to buy and which ones to avoid!

We've decided to introduce a three part series on just that; educating our followers on how fibers are manufactured, their environmental impacts, and the pros and cons of looking for pieces made from each one.

What are Fibers?

Fibers are thread-like structures that are long, thin and flexible. These may be spun into yarns and then made into fabrics for clothing or other items that we use our homes. Fibers are classified under two categories; natural fibers and synthetic fibers!

What is a Natural Fiber?

Natural fibers are fibers that are found in nature and are not petroleum-based. They can be categorized into two main groups; cellulose or plant fiber and protein or animal fiber. Uses of these fibers can include anything from buttons to eyewear such as sunglasses.

In today's post we'll be focusing on natural fibers, specifically those made from plant material!

NOTE: We've chosen to discuss some of the most widely known fabrics in this article. There are many more plant based fibers we won't be covering here, but we encourage you to continue your research into other plant based fibers outside of the ones you'll read about here!

Plant Fibers

Plant fibers are extracted from plants to make fabrics. Other than cotton, the most common plant-based fibers are jute, flax, hemp, ramie, abaca, bamboo, soy, and rayon.

Alternative fibers such as bamboo and hemp are huge in the sustainable fashion industry because of their growth rates (certain species of bamboo can grow 36 inches within a 24-hour period!) and their positive environmental impact (for every tonne of hemp produced, 1.63 tonnes of carbon is removed from the air!).

Cotton

Cotton, also known as vegetable wool, is a major source of apparel fiber. Celebrated for its excellent absorbency, durability, and softness, cotton accounts for over 50% of all clothing produced worldwide. This makes cotton the most widely used clothing fiber. 

Cotton is one of the most chemical-intensive crops in the world. Conventionally grown cotton uses approximately 25% of the world's insecticides and more than 10% of the world's pesticides. As a whole, the US cotton production makes up 25% of all pesticides deployed in the United States. Worldwide, cotton takes up 2.4% of all arable lands yet requires 16% of the world's pesticides. The processing of cotton into usable fibers also adds to the burden on the environment. 

Manufacturers prefer cotton to be white so that cotton can easily be synthetically dyed to any shade of color. Natural cotton is actually beige brown, and so during processing, manufacturers often add bleach and various other chemicals and heavy metal dyes to make cotton pure white. Formaldehyde resins can be added in as well to form "easy care" cotton fabric.

In an attempt to reduce the negative impact of cotton production, organic cotton is grown without the use of any genetically modification to the crops, without the use of any fertilizers, pesticides, and other synthetic agro-chemicals harmful to the environment. All cotton marketed as organic in the United States is required to fulfill strict federal regulations regarding how the cotton is grown.

Organic cotton uses 88% less water and 62% less energy than conventional cotton, which is why it's vital to always look for this particular type of cotton on labels whenever possible!

Cotton can be also be grown naturally in a variety of colors. Naturally colored cotton can come in mauve, red, yellow, and orange hues. There is a growing trend toward using naturally colored cotton for its noted relevance in reducing harmful environmental impacts.

Since naturally colored cotton is already colored, it does not require synthetic dyes during processing. Furthermore, the color of fabrics made from naturally colored cotton don't become worn and fade away over time compared to synthetically dyed cotton fabrics that lose their vibrancy with every wash and wear giving us yet another reason to support using naturally dyed fabrics!

Flax

Textiles made from flax are known in Western countries as linen, and are traditionally used for bed sheets, underclothes, and table linen. Its oil is known as linseed oil. In addition to referring to the plant itself, the word "flax" may refer to the unspun fibers of the flax plant.

Linen is strong, naturally moth resistant, and made from flax plant fibers, so when untreated (i.e. not dyed) it is fully biodegradable. Its natural colours include ivory, ecru, tan, and grey.

Linen can withstand high temperatures making the fabric generally perfect for hot, humid climates. It actually absorbs moisture without holding bacteria. In fact, Linen is actually stronger when wet than dry and becomes softer and more pliable the more it’s washed!

Although Linen is an amazing fabric when it comes to the environment, it’s also one of the hardest fabrics to manage when it comes to wrinkling. Another disadvantage to linen is the fact that it’s known to shed quite a bit overtime.

Dyes can also be problematic. If you buy non-organic linen, there is no guarantee that no harmful dyes have been used unless otherwise stated by the brand you’re buying from, and although linen isn’t known for its use of pesticides, buying non-organic also doesn’t guarantee that the fabric hasn’t been made with harmful chemicals, so always be sure to check for disclaimers from the brands to ensure the fibers are naturally grown.

Hemp

Hemp, like bamboo, is considered a sustainable crop. It requires little water to grow, and it is resistant to most pests and diseases. Unlike some other plant based fibers such as cotton, many parts of the hemp plant have a use.

Hemp fibers are durable and are considered strong enough for construction uses. Compared to cotton fiber, hemp fiber has approximately 8 times the tensile strength and 4 times the durability.

The hemp plant's broad leaves shade out weeds and other plant competitors, and its deep taproot system allows it to draw moisture deep in the soil. Hemp fiber comes in two types: primary and secondary bast fibers.

Hemp fibers are traditionally coarse, and have been historically used for ropes rather than for clothing. However, modern technology and breeding practices have made hemp fiber more pliable, softer, and finer.

Unfortunately, similarly to linen, hemp is known for its wrinkling properties. Hemp clothing is also very costly to make and buy, and the fabrics hemp produces aren't usually very rich in colour. Hemp clothing requires a little more TLC than other blends, but the environmental impact makes it a great material for a variety of sustainable products!

Bamboo

Bamboo fabrics are made from heavily pulped bamboo grass. Making clothing and textile from bamboo is considered sustainable due to the lack of need for pesticides and agrochemicals.

Naturally disease and pest resistant, bamboo is also fast growing. Compared to trees, certain varieties of bamboo can grow 1–4 inches per day, and can even branch and expand outward because of its underground rhizomes. Like cotton fibers, bamboo fibers are naturally yellowish in color and are bleached white with chemicals during processing.

Bamboo textile is any cloth, yarn or clothing made from bamboo fibers. While historically used only for structural elements, such as bustles and the ribs of corsets, in recent years different technologies have been developed that allow bamboo fiber to be used for a wide range of textile and fashion applications. Examples include clothing such as shirt tops, pants, sock for adults and children as well as bedding such as sheets and pillow covers. Bamboo yarn can also be blended with other textile fibers such as hemp or spandex

Modern clothing labeled as being made from bamboo is usually viscose rayon, a fiber made by dissolving the cellulose in the bamboo, and then extruding it to form fibers. This process removes the natural characteristics of bamboo fiber, rendering it identical to rayon from other cellulose sources, so keep in mind that just because something is made from bamboo doesn't necessarily make it a friend to the environment!

Rayon

Rayon is a regenerated cellulose fiber that is made from natural sources of cellulose, such as wood and related agricultural products. It has the same molecular structure as cellulose.

Many types and grades of rayon fibers and films exist. Some imitate the feel and texture of natural fibers such as silkwoolcotton, and linen. The types that resemble silk are often called artificial silk. The fiber is used to make textiles for clothing and other purposes.

Rayon is made from plants, but it's not exactly eco-friendly because of its toxic production and the deforestation associated with it. TENCEL™ (a branded type of lyocell) is the type of rayon that is the most eco-friendly, so if you are looking at buying Rayon be sure to look for clothing items with the TENCEL™ brand name! You can read more about the TENCEL™ manufacturing process here.

IN SUMMARY

If you're wanting to look more closely at plant-made fabrics when shopping for sustainably made pieces, keep these thoughts in mind:

  • When looking for Cotton pieces, make sure to buy pieces that are labeled "organic"! If it doesn't say "organic" on the label, think twice about how it was made and reach out to the brand to make sure they used natural growing and manufacturing processes.
  • When looking for biodegradable fabrics, lean towards Linens, Hemps, or Bamboo. They're the most eco-friendly fabrics overall, especially if they were also organically grown!
  • When looking at buying clothing made from Rayon, look for the TENCEL™ brand name to ensure the fibers were made in the most environmentally friendly manner.

Until next time, stay informed, stay healthy, stay #intheloop!


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