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 started off a three-part series on educating our followers on how fibers are manufactured, their environmental impacts, and the pros and cons of looking for pieces made from each one last week with an article on plant-based fibers. We recommend reading the first post before continuing on with this one!
This week we'll be focusing on animal fibers!
NOTE: We've chosen to discuss some of the most widely known fabrics in this article. There are many more animal fibers we won't be covering here, but we encourage you to continue your research into other animal fibers outside of the ones you'll read about here!
Animal fibers originate from animal sources and are made up of protein molecules. The basic elements in these protein molecules are carbon, hydrogen oxygen and nitrogen. Natural protein fibers include wool, silk, angora, camel, alpaca, llama, vicuna, cashmere, mohair, and more!
Silk is a natural textile fiber which is obtained from silkworms. The silk fiber is known for its strength and is considered a prestigious fiber. Its use in textiles is limited due to its high cost.
Most silkworms used to produce silk are not harmed in the process and are grown in their natural habitat, essentially "free range", although like most animal based fibers there are always farmers that do not treat their worms in an ethical way.
To make sure you're buying silk that has been ethically farmed be sure to choose OTEX-certified organic silk, or ahimsa silk by Cocccon which is GOTS-certified!
Wool is a natural textile fiber obtained from sheep, goats or camels. It traps a lot of air, and because air is a bad conductor of heat, this makes clothes made from wool great for staying warm during the winter months!
Just as in cotton production, pesticides are conventionally used in the cultivation of wool, although quantities are considerably smaller and it's thought that good practices can significantly limit negative environmental impacts.
Sheep are treated either with injectable insecticides, a pour-on preparation, or dipped in a pesticide bath to control parasite infections, which if left untreated can have serious health implications for the flock.
When managed badly, these pesticides can cause harm to human health and aquatic ecosystems both on the farm and in subsequent downstream processing.
Wool can of course be made in a cruelty-free manner, and it's imperative that when you're shopping for wool pieces you look at the brand's information on a traceable supply chain, transparency, and certifications and organic farms. A ZQ certification is one thing you can look for when shopping for responsibly-made wool pieces!
Camels have outer guard hairs and soft inner down, and the fibers are sorted by color and age of the animal. The guard hairs can be felted for use as waterproof coats for the herdsmen, while the softer hair is used for premium goods.
The fiber can be spun for use in weaving or made into yarns for hand knitting or crochet. Pure camel hair is recorded as being used for western garments from the 17th century onwards, and from the 19th century a mixture of wool and camel hair was used.
While most types of wool can only be derived by shearing hairs off animals, Bactrian camels naturally shed their winter coats every spring, which means that harvesting this type of hair is usually a sustainable and cruelty-free enterprise! You can find more information on camel hair here.
The alpaca is a species of South American camelid mammal. It is similar to, and often confused with, the llama. Alpaca fiber is used for making knitted and woven items, similar to sheep's wool. These items include blankets, sweaters, hats, gloves, scarves, a wide variety of textiles and ponchos in South America, and sweaters, socks, coats and bedding in other parts of the world. The fiber comes in a large number of natural colors.
Alpaca wool is soft and possesses water- and flame-resistant properties, making it a valuable commodity.
Unfortunately, Alpaca manufacturing has come under fire after an undercover investigation put forth by PETA into Mallkini, one of the world's largest privately owned Peruvian alpaca wool farm. According to the report the ethical treatment of animals and the unruly management of waste produced during the shearing process of the animals is nothing short of a nightmare.
PETA has called for the immediate ban of unethically sourced Alpaca fibers, and because much of the world's Alpaca is sourced from Peru, finding pieces that have been farmed ethically can be quite a challenge.
Although the fibers themselves are biodegradable and kind to the environment, based on our findings and the PETA report, we strongly suggest looking for alternative animal-made fabrics as the ethical treatment of these animals is no longer guaranteed and extremely difficult to prove.
Cashmere is obtained from the fine, soft hairs of a cashmere goat's underbelly. This specific breed of goat is found throughout Asia. Four goats are needed to produce enough cashmere for one sweater.
Initially cashmere was fairly expensive, but due to increased demand the industry producing new fibers is beginning to take a toll on the animals, the herders, and the land that it's produced in.
More and more goats are needed which results in more mouths to feed. Overpopulation of the goats degrades the land due to increased grazing. The cashmere industry is becoming more and more controversial with the questioning of working conditions of goat herders and the underpaying of farmers.
When shopping for cashmere pieces it's best to avoid buying virgin fibers. There are currently no known certifications to look for when buying new cashmere that guarantee the ethical treatment of workers or animals.
This means that if the fabric is not up-cycled or re-cycled there is a significant chance that the environment and the people that have worked to create these materials have been compromised.
Mohair is a fabric or yarn made from the hair of the Angora goat. Both durable and resilient, mohair is notable for its high luster and sheen, and is often used in fiber blends to add these qualities to a textile. Mohair takes dye exceptionally well. It feels warm in winter as it has excellent insulating properties, while its moisture-wicking properties allow it to remain cool in summer. It is durable, naturally elastic, flame-resistant and crease-resistant.
Mohair is used in scarves, winter hats, suits, sweaters, coats, socks and home furnishing. Mohair fiber is also found in carpets, wall fabrics, craft yarns, and many other fabrics, and may be used as a substitute for fur. Because its texture resembles fine human hair, mohair is often used in making high grade doll wigs or in rooting customized dolls.
Mohair is a very soft yarn when compared with other natural and synthetic fibers. Due to mohair's lacking prominent, protruding scales along the hair's surface, it is often blended with wool or alpaca. Mohair is also valued for certain other unique characteristics: it is warmer than other fibers, even when used to make a light-weight garment, and is often blended with wool for this reason; and mohair fibers have a distinctive luster created by the way they reflect light. Combined with mohair's ability to absorb dyes exceptionally well, pure mohair yarns are usually recognizable for their vivid saturated colours.
Much like Alpaca, Mohair has been deemed to be more harmful than good based on PETA's research into 12 angora goat farms in south Africa - the world's top mohair producer. The poor treatment of animals and farmers as well as the damage to the surrounding environments where these animals feed makes buying Mohair products detrimental to almost anyone involved in the process of creating these fibers.
If you're wanting to look more closely at animal-made fabrics when shopping for sustainably made pieces, keep these thoughts in mind:
- When looking for Wool pieces made from Sheep, look for the ZQ certification or organically-farmed fibers
- Camel hairs are one of the most friendly animal-based fibers because of the fact that they naturally shed their coats every winter. However, always be sure to ask the same questions about the ethical treatment of animals and farmers when shopping for Camel products
- Avoid buying Alpaca and Mohair products as much as possible. These animal-based fibers are destroying the eco-systems in which they are farmed and the ethical treatment of farmers and herders cannot be substantiated
- When buying Cashmere, do your best to only buy up-cycled or re-cycled fibers as the environment and ethical impacts of this material are too high to ignore
Until next time, stay informed, stay healthy, stay #intheloop!