Like comparing Apples and Oranges.
This post last from a couple of weeks ago looked at some of the benefits of natural fibres over synthetics. But to be conscious consumers we need to have the full story about what it is that makes a natural, semi-synthetic and synthetic fibre what it is! Otherwise when we shop for something like new sheets (or whatever else we might be shopping for) we will resort back to price, handle, and aesthetics for decision making and fail to assess the very thing that makes a set of sheets comfortable: fibre composition! Side by side a set of polyester blend white sheets and 100% linen ones might look the same but they are as different as apples and oranges when it comes to comfort of end use. Let’s have a quick crash course in fibre type to see why this is so.
The natural fibre group come from natural sources, like plants or animals. They are breathable and biodegradable (depending on treatments applied) which generally results in a more comfortable to wear (this is determined by how the materials have been woven and the end finish of the garment) The natural fibre group includes (but is not limited to):
- Wool (which can come from a variety of animals… the most common being the merino sheep)
Natural fibres can either be organic, or traditionally processed. As mentioned in the post last month, traditional cotton can be quite an environmental and health issue due to it’s heavy usage of pesticides, herbicides, and water. Buying organic cotton reduces the impact of of your purchase in regards to pesticides and herbicides however the item you buy still requires energy, land and water to get to your home. Linen, hemp, and silk are all great natural fibre alternatives to cotton as they require less chemicals (and in some cases land and water) for production. However they aren’t as readily available and silk may not appeal to the vegan market (however you can buy cruelty free silk for those who are ok with using animal items but don’t want worms dying for their dress). Wool is another contentious fabric for some as it is made from an animal product. For those who aren’t vegan but do like to buy the most humane animal products on the market there is the option of mulesing free wool. Leather is a very difficult one as it is the skin of an animal. However it’s very durable, and when processed using vegetable tanning processes can be a long lasting and quality purchase for those who feel ok with wearing animal skin. There are very few alternatives to real leather that aren’t incredibly environmentally damaging (synthetic leathers are landfill nightmares) but cork leather is one option to keep an eye out for!
These guys are the weird hybrids that transition from natural to man made! The great thing about the semi-synthetic group is that the fibres can mimic the positive properties of many natural fabrics. Viscose, rayon, bamboo, model, tencel (to name a few) are all breathable fabrics with a lovely handle and drape. The image above shows a (second-hand) rayon kaftan that I own that is not only cool and comfy to wear, but it also has the drape of silk. These type of fabrics come from the cellulous fibres of plants (the woody bits of plants) that are dissolved using chemical processes, an then pushed through a spinneret to make the fine filaments used for fabrics. Depending on whether or not the factory uses a closed or open loop system, and the source of the cellulose semi-synthetic fabrics can be good or evil alternative. Open systems can use lots of water and create chemical pollution in the environmental flows. Bamboo can be a great fibre if produced in a close loop system (meaning that all the chemicals and water are treated and recirculated) as it is fast growing, requires little-to-no pesticides or herbicides and is super soft and breathable. Some issues with these types of fibres is that they can experience shrinkage and sometimes don’t have the longevity of other natural alternatives.
Synthetic fibres will outlive you. The raw ingredients for these fibres come from the petrochemical and crude oil industry. The synthetic fibre group includes:
- PVC based Faux/Vegan leathers
Polyester, one of the most common forms of synthetic fibres, is the same stuff they use to make plastic drinking bottles and packaging for your lunchtime sushi. There is a benefit in this as the fabric industry have started to harness the recycling ethos and are now making polyester clothing from materials like recycled bottle and fishing line. Synthetic clothing is VERY long lasting, durable, dry quickly, and usually requires little to no-ironing. You will often find that many vintage items (like the dress above) are made from polyester as it was a ‘miracle fibre’ of the time and as it doesn’t decompose like cotton, it has performed well over the decades and keeps on keeping on! It can have a beautiful drape and handle (some synthetics now mimic silk so well that it’s difficult to spot the difference) but they fail to mimic the breathability of a natural fibre. For those that live in cool climates, synthetic fibres may wear well as they will trap heat against your body and can dry fast on the coldest of days. However, as there is no ecological sound way to dispose of synthetic materials, consumption of these should be kept to a minimum.
I hope you have enjoyed this very brief overview of fabrics. Obviously this isn’t an in-depth analysis and your preferences will be dictated by your personal shopping values. If you have a fave fabric you love to gab about or anything that sprung to mind while reading please share it below.