The 3 Main Fibre Groups Used By The Fashion Industry. Part 1: Natural Fibres.
By Mariana Kirova
Do you really know your clothing? Have you ever thought about your favourite garment in your wardrobe? What fibre it is made from? Maybe that sheer summer blouse is silk?
If you care about your faves like this cutie on the picture does about his blanket, you definitely need to read about the main fibres that fashion industry use for making your clothes.
This first article covers the natural fibres and the popular sustainable alternatives, such as hemp and bamboo. The next part talks over Regenerated fibres, such as rayon, viscose, acetate, lyocell, soya and bamboo viscose. The third part discusses the fast growing group of Synthetics, including fibres like polyester, acrilic, nylon, elastane and spandex.
You can find the truth on the inside of your clothing
Usually on the left inside seam of each garment is the care label. The label caries basic information about the content (what fibre the material is made from) and care instructions (how to wash, dry or do other special care after purchasing) of your garment.
Sometimes placed on the top inside back of the garment, the care label may show the size or other additional information about the fibre, the garment, the fabric or the place where it is designed or made.
I used to cut that label after purchase with no attention to it whatsoever. I did not care what was written there, and hated when that little white material would sometimes scratch my skin, especially in summer. So the only solution for me was to cut it away.
After learning different aspects of fashion such as clothes manufacturing, textile materials, consumer behavior, sustainability and fair trade during my fashion studies, I realized that tiny irritable thing inside my shirt has story to tell. Therefore, with time, I stopped cutting it away (even though I still don’t have a solution if label irritates my skin).
Nowadays the care label is the first thing I look for in a garment. That label can tell you the story about your favourite piece in your wardrobe, where it comes from, how to look after yet mostly what fibre it is made from. The label can make you see your new garment from a very different angle!
Introduction: Fibres, Yarns and Fabrics
Firstly, for clarity sake, a few words should be said about the three stages of creating a fabric. These stages refer to the complex cultivating and manufacturing practices which lead to the mass production of the particular article at each stage. First, a fibre is cultivated then processed into a yarn, which is finally used to create a fabric. Different processes are used in every stage and a huge variety of combinations can be created.
The term ‘fibre’ can be used for animal, vegetable or mineral substances. Fibres exist in a natural form. When they are artificial (man-made or synthetic), they can be processed into a continues tread or yarn called filament.
A yarn (also thread) is made of individual fibres that have been spun or twisted together in order to create a continuous length of interlocked fibres.
Yarns come in many forms depending on the purpose they are used within the textile and the fashion industry. Thus the different characteristics a yarn may have. The thread you have used for your last sewing project is likely to be a hard spun yarn. Or if you love knitting, you definitely have the soft and fuzzy thick looking soft spun yarn in your stash.
Yarn can easily be made of two different fibres where one fibre is spun into a yarn which forms a core. Such a core spun yarn is the round elastic thread you buy for your sheering projects. Another example is the ‘melange’ effect can be achieved by twisting yarns with different colours, textures and weights.
When natural or artificial fibres have been spun into yarns, a fabric is created. There are three primary techniques for this – weaving, knitting and felting. For instance, your jeans are woven, your hubby’s T-shirt is knitted and the old hat of your grand-grandpa’s is felted.
There is a great variety of techniques for textile manufacturing, each involving complex processes and different type of machinery. When the fabric is constructed it is categorised, for example, as georgette, jersey, chiffon, poplin, crepe and so on (remember that sheer summer blouse? It might be georgette). That relates to how the yearns were woven, knitted or manipulated, but does not tell what fibres have been used.
Additionally, the fabric content (stated on the care label) is defined by the single fibre or the mixture of fibres used at the beginning of the whole process when the yarn is produced. Generally, the clothing industry produces fabrics that are created from the following three groups of fibres – natural, regenerated and synthetic.
Natural fibres were the first fibres used thousands of years ago for constructing fabrics. We can divide these fibres into two groups: protein (animal) and cellulose (plant) fibres. The most common protein based fibres in the clothing industry today are wool and silk. Most common cellulose based fibres are cotton and linen (flax).
Silk is an excretion from the cocoons of the Bombyx mori larvae. This silk worms are cultivated (a result of centuries of selective breeding) and the continuous filament is collected by destroying the moth before it chews its way out of the cocoon.
Some environmentalists and sustainable designers find this process an unethical and the practice unsustainable.
Regardless, this allows the consumer to obtain an incredible luxurious item, a valuable piece to their wardrobe.
Better sustainable option is the wild (Tussah) silk fibre that comes from cultivating silkworms in forest in India. The silkworm cocoon is collected after the moth has emerged naturally, hence this silk is also called peace or vegetarian silk.
Usually the wild silk fabric has a heavyweight loosely woven construction like it is shown on the picture.
Wool fibre is obtained from the fleece of coat of the domestic sheep from different parts of the world and from different breeds. In comparison, all other animal fibres are traded as hair of fur. Less common are: Mohair, from Angora goat in Turkey; Cashmere from Tibetan goat in China; Goat hair and Camel hair mostly from Central Asia; Alpaca (related to Llama animal from South America); Llama, Vicuna from Andean mountains, Peru; Angora from Angora rabbit and Rabbit fur.
Being the most popular single natural fibre today, cotton covers approximately 95% of the world’s natural textile fibre demand. When it comes to clothing, there is a prevailing stereotype that cotton is a “better natural choice” for the people and the environment.
From a sustainable point of view though, the truth is very different. 25% of globally used pesticides, for example, are used for growing cotton. I was blown away when I understood that cultivating 1kg of cotton draws on from 29 000 to 7 000 litres of water with only about 50% of that water being rain-fed (Kate Fletcher, Sustainable Fashion and Textiles. Design Journeys, 2008, p.9)!
A better sustainable alternative is found in organic cotton, which uses less water and pesticides, thus low environmental and human impact. Some fashion brands and designers incorporated well this eco-friendly alternative in their collections. Along with the increased price for its growth and cultivation, the problem with organic cotton comes from the high world demand but very limited supply of this raw material.
With almost no pesticides needed for cultivating, linen is made from the fibre bundles in the stem of the flax plant. Flax fibre is very hygroscopic, absorbing up to 20% of its weight in moisture. Fabrics made from linen are excellent for hot climates, however, they tend to crinkle easily.
Similar to linen, yet lot more better sustainable alternative, is hemp fibre. Hemp plant gives the longest plant fibre (over 2 metres) and is 25 times more durable than cotton.
Well known for thousands of years for making paper, canvas, cloth and building materials, hemp belongs to Cannabis family, but cannot make you “high” as other herbs from the same family. Hemp is the best biomass resource on Earth – 10 tons per acre in approximately four months, according to hempfarm.org. Hemp is the strongest and most durable of all natural textile fibres.
Furthermore, today’s technologies allow manufacturing of fabulous clothing fabric with unbeatable properties. Long hemp fibres can be spun and then woven to make a crisp linen-like fabric.
Hemp fabric breathes well and absorbs moisture. 100% hemp textile has superior 95% UV resistance which makes it attractive material for summer clothing, especially in countries with high UV levels like Australia. Additionally, hemp fibre is naturally resistant to mould, dump, mildew, bacteria, moths and silverfish.
Being a natural fibre, it is fair to include bamboo in this part of the series. However, only a small amount of this mother nature’s material is processed like linen (extracted directly from the bamboo stems). Processed in such a manner, bamboo fibre is stable and has tensile strength, but the end result is coarse and unattractive for fashion use.
Therefore most of bamboo, especially for fashion textiles, is processed differently. This manufacturing process relates more to regenerated fibres and that is why I included bamboo in part two, Regenerated fibres too. There you can read more about that amazing natural fibre along with others who’s raw material is cellulose.
Derived from the woody bamboo grass, bamboo fabric looks like cotton, but it is softer and has a natural sheen. Sometimes called “cashmere from plants”, bamboo fabrics are highly breathable and absorbent, very soft, and have excellent drape and natural antibacterial resistance.
Because Australia is far from everywhere else in the world, there is little local textile production in Australia, and because of the low demand none in Western Australia. Thus the materials offered from textile retailers here are expensive or the choice is very limited. In such “remote” kind of circumstance, a good online source makes it even more precious where quality sustainable fabric can be purchased at a reasonable price.
I have two favourite Australian online stores for hemp and bamboo fabrics. If you live somewhere else of course (which is highly possible) especially in a big city, you probably have a much better choice. Just look around and do some research and you might be happily surprised when you find your own gem. If not, you always have the online option where you can purchase from wherever you like from around the world.
Hemp Wholesale Australia, located in Western Australia, is the first place I understand of that offers unusual eco-friendly fabric choice. I was still studying Fashion Design here in Perth WA and a colleague of mine told me about the wholesaler. From then this is my favourite place to buy from.
They have great range of sustainable fashion fabrics like hemp, organic cotton, silk and their blends. I love when they have sale of end roles and leftover fabric which sometimes mean up to 50 – 60% off of the RRP!
They operate as a wholesaler, but you can make an inquiry for your nearest retailer or other available options to buy fabrics they have. Just go to their website and fill in their retail inquiry form and ask according your need of eco material.
Hemp WA customer service is fabulous and communication always happens within hours! However do not forget the time difference, if you are in another time zone other than Western Australia (+8 hours GMT, check this world time clock. Many of my eco-fabrics that I use come from there – usually as an addition to other upcycled clothes or materials that I use.
Another place I purchase eco-friendly materials is Bamboo Fabric Store. This family owned business is located on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia.
Amongst linen, towels, some bamboo clothing and baby nappies, they store amazing bamboo fashion fabrics. I have never felt softer knit fabric like this! Bamboo Fabric Store offers different sustainable fibre types such as bamboo, hemp, organic cotton and their blends.
Variety of colours and fabric types – knits, wovens, terry, velour and more – are offered in diverse range of fabric weights (GSM, grams per square metre). Bamboo Fabric Store is a serious business with amazing customer service. It was a real pleasure to find these quality eco-materials available for retail or wholesale purchase. I have to add, I am not in any way affiliate with these businesses. I just admire them for their choice of business and for making sustainable fabrics more accessible.
There are some other eco-friendly textile fibres, such as banana fibre, silver, corn fibre, or even nettles. However, those fabrics are not mass produced, therefore not easy to find, let alone textile retail stores.
We only can hope that the industry demand of sustainable textiles will increase and we’ll be offered a lot more eco-friendly alternatives in the near future.
What about till then though?
If you think about it, we all make our tiny impact with every purchase we make. Today. Therefore with time we all can make a difference.
So what if you use second hand materials and clothes for your sewing projects? In this post context, does “natural fibre” mean “the best” indeed? The answer is simple: “Yes, of course”. Mainly because of the following.
Slowly, with time natural fibres are naturally degrading, therefore you do not need to worry if your last upcycled experiment ends up in the bin (not that I’m recommending it, there’s always a way to re-use it;). Yes, it is not the best option for making use of Earths resources, however, it will not add to the landfills with another non-degradable item.
I am curious. Now that you know what is behind cotton, linen or bamboo labels in your wardrobe, can you say which is your favourite natural fibre?
I have two. The first is hemp, the best UV fabric protection, excellent choice for sustainable woven fabric. And bamboo is the second. This eco-friendly usually knit fabric can be used in so many projects including lingerie, underwear, summer wear, baby clothing, or those that require excellent drape properties of the material.
I cannot wait to hear about your faves! Even more, if you already have a good online supplier for sustainable fabrics, I am really interested in who is it and why you chose them! You can let me know in the comments below. Thanks for sharing!