A new crop of natural fabrics are hitting the fashion scene. Some materials are new to the fashion world, such as soy, bamboo and hemp. Others have been around for years, but you may not have known they were natural, like ramie, rayon and modal. While others have been used throughout human history such as, cotton, wool, linen and leather.
These fibers are breathable, comfortable and feel beautiful on your skin. Many of the plant-based fibers even have natural sunscreen, anti-bacterial and anti-static properties. Here is a snap shot of these natural fabrics the their green (and not so green) aspects.
Soy fabric is made from proteins that are extracted from oil pressings and tofu whey. Soy is called “vegetarian cashmere” because it is soft, warm and tends to fuzz. It breathes even better than cotton. Soy works well for sweaters, underwear and socks. Soy fabric cannot withstand high heat.
Soy plants are grown without pesticides and the production of soy fibers turns a material that would otherwise be waste into a useable resource.
Bamboo cloth is made from fine, fibrous material inside bamboo stalks. Bamboo fabric is soft, absorbs perspiration, dries quickly and contains a natural antibacterial agent that fights odor and resists mold and mildew. Bamboo fabric works well for intimate garments that need to breath, like work-out wear, underwear, socks, t-shirts, pajamas, bath robes, towels and bed linens. Note, bamboo shrinks on the first washing and has a tendency to pill.
Bamboo is the world’s fastest growing plant with a quick cultivation cycle and it’s fabric is biodegradable, recyclable, renewable. Note, bamboo viscose fabric is not the same as bamboo fabric. Bamboo viscose is made from bamboo pulp and uses chemical-intensive processing methods.
Hemp, Linen and Ramie
Linen (flax), hemp (the marijuana plant) and ramie (a member of the nettle family) are made from plant stalks. Fabrics made from these fibers are smooth, lint-free and wrinkle easily. They “breathe,” so they are cool in warm weather and warm in cool weather. These fabrics work well for general apparel (jeans, dresses, jackets), accessories (handbags, hats, belts, scarves) and shoes.
Hemp is naturally insect resistant, so it grows without any insecticides or herbicides. Flax is weaker than most weeds and needs herbicides for conventional cultivation. Organic flax is cultivated with sustainable farming practices and is more eco-friendly than conventional varieties. Conventional processing of flax and hemp plants generates lots of wastewater while organic varieties are processed while the stalks are still the fields using the natural dew.
Ramie is fast growing and can be harvested two to six times a year. Processing ramie fibers is chemical intensive.
Cotton fabric is made from the fibers that surround the cottonseed pod. Cotton is soft and comfortable when worn next to the skin and cooling to the body in hot weather. Unlike conventional cotton, organic cotton retains its natural wax, so most weaves drape beautifully and softly reflect and absorb light. Cotton works well for any clothing worn close to the body, such as underwear, sleepwear and general apparel (jeans, shirts, skirts, dresses, etc.)
Conventional cotton uses more chemical pesticides and fertilizers than any other crop. Organic cotton on the other hand, relies on sustainable farming practices to lessen impact to the ecosystem.
Wool is made by shearing the thick winter coats of animals such as sheep, goats, rabbits, alpacas and llamas. It is also recovered from the hides of animals used for food and leather. Wool is flame resistant, warm, breathable and absorb moisture without feeling damp. It work well for coats, sweaters, mittens, scarves and fine tailored garments, such as suit jackets, pants, skirts and dresses.
Wools can be a renewable resource in cases where the coats re-grow each year in animals that survive the harvest. Typically, wool fabrics are dry-cleaned using chemical solvents. Wool knits can be hand washed gently in cold water and laid flat to dry.
Silk fibers are collected by unraveling the cocoons made by silkworms. Silk is soft, delicate, lustrous, absorbs moisture and is comfortable in all seasons. Silk is very versatile and is great for evening wear, daywear and underwear.
In conventional silk production, the silkworm is killed before it emerges from the cocoon to preserve the single long fiber that is used to make the finest silk fabric. In the production of “peace” or “vegetarian” silk, the worm is allowed to emerge from the cocoon and continue it’s life cycle. This type of silk isn’t as strong because the silk fiber is cut when the worm creates a hole in the cocoon to hatch. Typically, silk fabrics are dry-cleaned using chemical solvents. However, they can be hand washed gently in cold water and laid flat to dry.
Rayon (Viscose, Modal and TencelTM)
Rayon is made from tree cellulose. It is lustrous and breathes well. Viscose rayon is silky and drapes well. Modal rayon is smooth, soft and absorbs 50-percent more moisture than cotton. Tencel rayon stretches, dries quickly and has a peached (suede-like) texture. Rayon fabrics wrinkle easily and shouldn’t be wrung or twisted. They works well for evening wear, business wear, lingerie and knits.
Rayons are made from trees. However, chemicals are used to process the tree cellulose and convert it to fibers. TencelTM is the more eco-friendly form of rayon. Trees are cultivated and harvested using sustainable forestry practices and the cellulose is processed in a closed-loop system reclaiming and reusing the chemical and wastewater components. Most rayon should be dry cleaned. Some Modal and TencelTM knits can be hand washed and air dried flat.
Leather is made from the skins of various animals and reptiles. It can be delicate and soft or stiff and durable. It works well for shoes, bags, gloves, and clothing such as coats, jackets, pants and skirts.
Conventional leather is made using chemicals such as heavy metals, acids and organic solvents to tan (remove hair and preserve) the skins. Eco-leather is made from hides tanned using vegetable products. Organic leather is made by vegetable tanning hides of animals that were raised organically. The animals do not survive, no matter what tanning process is used.
How Green Is Green?
The sustainability and impact puzzle is complex. There are lots of groups that will tell you what green “really” is. In truth, it’s up to you to decide how you want to define “green.” You can consider the source of the material – is the fabric made from chemicals, plants or animals. Or you can consider all or part of the life cycle: cultivation and harvest of the base material, fiber processing and dying, energy used for transportation to market, cleaning and care after the material is made into a garment, use-life and final disposal of the material.