For about 6 years now I have chosen to use GOTS organic cotton when producing my clothing, but to be honest, I have never fully understood the myriad of fabric options available. What is good, what is bad, what to believe and what is just greenwashing. After looking at a tag the other day with 100% Tencel listed as the composition and googling the pluses and minuses of this new player in the market, I decided perhaps a blog post was in order – after all, if I am lost, perhaps other are too. So here it is, my round up, of a number of the most common fabrics we see used in our clothing today. I have tried to explain what each is, as well as the benefits and downsides to each. Please be kind to me – this is not an exhaustive list nor is it super heavily researched, so if you have anything you feel I have completely gotten wrong, or anything I have missed, please let me know so I can look into it and learn a little something myself!
Also, please excuse the length of this post. Once I had written up the pros and cons of each fabric, it became hard to keep it brief but I hope you get as much out of reading it as I did out of writing it. My aim is that it will sit here and be something you can refer back to if you are looking at a label and trying to make sense out of the materials.
Finally, I hope you learn a little something if you make it to the end of this list. I know I certainly have. I have learnt that there are definite goods and definite bads but mostly there is just an awful lot of grey in between. The best thing we can do is be aware of what we are buying, research before we click “Checkout” and at the end of the day try to consume less. Be informed, buy good quality, make our things last, and live with a few less things in our wardrobe.
I figured I might as well kick off with good old polyester, because lets face it. I think most of us would find half of our wardrobes are made up of this fibre. Although perhaps I should not call it a fibre? Essentially polyester is a type of man made plastic. It breaks down (or does not break down), and breathes (or doesn’t breath), the same way any plastic does – basically not much at all.
There are many reasons why so many makers choose to use polyester – it is very durable, strong but lightweight, it dyes very well, it does not wrinkle, it is very easy to look after, wash and clean and it holds its shape very well. There is also a lot of progress being made with recycling plastic bottles into polyester fabric, so in that regard, it is giving plastics a new life as opposed to consuming new resources which all other fabrics do.
The down side
Imagine wearing a plastic bag? You would sweat a lot, your skin would not breath, and the bag would not absorb any of the moisture your body made – it just stays on your skin. The same kind of thing happens with polyester. Our skin cannot breathe, we stay feeling sweaty and people with sensitive skin find they can often react badly to polyester clothing. Then there is the environmental concern of adding more plastic into our world. Like any plastic, polyester takes hundreds of years to break down. When washed, small micro plastics go down the drain and end up in our oceans. Just like we are learning to say no to plastic bags, we need to rethink polyester clothing in the same way!
Cotton is a natural fibre made from the soft fluffy ball that grows around the seeds on a cotton plant. This fibre is spun into yarn to make a natural and breathable fabric which is the most widely used around the world.
Unlike polyester, cotton is a natural material made entirely of plant fibers. It is breathable and it absorbs moisture away from our bodies making it ideal for climates all around the world. Because it is made from plant based fibers it is completely biodegradable, which basically means if you put it in your compost pile it will break down (in 1-5 months). It is also easily recycled into many other products such as different fabrics, roofing insulation and high quality paper. Although it is not common, cotton is also a crop which is relatively easy to grow organically. Cotton is also a crop which is easy to grow organically, negating many of the down sides mentioned below.
The down side
Cotton is an extremely resource intense crop in terms of the amount of water and chemicals used in its production. It can take up to 20,000 litres of water to grow 1kg of cotton which is enough cotton to make just 1 t-shirt. It is worth mentioning here that different countries have different efficiencies when it comes to their water use when growing cotton, and in the last 10 years Australia has improved its water efficiency by 40% and in the U.S. it takes 8000L of water to produce 1kg of cotton – far less than average. Still 8000L of water for a t shirt seems like a lot!
In terms of chemical use, approximately 24% of global insecticides and 11% of global pesticides are used to grow conventional cotton. Whilst organic cotton does not use these chemicals and is also more water efficient, currently, only 1% of the worlds cotton is produced organically.
Whilst the following is only relative to organic cotton, it is still a down side worth mentioning. Many of the world’s oldest cultures have been producing cotton organically for thousands of years however the process of becoming certified as an organic producer is a laborious and expensive one. This concept of “certification”, which allows us to know that the cotton we are buying is in fact produced without chemicals, is a Western construct which excludes many of the poorest people in the world from participating in a system for which they have thousands of years of knowledge and expertise.
Bamboo is another plant based fibre which has become extremely popular in the last 10 years (particularly for baby clothing and underwear), largely due to its beautiful soft feel. Interestingly I have now read a number of times that bamboo is considered a semi synthetic fibre in that it has a natural source but it requires intensive processing to turn it into a fibre. I think I will have to look into this all a little more!
Bamboo has been touted for the last 10 years as the new “sustainable” fabric. This reputation is mostly courtesy of the production of the bamboo plant, which grows very quickly and requires little or no chemical inputs. Once harvested, the bamboo can be regrown to harvest point again in just a year and some species can grow up to 1m per day! It also uses far less water than cotton and is 100% biodegradable. All of these factors speak wonders about the sustainability of the bamboo plant but we are interested in the fabric…………
The down side
The down side of bamboo as a fabric is that while little or no chemicals are required to grow it, the breaking down of such a tough and fibrous plant into fibres that are spun and woven into such a soft fabric are hugely chemically intensive. Which kind of makes sense when you think of how tough a bamboo plant is and how soft the fabric is – there must be a lot that goes on between these two stages!
There have also been some recent studies which have questioned the UV protection provided by Bamboo clothing, with evidence pointing to most damaging UV rays pass straight through the bamboo fabric and onto the skin.
Tencel is a relatively new player on the block and to date, I have seen it used mostly in women’s clothes, not so much babies or children. Tencel is technically a Brand name for a fibre called Lyocell (think Biscuit Vs Tim Tam). Like bamboo is it produced from a plant pulp – in this case Eucalyptus trees – however the main difference is, Tencel has a very transparent supply chain. Presumably this is a result of it being manufactured by 1 company (again imagine trying to follow the process of how all biscuits in the world are made as opposed to just following the production of Tim Tams). Also like bamboo, Tencel is considered a semi synthetic fibre in that it requires significant processing to break the fibres down into a material that can be used as fabric.
Tencel is created from farmed Eucalyptus trees, which are grown without the use of chemicals or any genetic modification. The farms have earned forest stewardship council certification that the fabric comes from socially and environmentally responsible farms.
Farming aside, the other big plus for Tencel is that the process used to turn eucalyptus pulp into fibres which can be spun and woven into fabric, uses non toxic chemicals. These fibres are produced from the pulp in what we call a closed loop system, which essentially means that all of the resources – water, and non toxic chemicals - that are used to turn pulp to fabric are recaptured and recycled and can be used in the same process over and over again, essentially meaning that this process is entirely waste free.
The fabric itself is soft, strong, absorbant and does not wrinkle. It is very often blended with other natural fibres such as cotton, hemp and wool.
The down side
So far, I have not been able to find any down sides to Tencel! If anyone has any other information, please let me know and I can look into it!
Wool fabric is produced from the wool sheared most often from a sheep’s fleece. It can also come from goats, camels, rabbits or alpacas, but generally this will be specified. When talking about just “Wool”, it is sheep wool we are talking about.
Wool fibre is completely natural and biodegradable, breaking down back into the earth in several years depending on the weight and composition. Each of Australia’s 71 million sheep (not to mention those from other parts of the world), grow a new coat each year, making it a renewable resource.
Wool is an extremely soft and gentle fabric to wear and is an active fibre meaning it reacts to your body temperature – keeping you cool in summer and warm in winter. It is extremely breathable for your skin and has natural elasticity which means it holds its shape well. It is fire resistant, UV resistant and odour resistant.
The down side
Much like the growth of many crops, the farming of sheep also uses pesticides and chemical, in this case to keep pests out of the sheep’s wool. Often the entire sheep is “dipped” into a bath of chemicals to coat the wool or injected with a pesticide to deter parasites. These chemicals can often end up in waterways causing further environmental problems, not to mention that they are retained on the fibres which we wear next to our skin. There is a market appearing for organic wool produced using no pesticides, however at the moment this is produced in very small amounts.
The raising of livestock also has a massive detrimental effects on the green house gas emissions of a country. For example in NZ, sheep farming accounts for 90% of the countries green house gas emissions. Large scale sheep production is also linked to decreases in soil quality and and contributes greatly to soil erosion and desertification.
Linen is a fabric woven from the fibres of the flax plant. Dyed flax fibres have been found in caves in Georgia and dated to 36,000 years ago so it appears highly likely it has a long long history of fabric creation.
Linen is the strongest fibre in the world. It is thicker than cotton and is extremely durable and long lasting. Linen absorbs moisture from your body in much the same way as cotton. It is a natural insulator. Linen is also thought to resist micro organisms and be more tolerable for those with skin conditions and allergies.
Environmentally, linen requires very little energy to grow. It uses less pesticides and fertilisers than cotton and needs much less water and is generally a very easy crop to grown
The down side
Although linen requires little input to grow it is quite a laborious process to turn it from plant to fabric. This is reflected in the higher price of linen fabric. To be honest I could not find many cons for linen production. There was a small piece about potential water pollution as a result of processing fibre to fabric but it was not something I was able to find a lot of information on. Iinen also makes up just 1% of the worlds fibre production which I would assume also means it is studied far less than other fabrics in terms of the pros and cons?
Hemp fabric is made from the fibres of the hemp plant. It is very often blended with the fibres of other plants to make it softer and more wearable whist still retaining the strength of the hemp fibres giving you longer lasting garments.
Hemp is a lightweight, extremely durable fabric which is also mould resistant and three times as strong as cotton. Hemp is a very easy to grow crop across many regions of the world. It is naturally resistant to many insect species and does not require chemical inputs to deter pests. It also requires very little water. All of these properties make it a very easy and cheap crop to cultivate. It is also a very fast growing crop and can be cultivated up to three times a year making it one of the most renewable resources.
The down side
Some people find that their hemp clothing is very quick to wrinkle which I guess could be seen as a con, however it should be noted that this is because it is often used in organic fabrics which means it is not treated with the anti wrinkle chemicals, that other clothes can have added.
As I have written this post I have realised one thing – it is not fair to make sweeping statements. Like any production industry there are always exceptions and examples of people doing things really well. The unfortunate part of this, is that often the product created by people doing things well get mixed in with the product farmed or made by other people who are not doing things so well. Take Australia's cotton for example. As was explained to me, it is very very difficult to buy cotton that you know is “Australian grown” for the simple reason that we do not spin yarn here in Australia anymore. So any cotton that is grown here is sent overseas to be spun into yarn and in this process is mixed in with cotton from all over the world. The yarn that is then sent back here for knitting into fabric will most likely contain Australian cotton along side cotton from many parts of the world.
My key take away – research what you are going to buy. Even though the items we buy are (hopefully) natural fibers and will biodegrade, this does not discount the amount of resources that went into making the product initially. Buy less and wear if for longer. If every t-shirt you buy uses 20,000 litres of water, then buying a few less t-shirts a year actually makes a massive difference, especially if we all do that each and every year.