Whether you have just started learning about the ecological impact of your clothing choices, or are at the point of scrutinizing every label when you go shopping (or, like me, decided to start hand-making your own entirely sustainable wardrobe), you’ve probably heard about fabric classification, and you’ve probably heard that there exist three main classifications for materials that make up a fabric:
- natural: a pretty intuitive definition, these materials come from plants or animals. They do not require chemicals to turn them into fibers, though chemicals can be used in the dyeing process and to soften the fibers. Note: “natural” is not synonymous with “ethical.” Example: commercially-produced wool.
- synthetic: these materials come from chemical reactions and would never occur in nature. Polyester, for example, is made from a chemical reaction of coal and petroleum. Doesn’t that just sound…comfy?
- semi-synthetic: these fabrics are made from plant material that needs to be chemically altered a bit before it is turned into yarn and then fabric.
These classifications are important to understand because they help us truly grasp the far-reaching impact that the fabric we are wearing had before it ever got into our hands. Check out page 6 for a bar graph of the environmental impact of clothing before we purchase it vs. after. Quite a lot has happened to the environment before we even wear a garment for the first time. And unfortunately, if the garment is made of a synthetic material, it will be poisoning water, air, and soil for the rest of our lifetime.
Some people think that natural fibers are the only way to be sustainable, and they might be right. But I, for one, am pretty interested in the innovations of some semi-synthetic fibers just because of the diversity they bring to the table. The newer ones like Modal and Tencel, are not nearly as energy intensive as the most common plant-based fiber: cotton. These semi-synthetics are biodegradable, and can usually be dyed very easily. And, they are exceptionally soft.
Here are 7 fibers to consider when purchasing clothing or fabric. Some of these fabrics are natural, and some are semi-synthetic, but all of them are plant-based. And, have a smaller water footprint than cotton.
1. Cupro: Derived from the waste of cotton plants after the fluffy cotton has been extracted. This fiber goes through a chemical process before it is made into yarn for fabric, making it a semi-synthetic fabric. I have not yet owned an item made of cupro, but it’s cousin Tencel (another semi-synthetic fabric) is very comfortable and breathes wonderfully.
2. Modal: Now there is a debate on the sustainability of modal, but the reason for this is that there are two types of modal: Modal (capital “m”) that is trademarked by Lenzing, and then there is modal that is produced and marketed as being exactly the same thing even though it isn’t produced by Lenzing. The difference? Lenzing is transparent about their manufacturing whereas it is very difficult to trace the processing of a fabric labeled simply as “modal”. It may be eco-friendly, it might not be. But I personally love Modal when it’s blended with supima cotton, so I’m not opposed to taking a little risk by purchasing that blend even with an untraceable modal.
3. Tencel vs. Lyocell : So Tencel is much like Modal. It is a semi-synthetic, very soft and breathable, and is produced by Lenzing, who claims to have a nearly 100% closed-loop processing for it. If a garment is labeled as being made of lyocell (the non-brand name of Tencel), however, then it might have been produced in a less sustainable way. I have found that Tencel actually feels different than lyocell, and the reason is probably that it was made from the pulp of of entirely different tree.
4. Linen : One of the very first fabrics mankind used. This fiber comes from the flax plant and does not retain heat- making it especially great to keep you cool while you sleep. I can testify from personal experience that it really does! Linen is also a totally natural fiber and stronger than cotton. It also dyes very easily.
5. Banana silk : Like cupro, this fiber is made from plant waste from another industry- in this case, the banana industry. Unlike cupro, it is actually a totally natural fiber so it isn’t chemically altered before it can be spun into yarn for fabric. It is supposed to be a vegan silk-alternative, and from the pictures, it looks just as soft as traditional silk. I haven’t tried this one yet but it’s next on the list!
6. Hemp: Derived from the hemp plant, and therefore an entirely natural fiber, it uses much less water and land to grow. It’s lovely to sew with and crochet with- I am currently working on a pair of socks made with a hemp and modal blend yarn 🙂 It’s stronger than cotton, and has many applications outside of clothing as well: hemp milk, hemp plastics, rope, and much more.
7. Ramie: The last fiber on my list is very similar to linen. It is a natural fiber made from grass, it helps keep you cool, and it dyes easily which cuts down on the risk of water waste during it’s manufacturing. It’s a bit itchy, from my experience, but it does soften over time. What I like about it is that I can wear it in any season, much like linen.
And that wraps up my list of cool plant-based fabrics! 🙂 Have you tried any of these yet- either wearing them or sewing with them? What fabric is your favorite to wear?