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What's my clothing made of? A guide to sustainable textiles you should know about

All clothing manufacturing starts with sourcing fabrics and yes, we can choose great fabrics and not so great fabrics. Each textile has its own unique properties that make it the ideal choice for making a garment such as price, availability, durability and ability to take the shape of the garment well. 

Textiles are either man-made, natural or blended and below I'll discuss some basics you should know about sustainable and not so sustainable fabrics.

1. Organic Cotton

Organic cotton is cotton that is produced and certified to organic agricultural standards. Its production sustains the health of soils, ecosystems and people by using natural processes. Importantly organic cotton farming does not allow the use of toxic chemicals or GMOs (genetically modified organisms). Organic cotton is 80% rain-fed, which reduces pressure on local water sources. The absence of chemicals also means that water is cleaner and safer. Cotton is often grown in water-scarce areas using irrigation and it takes 2,700 liters of water to make a conventional cotton t-shirt. Regular cotton is one of the most pesticide heavy and water intensive crops to grow. Even though conventional cotton is more sustainable than other fabrics because it is a natural fiber it does not grow without environmental and social impact. Cotton decomposes within a month to 5 months.

2. Peace Silk

This silk is made from the silkworm cocoon once the fully grown moth has abandoned it. No worms or moths are harmed or exploited in the process, and Peace Silk is wild harvested rather than farmed. Traditional silk is not vegan and although it is a sustainable and biodegradable option, peace silk also called Ahimsa Silk might be a better option.

3. Lyocell/Modal

Lyocell and modal are fibers manufactured from wood pulp. These use chemicals in the production but are free from harmful solvents, and the processes are closed-loop (meaning that the chemicals are captured and reused over and over again). It is important that the wood pulp came from a sustainable source. Chinese and Indonesian modal are driving rainforest destruction in Indonesia. Tencel is a certified form of lyocell that is guaranteed to be made from sustainable wood pulp. Bamboo lyocell is also a wonderful sustainable option because bamboo is a very sustainable crop. However, most bamboo fabric on the market is bamboo viscose. Viscose is another way of converting wood pulp into textile, but it uses harmful solvents and the chemicals are not captured and reused. Viscose (bamboo or rayon) is not sustainable and is best avoided.

4. Hemp

Hemp is plant-based fibre with many environmental benefits. It can be grown on marginal land, so it does not take productive land away from food crops. Hemp is  soft and is grown from the cannabis plant. 

"Separation of hurd and bast fiber is known as decortication. Traditionally, hemp stalks would be water-retted first before the fibers were beaten off the inner hurd by hand, a process known as scutching. As mechanical technology evolved, separating the fiber from the core was accomplished by crushing rollers and brush rollers, or by hammer-milling, wherein a mechanical hammer mechanism beats the hemp against a screen until hurd, smaller bast fibers, and dust fall through the screen." - Wikipedia

5. Linen

Linen comes from the fibrous flax plant.  Think of a giant asparagus.  The fibers are inside the stalk.  Getting the fibers out of the stalk requires a lot of labor and these fibers tend to be wavy.  Linen lends itself to a basket weave because of this and linen is cool and comfortable. It is a summer fabric and was the fabric of choice from ancient times forward in Egypt. Originally bedding was made of linen - that's why we say bed linens.

Today, Russia is the biggest producer of flax but France and Belgium are considered to have the best quality crops. There is a lot less fax produced than cotton. We no longer produce flax in any quantity in the U.S. so it is imported.  a lot of work has gone into using flax yarns and blending them to make a more desirable fabric. Dry cleaning is better to get a sharp look for linen garments.

6. Recycled/Up-cycled Polyester

Conventional synthetics fabrics are very harmful to the environment, but you can increasingly find recycled options which take the fabric waste from factories or old garments from consumers and recycled them into new textiles. Up-cycling, also known as creative reuse, is the process of transforming by-products, waste materials, useless, or unwanted products into new materials or products of better quality or for better environmental value. If we couldn't recycle or up-cycle polyester and nylon these textiles would be in our landfills releasing toxic chemicals into the soil., not to mention the degradation time in insane for the quantities that are consumed globally.

7. Wool

Wool comes from animals, most commonly sheep fleece. Camel hair is also used and other types of animal hair like cashmere (goats), mohair, alpaca and vicuna. Australia is the key resource for wool, followed by New Zealand and then China.

The animal is given a haircut  depending on how long the fiber has to be. Because the hair is curly - the weave has air pockets and the resulting cloth is very breathable and yet insulating.  Wool is warm and has long been thought of as a winter cloth. Actually, wool can be worn throughout the year. It all depends on the weight of the yarns. It dyes well and is great for weather wear because of its insulation properties.

 

Knowing which textiles to use is very powerful in building a lasting and sustainable wardrobe. As time goes by and more demand for better fabrics becomes a concern for consumers, technology advances. We even have vegan vegetable leather to choose from such as cork leather and pineapple leather.

At Vi.Ve Apparel I pride myself in choosing sustainable fabrics for every garment. What is your favorite fabric to use and why? What fabrics are in your closet? Would love to know!


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