When I set out to write this guide, I wanted to give you guys a ranked list of the most sustainable fabrics we should be purchasing. I wanted to make it easy and straightforward, I really did. But it's not that simple. there are just so many fabrics out there, and each fabric has a complex history and current story of production.
The list below is in no way meant to be an exhaustive analysis of what is a “good” or “bad” fabric. It’s designed to help you start thinking about the basics; understand what that word on your t-shirt tag is and what it’s taken to produce the fabric (like thousands of caterpillars spinning miles of silk thread to make their cocoons).
The bottom line is – everything we buy has an impact so the fewer items we buy the better. Some impacts are greater than others, and some impacts you’ll care about more than others.
So the adage is true – choose well, buy less, make it last. Where possible, save up for those beautiful garments you love, make you feel happy and will last a long time. That’s a straightforward and meaningful way to ensure you can indulge your passion for style while reducing your environmental and social footprint.
OK - let’s go.
Cotton fabric is soft, absorbent and breathable, making it a popular choice for producing clothing and undergarments worn close to the skin. Cotton keeps the body cool in hot weather and warm in cold weather because it is a good conductor of heat. It also happens to be one of the easiest fabrics to dye due to its natural whiteness and high rate of absorbency.
What is it?
Cotton is the soft, fluffy fibre that grows around the seeds of cotton plants (anything in the Gossypium genus of the Malvaceae family). The fluffy fibre itself is almost pure cellulose, which is the stuff that cell walls in green plants are made out of.
A Brief History
It’s not exactly known how long people have been using cotton but it dates back to at least 7,000 years ago in the archaeological records, making it one of the world’s oldest known fibres. Archaeologists found 5-6,000 year old cotton fabric at Mohenjo Daro, an ancient town in the Indus River Valley of West Pakistan. Cotton fabrics have also been discovered in a cave near Tehuacán, Mexico, dated to around 5800 BC.
Wars have been fought over cotton throughout history. Due to the forced free labour provided by African slaves, it was the leading American export from 1803 to 1937. It remains an incredibly relevant cash crop. About 20 million tons of cotton are produced each year in around 90 countries. China, United States, India, Pakistan, Uzbekistan and West Africa account for over 75% of global production. It is thought that Australia and Egypt produce the highest quality cottons in the world.
Globally, almost half the fibre used to make our clothes and other textiles is cotton.
How it’s made
To make cotton fabric, the cotton fibres (lint) are separated from the seed, then into lengths and eventually spun into yarn that is used to knit or weave fabric. After it is picked, cotton goes through a mechanical separation process known as ginning in which cotton fibre is separated and baled.
These bales are then taken to a textile mill, where they are separated for “carding” where lint is cleaned and straightened. This produces a thin strand called a “silver”. The silver is then spun into yarn, which is used to weave or knit cotton fabric.
Cotton has a significant environmental impact. It can take more than 20,000 litres of water to produce 1kg of cotton: the equivalent of a single t-shirt and a pair of jeans. About 73% of cotton is produced in irrigated fields (where water is drawn from lakes or rivers) and only 27% under rain-fed conditions (where freshwater is provided mainly by rain).
According to WWF unsustainable cotton farming has already been responsible for the destruction of large-scale ecosystems such as the Aral Sea in central Asia and the deteriorating health and livelihoods of people living there.
Around 2.4% of the world’s crop land is planted with cotton but it accounts for 24% of global insecticide sales and 11% of the global pesticides sales. Cotton farming uses more pesticides than any other area of agricultural production. Unsafe use of agricultural chemicals has severe health impacts on workers in the field and on ecosystems that receive excess doses that run-off from farms.
When cotton is grown organically (“organic cotton”) it means crops aren’t treated with pesticides, insecticides or herbicides. When considering the above statistics, the implications for this are huge.
Chemicals like pesticides can poison not only the land, but the farmers themselves. Factory workers too have to breathe in their fumes during the manufacturing process. According to the World Health Organization cases of acute pesticide poisoning (APP) account for significant illness and deaths worldwide, especially in developing countries. They believe pesticide poisoning affects 3 million people and accounts for 20,000 unintentional deaths a year.
Contrary perhaps to instinct, "organic" does not automatically mean "pesticide-free" or "chemical-free". Under US federal law for example, organic farmers are allowed to use a wide variety of chemical sprays and powders on their crops. It does mean though, that these pesticides, if used, must be derived from natural sources, not synthetically manufactured. The thinking is, naturally derived chemicals will be more easily reabsorbed back into the ecosystem and break down more safely.
Most organic farmers use other, non chemical tools to help control pests. These include insect traps, careful crop selection (there are a growing number of disease-resistant varieties), and biological controls such as predator insects and beneficial microorganisms.
Growing organic cotton also means that no GMO’s (genetically modified organisms) are used. As a way to reduce the amount of pesticides and water required to grow cotton, genetically modified varieties have been released to the markets in the past decades.
GM crops can be more resistant to pests and diseases, so fewer chemicals need to be applied to fields growing them. That means less environmental and health hazards.
But there are issues with GM cotton too. A big one is that because the genetic make-up of the seeds are effectively man-made, they can be owned, unlike varieties found in nature. These patent-protected seeds sold by major producers such as Monsanto and DuPont, require poor farmers to sign agreements that create strict limits on how the seed can be used.
Farmers are generally prohibited from saving seeds from their crops to plant the following year so new seeds must be purchased for each planting. What was a free, sustainable resource for poor farmers has been turned into something that could eat into their modest profit margins. Many cotton farmers in countries like India barely manage to cover their costs of production, let alone earn a decent living.
In the last 20 years, nearly 300,000 farmers have taken their own their lives...
Falling into debt traps combined with harvest failures due to poor weather conditions has resulted in a heartbreaking epidemic of farmer suicides across India. In the last 20 years, nearly 300,000 farmers have taken their own their lives by ingesting pesticides or by hanging themselves. Maharashtra state - with 60,000 farmer suicides - tops the list.
This in part, has promoted the launch of the Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI) which released 36 seed varieties including some cotton, all free from the patent restrictions that limit much of the seed commercially available today.
Rayon / Viscose / Modal / Tencel / Lyocell
Viscose and rayon fabrics are made of soft threads, meaning they drape well and feel comfortable to wear. It’s a versatile fiber that has the look and feel of natural fibers like silk, wool and cotton but is slightly more slippery. Viscose specifically looks like silk and feels like cotton.
Although viscose and rayon absorbs moisture well, it breathes and does not insulate body heat, which makes it a good fabric for use in humid and hot locations. It is known however, to have low durability and does not retain it’s appearance well over time. Best to hand-wash it.
It is far cheaper to produce than wool, cotton or silk. It also requires less processing and hence fewer workers. Oh and it's biodegradable.
What it is?
Remember how we said cotton was 90% cellulose (the stuff that plant cell walls are made of)? These fabrics are made from extracting cellulose from plants and then applying solvents. Both rayon and viscose are manufactured in the same process but they differ in materials used. While rayon can be made with cellulose from a variety of plants, viscose is made only from wood pulp or cotton linter.
Whatever the plant material used, the cellulose is dissolved in caustic soda and then pressed between rollers to remove liquid. This makes a product called “white crumb” which is aged and mixed with carbon disulfide to form “yellow crumb”.
The yellow crumb is then dissolved in a caustic solution to form the rayon or viscose, and is left to ripen for a period of time. After ripening, unwanted bubbles and particles are removed and the solution is run through a spinneret – something that looks like a shower head with many holes. Kind of like making spaghetti.
As the strands come out of the spinerett, it lands in a bath of sulfuric acid, resulting in the formation of filaments. These filaments are stretched to straighten the fibres. The fibres are washed to remove all the chemicals (remember, it’s had quite a few chemical baths), and are cut down to produce the staple fibres.
You need significant amounts of plant pulp to make these fabrics. Pulp can come from sustainably produced forests where trees are harvested at the same rate they are planted, and with care taken not to erode or pollute the land. But it can also come from plantations where old forests or rainforests are clear felled to replant with a monoculture.
Rayon can be made from bamboo, which can be grown on land that is not suitable for forestry and doesn’t require much water, pesticides or fertilisers. More on bamboo in Part 2.
Manufacturing viscose uses less water and energy than cotton production, but it generates a considerable amount of pollution due to all of those chemical baths mentioned above.
Cabron disulfide for example, is a neurotoxin for humans – it is extensively absorbed by inhalation, but also through the skin in exposed workers. It can cause nausea, vomiting, dizziness, chest pains, blurred vision and reproductive issues in workers exposed to it. It’s also been linked to increased incidents of lymphatic leukemia. When it leaks into the environment, it’s into the air.
The management of these risks is going to be a function of how tight the health, safety and environmental legislation is in the country in which it's being produced. Writing this article definitely has me hoping that all the fabric is properly washed before it gets to me though!
Tencel is produced through a closed loop system, in which virtually all of the chemicals are captured and reused, instead of leaching out into the land and water.
Modal and Lyocell (sold as the branded fabric Tencel®) is a pretty sustainable material. Tencel’s wood source is most commonly eucalyptus, which grows quickly without irrigation and doesn’t need chemical pesticides or fertilizers. Eucalyptus can grow on marginal land that isn’t ideal for farming, which means its production doesn’t compete with the production of food.
Tencel is produced through a closed loop system, in which virtually all of the chemicals are captured and reused, instead of leaching out into the land and water.
Viscose production is slowly being replaced by rayon (using the Modal/Lyocell process) due to lower environmental costs associated with it's manufacture. The Modal and Lyocell processes uses an organic compound called N-Methylmorpholine N-oxide as the solvent (instead of carbon disulphide) and produces little waste product.
Linen feels smooth and cool to the touch, and is known for staying lint free. Linen is a very durable, strong fabric; the fibers don’t stretch so it keeps its shape beautifully. It’s pretty easy to take care of too because it’s resistant to stains and can be dry cleaned, machine-washed or steamed. It does well in high temperatures, so less chance your beautiful new dress will shrink in the wash.
Linen gets softer the more it’s washed, but you have to be careful about folding it in the same place too much because it can break the linen threads. It has low elasticity and therefore wrinkles easily, so hanging garments can be a good option (also the best way to dry linen garments)
What is it?
Linen is a textile made from flax fibers.
a Brief History
Linen's had an even longer run than cotton in terms of human use. Dyed flax fibers have been found in a cave in Georgia dating to 36,000 years ago! Flax was domesticated and woven into linen in ancient Mesopotamia (roughly: Iraq, Kuwait, Syria and Turkey) for the wealthy class of society.
The ancient Egyptians wrapped mummies in linen. When the tomb pharaoh Ramses II was discovered in 1881, his linen wrapping had been perfectly preserved for over 3000 years.
Flax is pretty common around the world. The ‘flax’ species we have here in NZ - Phormium tenax and Phormium colensoi, known by the Māori names harakeke and wharariki - are quite distinct from the Northern Hemisphere plant known as flax (Linum usitatissimum). Its thought the best quality flax for linen comes from Western Europe and Ukraine.
How is it made?
The long stringy fibers are removed from the plant through a process called retting. This is where bacteria are used to decompose the chemicals that bind the fibers together. When this natural method is used, it takes place in tanks or pools, or outside in a field. Once fibers have been pulled apart and processed, they are spun, woven or knitted into linen textiles.
Linen is considered to be one of the most sustainable crops out there. It doesn’t need much in the way of pesticides or fertilizers (13 times less than potatoes according to the UN), and doesn’t need huge amounts of water.
It can grow on poor soil, meaning it doesn’t need to take land that would otherwise be used to grow food. When it’s untreated, its 100% biodegradable too. Every part of the plant is used; linseed oil (“lin” from "linen") for example, comes from the plant.
It’s an interesting time for hemp and it’s irie cousin, cannabis. Many countries around the world are adjusting their legal stance on both substances as conversations mature around health and environmental benefits of the plant family Cannabis.
Hemp fabric has the look and drape almost of linen, and it blends beautifully with other fabrics. Like linen, it can be prone to wrinkling. It is one of the strongest and most durable natural fibres known (eight times stronger than cotton) and it softens as you wash it. It breathes and insulates really well too, so it’s ideal for hot weather.
a brief History
Hemp has low to no THC – the chemical that makes you high when you smoke weed. It was grown widely around the world including the USA before politicized anti-drug sentiment demonized it in the 1950s. It should never have been made illegal; it’s a brilliant natural, sustainable plant that has no chance of getting you high.
Hemp was the world's largest agricultural crop from 1000 B.C. to the 1800s. Several well-known books, including the Bible and Alice in Wonderland, were printed on hemp paper.
Hemp was the first plant to be domestically cultivated for fiber and food around 8000 B.C. in present-day Turkey. It was harvested in central Asia around 6500 B.C. Several centuries later, China started growing hemp as a crop and later used it in medicine.
By 2700 B.C., the Middle East, Africa, and most of Asia used hemp for fabric, rope, medicine, and food. Hemp was introduced to Europe 400 years later. The oldest surviving piece of paper, a 100% Chinese hemp parchment, was dated to A.D. 770.
Hemp was the world's largest agricultural crop from 1000 B.C. to the 1800s. Several well-known books, including the Bible and Alice in Wonderland, were printed on hemp paper. Thomas Jefferson drafted the United States Declaration of Independence on hemp paper and was himself a hemp farmer.
Today France is the big global producer responsible for more than 70% of the world output. China ranks second with approximately a quarter of the world production. There is smaller production in Europe, Chile and North Korea, but over thirty countries produce industrial hemp today and that number is growing all the time as people chill the ef out about the plant.
How is it made?
Like linen, hemp stalks are cut and then laid out for the retting process. Immediately afterwards while the stems are still wet, the woody core from the stem is removed. The damp fibres are peeled off the core and then dried.
Once the fibres have been separated, they are rolled into bales and spun into the staple fibre. Often, the fibre is spun without further processing; however, some producers have developed chemical or mechanical processes that increase the softness or elasticity of the fibres.
Hemp is about as environmentally sound as it gets. Its naturally pest resistant, doesn’t require herbicides or fungicides and it thrives on less water than most crops (half of what cotton needs).
It can even improve soil quality - hemp was used at Chernobyl to harmlessly extract toxins and pollutants from the soil and groundwater using a process called phyto-remeditation. Hemp is fast growing and absorbs CO2 while it grows, which makes it a climate change champ too.
This is only looking at hemps potential in the fashion industry btw – it’s also got mad potential as an alternative to plastic, construction materials, food, medicine and biofuel. Free the weed baby!
Silk is smooth to the touch, drapes beautifully and feels amazing on the skin. It is one of the strongest natural fibers, but it loses up to 20% of its strength when wet. It has moderate to poor elasticity: if elongated even a small amount, it remains stretched. Exposure to too much sunlight can also weaken it.
Silk fibers have a triangular cross section with rounded corners. The flat surfaces of the fibrils reflect light at many angles, giving silk it's natural, ethereal sheen. Silk has a smooth, soft texture that is not slippery, unlike many synthetic fibres.
The birthplace of silk is China. Sericulture (raising silkworms for silk production) has a history of over 6,000 years. According to legend, Lady Hsi-Lin-Shih (wife of the Yellow Emperor Huangdi) was having tea under a mulberry tree when a cocoon fell into her cup.
As she watched, the cocoon spun a strong white thread. She unwound the strand onto her finger, realizing that it could be used as weaving thread. She taught her people how to raise silkworms, and later invented the loom. Silk production reached a high level of craftsmanship during the Shang Dynasty (1600BC-1046BC).
For more than two thousand years, the Chinese jealously guarded the secret of silk. Anyone found guilty of smuggling silkworm eggs, cocoons, or mulberry seeds (the key silkworm food source) was executed.
Commoners were forbidden to wear silk, it was reserved as a pleasure of the rick. With increased travels and trading, sericulture slowly reached the outside world, first to Korea, then to Japan, India and finally Europe.
What is it?
Silk is produced by several insects, but generally only the silk of moth caterpillars has been used for large scale textile manufacturing. The silkworm is the caterpillar of the domesticated silk moth, Bombyx mori.
After about 35 days of eating shit loads of mulberry leaves, the caterpillars are 10,000 times heavier than when they hatched and are ready to begin spinning a cocoon. A straw frame is placed over the tray of caterpillars, and each caterpillar begins spinning a cocoon by moving its head in a pattern. Two glands produce liquid silk and force it through openings in the head called spinnerets.
Liquid silk is coated in sericin, a water-soluble protective gum, and solidifies on contact with the air. Within 2–3 days, the caterpillar spins about 1 mile of silk thread and is completely encased in a cocoon.
If the animal is allowed to survive after spinning its silk cocoon, it makes a hole in the cocoon so it can emerge as an adult moth. These enzymes are destructive to the silk and can cause the silk fibers to break down from over a mile in length to segments of random length, which seriously reduces the value of the silk threads, To prevent this, silkworm cocoons are boiled. The heat kills the silkworms and the water makes the cocoons easier to unravel.
The fibers are then unwound https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qkBXWTuIpjI to produce a continuous thread. Since a single thread is too fine and fragile for commercial use, anywhere from three to ten strands are spun together to form a single thread of silk. About 2,000 to 3,000 cocoons are required to make a pound of silk (0.4 kg). At least 70 million pounds of raw silk are produced each year, requiring nearly 10 billion pounds of cocoons.
Silk is a highly renewable resource with less impact on the environment that many other fabrics. The silk worms feed on mulberry leaves, which don’t require the use of pesticides or fertilizers to grow. However harsh chemicals are often used to clean and process silk, which can pollute ground water. The process is also very labor intensive requiring many workers, which is why it can be expensive.
The process of making silk requires the killing of the larvae when the cocoon is boiled, because of this sericulture has been heavily criticized by the animal welfare and rights activists. Mahatma Gandhi was critical of silk production based on the Ahimsa philosophy "not to hurt any living thing". This led to Gandhi's promotion of cotton.
The mulberry silkworm has been completely domesticated and cannot live without humans for their care and feeding. There are no Bombyx mori moths living in the wild. Because of the long history of captivity, the Bombyx mori evolved into a blind moth that cannot fly and lives only a few days during which it lays about 500 eggs and then dies within four or five days. The silkworm moth has even lost the ability to eat because of undeveloped structures within their mouth.
There are now alternate ways of harvesting silk, called Peace Silk, where the grub is allowed to leave the cocoon. This ethical option is not widely adopted as the end product is not as soft due the breakage of the single strand of silk fibre into hundreds of smaller pieces. Shorter strands of silk are sometimes used to stuff things like puffer jackets or furniture.
ESH Fabric of Fashion Part 2 will look at wools, velvet, bamboo and polyesters - let us know in the comments below if there are any other fabrics you'd like us to look into!