A guide to the best non-toxic materials for fibers and textiles

best fibers for clothing and textiles

Now, why I am I not titling this post ‘eco friendly’? Well, every fiber has it’s pros and cons, and most of them aren’t farmed or manufactured in an environmentally friendly way. Cotton uses tons of water and pesticides, viscose uses heavy chemicals in processing, animal fibers like wool and leather have issues like deforestation for grazing, water consumption etc and modern tanning techniques tend to rely on heavy chemicals. Even fibers which could be sustainable usually aren’t because of the level of consumption. Until we start consuming less, I don’t believe there will be anything truly eco-friendly. I see this issue basically as “pick your poison”

So this may leave you asking what’s the point? Natural fibers still have lots of benefits like being more comfortable and reducing plastic pollution down the line.

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While sustainability is an issue in the garment industry we can at least avoid poisoning ourselves with Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) released as gas from synthetic fibers or contaminating our home and environment with micro-plastics.

Cleaning your home of synthetic fibres will greatly improve your indoor air quality. Especially get rid of that synthetic carpet if you have it. It’s also a dust magnet. Get wood or stone flooring and use rugs from natural materials.

best fibers for clothing and textiles
best fibers for clothing and textiles

The Good

Cotton; Probably the most common natural fiber but not the most sustainable one due to it’s often heavy pesticide use and requirement for huge amounts of water. I recommend it for clothing and bedding, but there’s more eco-friendly options for bags; like hessian.

Bamboo; Uses cellulose extracted from bamboo fibers. Very breathable and comfortable. Great for sportswear or yoga.

Viscose, Rayon, Modal; all made from plant fibers and resemble silk, basically pure cellulose although the process to make them uses some heavy chemicals.

Linen; Made from flax and super comfy. Great for pants.

Wool; There’s different kinds of wool but the most popular in Australia are probably merino and alpaca. Merino is good because it’s super soft and doesn’t give that scratchy feeling you sometimes get from wool clothes. Alpaca is similar.

Mohair; This is actually another kind of wool but from the angora goat. Often described as silky. There’s also angora wool which comes from the angora rabbit which is fine to wear too.

Flanel/flannelette; check the label because while it should be wool and/or cotton it can be blended with synthetics.

Cotton Velour check the label because velour can also be made from polyester although it is usually cotton. Resembles velvet.

Hemp; Hemp is a fiber made from a plant similar to cannabis. Usually associated with hippies, but it’s super comfy and quite affordable.

Hessian: Not usable for clothes due to how rough and scratchy it is but you should consider looking for a hessian reusable shopping bag rather than using the plastic ones the supermarkets sell. Uses vastly less water and pesticides than cotton.

Leather: Seeing as the world is still eating meat, there’s no reason to avoid leather because it’s a byproduct of the meat industry and more environmentally friendly than synthetic alternatives. If you avoid leather products you won’t even spare the sheep or cow (they’ll be killed for meat anyway) but you’re also killing countless other organisms that will die due to ingestion of micro-plastics or contaminated water/soil/food as those plastic fibers eventually break down.

Pashmina; aka Cashmere. It’s a goat hair and feels very luxurious, expensive though.

Jute: Rough fiber made from a tropical plant, not good for clothing but generally found in ropes, twine and sacking. You can find jute rugs and home decor. It is used to make hessian and burlap.

Raffia: Fiber from the raffia palm. Used for baskets and hats

 

The Sometimes Necessary Evils Synthetics

Elastane (spandex)
There is really no natural equivalent with the same properties and it’s almost impossible to avoid in swimwear and some other items needing a lot of stretch. There’s also elastic waistbands, etc.

Nylon (polyamide)
Actually a whole class of different compounds. Often unavoidable for the same reasons as elastane and because it can also be quite stretchy is sometimes used as a substitute for elastane. Often found in hosiery, lingerie, and gowns. It is very durable and heat resistant, and retains it’s strength with age. Can make a garment more durable. Of Elastine and Nylon, Nylon is the one I prefer because its enhanced durability makes the item last longer whereas elastane tends to wear out and lose its stretch, after which most people would toss the garment.

The Bad

Acrylic: Always found in cheap, low quality knits that you’ll probably throw away after one season.

Microfiber: Another synthetic I hate. Attracts lint like crazy, often sold as dusting cloths but after going through the wash once they’re covered in pieces of lint that are tedious to pick out. Sometimes also used in towels and face cloths but I always get a disgusted sensation from wet microfiber on my skin. It doesn’t feel particularly good. Give me plain old cotton towels any day.

Modacrylic: Flame retardant version of acrylic and often found in fake furs. If you need flame retardant clothing for your job please continue to wear but otherwise avoid.

Polyester; is one of my most hated fibers. You know those fluffy blankets that feel amazing and soft in the store but then you buy it and a week later it becomes smelly, starts shedding or pilling and generally heads on it’s way out the door rather quickly. Polyester generates static which attracts dirt and lint. Polyester will absorb oil and oil based stains will be almost impossible to remove. It’s so common in kids plush toys (both as an outer and filling), bedding, clothes (especially fluffy girls clothes). It’s everywhere! In clothing and bedding it has no real benefit other than cutting costs. It’s not hygienic or breathable, it makes you sweat, etc. Polycotton is one of the most uncomfortable fabrics I’ve ever encountered and almost always found in cheap clothing.

Beware;

Distracting or misleading labeling: For textile this is mainly using the words blend and rich. For example ‘cotton rich socks’. Of course, they state the good natural fiber that everyone wants, in the fine print on the back you may find that 30% of the material is polyester, elastine, nylon, acrylic or other synthetics. Similarly, if you see cotton blend or linen blend, check the fine print as well. They are most likely blended with polyester and synthetics too. Remember that if it’s something good they will make it prominent, clear and visible at a glance and when it’s something bad and undesirable they’ll hide it in small print on the back or somewhere hidden.

Did I miss anything? Post your opinion in the comments.

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