When discussing about fashion and clothes, we usually focus on trends, colors and designs and much less on fabrics, the raw materials from which they come and the processing they need. A big chapter in the fashion industry concerns the materials from which the fabrics and, ultimately, the clothes we wear are created. These materials have different behavior in use and over time but also a very big difference in their footprint in the environment.
Raw materials are divided into two main categories: natural and synthetic. There is also an intermediate category which concerns natural raw materials which, however, are used to ultimately produce synthetic fibers.
In this article we present the main natural raw materials used by the fashion industry, their advantages but also their differences in terms of origin, use over time and their impact on nature.
Photo by Janko Ferlič on Unsplash
Natural raw materials come from either plants or animals and, below, we describe their pros and cons.
Cotton is one of the most widely used raw materials for the production of clothing throughout human history. Cotton is a skin-friendly raw material, it is soft, comfortable, it “breathes” and is very absorbent in moisture. Unfortunately, growing cotton – even without pesticides – has a major impact on the environment as it requires a lot of water for the cultivation and growth of the plant. In its use, while it is durable, it tends to shrink when washing and wrinkle easily while it is not suitable for fitness clothes as it absorbs sweat and easily gets damp.
Linen comes from flax, which can be grown in lower temperatures than cotton, so it does not need so many pesticides to grow and its water needs are significantly lower. It produces a strong fabric that “breathes” a lot, does not wear out easily over time, is easily recycled, biodegradable and ideal for heat as it helps the skin hold 3-4 degrees less than cotton. On the downside we would say that it crumples very easily, it needs special care and is usually painted with toxic paints.
By far the oldest material for clothes and accessories, although not widely used due to the prohibitions and the very strict regulations for the Cannabis plant from where it is exported. Hemp is quite eco-friendly as it is fully recyclable, biodegradable, requires almost no pesticides and its water needs are minimal. Also, the large roots of the plant retain the soil and nutrients to prevent erosion. In use, it is 3 times more durable than cotton, softens over time, breathes highly and provides UV protection. Hemp fabric resembles linen in many ways and together they are the most eco-friendly solutions for human skin, while it contributes to slow fashion by minimizing the fast discarding of clothing as it does not wear easily.
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Wool (Simple, Angora, Alpaca and Cashmere)
All types of wool come from animals either sheep, rabbits or goats. Being the natural cover of animal skin, it is resistant to water, dust, fire and breathes a lot while it is very durable and absorbent. Specifically:
- Angora comes from rabbits and is very soft, although its extraction is usually painful to the animal
- Alpaca is another type of soft wool, highly hypoallergenic, especially compared to plain sheep wool. It originates from the Alpacas, native to the Andes, South America
- Cashmere is also very soft and is extracted from Asian goats which come from the homonymous region of India, Kashmir. Its main disadvantage is that the goats uproot the grass the eat, leaving the soil eroded as the water passes and drains all the nutrients, eventually turning land to desert.
On the other hand, wool needs special care and shrinks easily. Its biggest problem, however, has to do with the over-exploitation and abuse of the animals from which it comes. Usually, wool removal is traumatic for animals as part of the skin is also removed during wool extraction either due to carelessness or other reasons considered to contribute to the good quality of the wool. Moreover the over-reproduction of animals for maximizing the raw material exhausts them.*
Coming from the silkworms’ cocoons, this is a raw material invented in China about 8,500 years ago. An incredibly special material, soft, comfortable and very durable over time that is easily recycled as it is biodegradable. However, it is very expensive, it crumbles easily, it needs special care and, above all, for its production, silkworms are usually boiled alive. **
Mostly claimed that it comes from animals within the meat production industry but there is a great deal of doubt in its actual export circumstances. There is also indisputable scientific evidence that water consumption and the production of gas emissions in the livestock industry are among the most harmful to the environment. And it does not end here; the processing and production of clothing, shoes and accessories itself requires huge volumes of water and energy creating an enormous carbon footprint. As a material, though, leather is soft, durable and friendly to human skin when no toxic materials are used to treat it.
In summary, what must be clear now is that there is a great array of natural raw materials but not all of them are innocent in relation to nature and animals. In addition, approaching the matter from the Slow Fashion point of view, there are materials that create clothes which last over time, preventing their rapid rejection and fast replacement with new ones.
In our next article we will study the synthetic raw materials as well as the ones that come from natural resources but end as synthetic fibers.