Why Naturally Derived Fibers are Better
In my last post on the topic of textiles, I set out to complicate the cheerful marketing narrative around recycled plastic, not because I don’t think it’s worth it to explore recycling options, but because - when you’re dealing with a system as complex as the fashion industry - there are a lot of moving parts.
We can innovate in one category - like recycling - while still working toward an ethic that is a little bit closer to the ideal. In this case, I’d say the ideal is a move (back) toward using biodegradable fibers in all new clothing.
There are a lot of reasons to use natural fiber like cotton, wool, and cashmere in clothing and accessories….
Cotton, particularly conventional cotton, sometimes gets a bad rap as a “thirsty crop” that employs (literally) tons of pesticides in order to yield a better crop. These pesticides have been linked to birth defects and chronic health problems in large cotton production centers like India.
While the human well-being component should not be ignored, it should still be noted that non-organic cotton IS biodegradable. That means that a 100% cotton product from an otherwise conventional brand is still a move in the right direction.
Organic cotton has the advantage of being both biodegradable and more earth (and therefore, people) friendly, because synthetic pesticides aren’t used in agricultural production.
However, in both conventional and organic cotton, the dyes used can still disrupt the biodegradation process. According to an article from The Sustainable Fashion Collective, toxic dyes can leech into the ground even though the textile biodegrades, causing health and environmental problems for the surrounding ecosystem. For this reason, it’s important to seek out GOTS-certified and nontoxic dyes.
Cashmere & Wool
Cashmere and wool - both fibers derived from animals - carry with them ethical and environmental concerns rooted in rearing animals for their “product.” Herd animals require large grazing areas that can be detrimental to the preservation of local ecosystems and, in the case of larger livestock like cows, contribute to massive deforestation, as we are seeing in the Amazon.
However, when wool sheep and cashmere goats are raised with both animal welfare and environmentalism in mind (basically, in harmony with nature), they can be climate beneficial, according to research by Alden Wicker.
Alpaca wool is a wonderful alternative to sheep and goat wool because alpacas are easier on the land as they graze, the individual fibers are stronger than sheep’s wool, and their diversity of color means that the end product can come in multiple tones without the use of dye. The alpaca industry is still centered in indigenous communities in Peru, so fair trade companies promoting alpaca wool products positively impact the originators of a craft tradition dating back thousands of years.
Why Naturally Derived Fibers Feel Better & Last Longer
In a fascinating article on the science behind “moisture wicking” and “washless” fabrics, Alden points out that organically-derived fibers, like the ones I mention above, are “hydrophilic,” which means they absorb rather than wick away moisture:
“But this ability to love water means laundering is way more effective because the water can get in there with the detergents and help release these compounds,” McQueen says. Merely hanging a wool or cotton shirt up after you wear it allows the moisture to evaporate and bring the odor with it, though. Bing! A fresh and clean T-shirt in the morning — no washing required. Plus, merino wool tends to dry more quickly than cotton, making it a good choice for athletic apparel. (And shoes, as Allbirds boasts.)
So, natural fibers aren’t just better from a lifecycle perspective, they feel better on the skin, typically require less washing, and - because they don’t hold odors and are made with fibers that don’t show wear as quickly as synthetics - they last longer.
There are costs with everything, of course, but my extensive hands-on education with textiles as a thrift shop manager has convinced me to choose naturally derived textiles as often as possible. Even when parts of production are imperfect, there is still a substantial benefit for me, at the very least because it means I hold onto the item for a lot longer than I would a scratchy acrylic or polyester alternative.
Product Spotlight on Natural Fiber, Ethically Made Goods
I had a lot of fun with the “creative direction” on this shoot, so please indulge my artsy photos! This portion of the post has been sponsored by included brands. I selected product, and reviews are based in my experience with and use of each product. This post contains affiliate links.
This sustainably and ethically produced scarf was made with a woven, wispy, “featherlight” textile suited for all seasons. The effect is a wonderful, romantic drape that works well looped a couple times around the neck, draped over the head, or worn as a shawl.
Material: 100% Cashmere
My Favorite Feature: The classic plaid goes with everything.
A beautiful speckled indigo shade, classic crewneck cut, and slight balloon sleeves make this the sort of everyday item that is still really special. I like the tightly woven but still lightweight cotton because it works well as a layering piece on mild weather days, and doesn’t let too much cold air in. Fit: I ordered a Medium and the fit is perfect on my 34” bust, 29” waist dimensions.
Material: 100% Cotton
My Favorite Feature: The slightly longer length is great for tucking in or wearing over jeggings.
Thick, plush alpaca wool interwoven with a bit of sparkle. This sweater has an oversized, cropped fit and bell sleeves for a thoroughly vintage look. MANTARI supports working mothers in Peru, who hand knit their beautiful, fashion forward range of alpaca knit goods. The full line will be available for sale soon.
Material: Alpaca Wool
My Favorite Feature: The attention to detail and blocky drape.
Last but not least, this lovely Ten Thousand Villages basket bag, which I’ve had for about a year now. The Essential Companion Tote is really great for holding craft items, picnic goodies, and yet-to-be-photographed clothing and accessories if you’re a blogger (which, admittedly, is how I usually use it). It’s made with palm leaves and sustainably sourced leather in Bangladesh.