#MaterialMonday: Natural vs. Man-Made

In the world of clothing today, our options are endless and getting to know the material that makes up what we wear can be an overwhelming task. Where do we even start? This is why we launched #MaterialMonday, a series of informative (and not overwhelming, we promise!) posts that breaks down what’s what in fabrics. Our goal is to equip you with knowledge and tips that will inform your buying choices so that they are made with sustainability and the environment in mind.

Post by Contributing Writer Iris Chau.


I never used to look at a garment’s material composition before I bought it. You may not have either. But, if you’re like me, you might have at least held the fabric in your hand and rubbed your fingers around a bit to get a sense of whether that fabric felt good against your skin. Or, you might have walked through the store and touched everything you could. Sometimes it’s unconscious, but what we’re really doing when we “initiate the touch” is evaluating whether we’d feel good with the garment on our bodies. Fabric is no doubt an object of our intimacy, one that knows our most private selves (pyjamas and lingerie) and our public personalities (suits and casual wear). We’ll be wearing fabric for decades to come, but do we really know our fabrics as well as they know us?

Today, we go back to the basics and start with the foundation of what fabric is: natural, or man-made. Essentially, fabric is material that is either woven or knit from yarns, which are made up of fibers or filaments that can either be natural or synthetic. Natural fibers, such as cotton, wool, linen, and hemp, come from animal or plant-based sources, while synthetic fibers such as polyester, nylon, and acrylic are man made by chemical processes. In this kick-off post, we’ll break down the loaded debate of natural versus synthetic fabrics, and explore the pros and cons to reach a conclusion of how we ought to choose and evaluate the fabrics we buy for the betterment of the environment.

THE BASICS:

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MAN-MADE (SYNTHETIC) FIBERS

In recent years, consumer awareness of the harmful effects of synthetic fibers has increased. Polyester, a petroleum-based fiber, is non-renewable, and contributes to microplastic pollution in oceans. Other synthetic fibers take a tremendous amount of water and energy to produce, and cannot properly break down or biodegrade at the end of its life. Even if synthetic fabrics do eventually break down, their chemical make-up remains in the environment, polluting oceans and ecosystems. Not only that, but the quality of synthetic fabrics can vary drastically; while some last over a lifetime, others can pill or tear after the first few wears.

The makers of synthetic fabrics were not aware that, roughly 100 years later, their once considered innovative approach to fabric production would bear so many threats to the environment. In fact, the inception of synthetic fabrics, which dates back to the early 1880s, was based on the belief that they were a better alternative for the environment. Hilaire de Chardonnet, a French engineer, developed artificial silk in response to the shortage of silkworms. English innovators, like Sir Joseph Swan and Charles Frederick Cross, developed the first versions of viscose rayon and acetate believing it was better because it did not rely on agricultural resources. Synthetic fabrics also tended to hold up better than the natural fabrics of that era, were and still are quite stain resistant, cost less, and do not attract moths.

In many ways, everyday life is somewhat unimaginable without synthetic fabrics. Take lingerie, for example; most (if not all) bras are made from polyester or nylon, because they need to be moulded to particular shapes and offer exceptional stretch— something that natural fabrics cannot do. In the 1940s, nylon rose to popularity because it revolutionized women’s stockings, eradicating the need for garters. Imagine life without raincoats, yoga pants, durable backpacks, or even socks. There is no doubt that the creation of synthetic fibers was backed with good intention, and made our lives easier.

But, as the saying goes, too much of anything is never good. With the rise and success of fast fashion in the last decade, circumstances (and the earth) have changed drastically and begs for a solution. Our reliance on synthetic fibers has evolved into a dangerous state, where brands and factories are over-producing for customers that are over-consuming. Remember, none of these materials are renewable, and none of them truly break down completely.

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Natural Fabrics

Natural fabrics may not be as readily available as synthetics, but they are worth the search— and the cost. Natural fabrics are an ancient commodity, sustaining people with clothing, upholstery, ropes, baskets, and accessories for thousands of years. For example, the history of silk dates back to 27 BCE China, and wool dates back to 500 BCE Siberia. Whereas synthetic fabrics have become a threat after only a bit more than a century, natural fibers continue to be reliable, and now, environmentally conscious resource even after many centuries. While some argue that producing and growing natural fabrics requires a great number of resources, energy, and water, there is compensation in the fact that natural fabrics can biodegrade and be renewed.  Meanwhile, the likes of polyester and nylon consume just as many resources and continue to pollute after its production process, in addition to having no opportunity to regenerate.

Natural fibers have vastly more potential to go back to the environment than synthetic fibers. As the industry today slowly realizes the importance of the circular economy, we have to go back to the question of whether or not the product will be properly broken down at the end of its life cycle. As for natural fibers, they are biodegradable, though at various capacities depending on the fabric processing and treatment. Generally, 100% natural fiber material will decay as it absorbs water and through fungi and bacteria. There are also already technologies in place to recycle these fibers to make new materials, even if they may not be available in your city; it is a growing practice. For these reasons, natural fibers are simply worth the extra dollars. After all, it is actually more expensive for us to solve the problems caused by synthetics than to spend a little more on a piece made from natural materials.

Many characteristics of natural fabrics are unique and cannot be replicated with synthetics. Most notably, natural fabrics are more breathable, yet also insulates, which helps regulate the body temperature (try wearing polyester on a hot day... not comfortable!). Fabrics like cotton are excellent at wicking sweat, and real wool is much warmer and breathable than acrylic wool. On the other hand, natural fabrics also take a bit more work— they tend to wrinkle more than synthetics and will absorb stains more easily.

CONCLUSION

When it comes to natural vs. synthetic, natural wins, and it’s not just a green-washing trope. We’re not afraid to admit that committing to buying only natural materials is a difficult feat— in fact, it’s unrealistic. What we can do, together, is to choose the natural option whenever possible and even when it is pricier. In the end, it’s worth it. Biodegradability and potential for renewal should be a priority that surpasses longevity, and thankfully, natural materials are not hard to find even if they are less common.

But, in the scenario that you need to purchase synthetic, we’ve got some tips for you!


synthetic fiber shopping tips:

  1. Buy second hand → Give a used product another chance to serve its purpose and buy second hand. This means you’re not using any new resources in your purchase, and you’re making the most out of a garment that may have otherwise been discarded and polluted the environment.

  2. 100% Rule → Check to see if the fiber make-up is 100% of one kind of fiber (eg: 100% polyester, 100% nylon, etc.). It is easier to recycle a 100% synthetic fiber as opposed to a blend of man-made materials that cannot be separated.

  3. Buy from a reputable company → Be selective with who you buy from. If you’re going to purchase synthetic, make sure it’s from a company that works towards sustainability in some other manner; or has values that align with yours. They should be known for long-lasting, high-quality goods.

  4. Choose Polyester → Not because it’s good, but because it’s less bad. In recent years, there has been development in recycling polyester technology, and it is more common nowadays to find products made from recycled polyester. Thus, if you have to purchase synthetic, polyester would be a better choice than acetate or viscose rayon, which have a more complex chemical make-up.