Choosing natural fibers

March 27, 2021

Hope your weekend is off to a happy start! I’ve started digging out spring and summer clothes today, which certainly cheers me! My favorite items, I’ve noticed, are those made of linen and cotton. Do you have favorite fabrics?

One of the first things I consider when shopping for nearly any product is what it’s made of. When it comes to anything made of fabric, yarn, or other fibrous materials, I try to select natural fibers whenever possible. It’s a simple — though not perfect — shortcut to selecting safer, healthier, and more environmentally friendly products. (Plus natural fibers tend to be more wonderful — feel better, look better — anyway!) Here’s some information you might find helpful about natural fibers!

a raw cotton flower on top of a stack of folded gray and white cotton fabrics

What’s the difference between natural fibers and synthetic fibers?

In short, natural fibers come from plants, animals, or minerals and can be made into yarns, fabrics, and non-woven materials. Synthetic fibers, on the other hand, are man-made, generally produced through chemical processes. Synthetic fibers pose many of the same issues as plastics and other man-made products. This includes being produced through resource-heavy processes, not biodegrading, and being less healthy (and less comfortable) for our families than their natural counterparts. Some examples of natural fibers are linen, cotton, wool, silk, hemp, and ramie.

Of course, a natural fiber can take plenty of chemicals to grow and/or to process, too. There’s a world of difference between organic cotton and non-organic cotton, for example! The easiest thing to do is to find sustainable manufacturers and support them. (I post sustainable shopping resources on the CaretoKeep Facebook page from time to time, so you may want to join us over there!)

What about recycled synthetic fibers?

If you need a specific performance trait of a synthetic fiber, recycled is definitely the way to go. There are a couple things to keep in mind, though! First, many recycled fibers take a great deal of water and other resources to create. Look into the manufacturing process before you assume it’s gentle on the environment. Another issue is that synthetic fabrics shed micro-plastics when they’re washed, which gets into the ocean and other waterways. (There are some ways to minimize this for the synthetics we do own!)

What are the best natural fibers?

yarns and threads in natural green and blue hues

It depends what you’re using it for! Perhaps you’re a seamstress in search of natural fibers that are the most comfortable to wear (maybe you want a fiber that will keep you warm or cool). Or perhaps you’re choosing between tote bags and want to know which fibers are most durable.

Natural fibers (like synthetics) have their strengths and weaknesses. Wool will keep you warm but would make a terrible raincoat fabric, for example!

Relative sustainability aside, here are some of the advantages and disadvantages of some of the most popular natural fibers:

Cotton
Pros: Easy to launder, breathable, inexpensive, hypoallergenic, resistant to dust mites, durable
Cons: Shrinks, stretches, creases, soils easily, burns easily, weakens in sunlight

Linen
Pros: Keeps the body cool, easy to clean, comfortable, durable, resists stains
Cons: Expensive, usually requires hand washing or dry cleaning, wrinkles easily (I’ve learned to embrace the wrinkles!)

Silk
Pros: Strong, lightweight, drapes well, comfortable, absorbent, most hypoallergenic of fabrics
Cons: Expensive, degrades over time, requires hand washing or dry cleaning, stains and yellows with age, non-vegan

Wool
Pros: Warm, wrinkle resistant, absorbent, durable, easy to sew, returns to original shape, breathable, tear resistant, water resistant, excellent insulating properties
Cons: Can be uncomfortably scratchy, affected by moths, shrinks, absorbs odors, pills easily, can mildew/mold, can deteriorate in sunlight, non-vegan

Hemp
Pros: Strong, durable, blends well with other fibers, easy to care for, generally low environmental impact
Cons: Wrinkles easily, creases, can be expensive, lack of vibrant colors (that said, some of us prefer the soft look), should be hand washed

Ramie (China grass)
Pros: Strong (especially when wet), holds shape, silky, blends well with other fibers, resists insects, absorbent, resists shrinkage, provides some UV resistance, soft and comfortable, anti-static, can be washed or dry-cleaned, stain resistant
Cons: Low elasticity, not very resilient, becomes stiff and brittle, wrinkles easily, doesn’t drape well, creases easily, low abrasion resistance, dark colors may fade

There are more natural fibers, of course. You can read about Tencel and Modal, for example, here. And you can read about the sustainability of bamboo here.

Here are a couple of other things to consider:

How is it made?

Fabric and clothing manufacturers are increasingly providing good information about the sustainability of their products. Yay! Once you know a company has a solid commitment, you’ve saved the time and energy it takes to research this information on your own.

Here’s what a sustainable company should cover in talking about their products:

  • the use of land, water, and other resources
  • any output other than the product itself (animal waste during wool production, for example)
  • dangerous (for the planet and for our families) chemicals used during production, processing, and/or treating of the fiber
  • the working conditions and rights of the people who help grow and produce the product
the back of a person wearing a peach-colored dress made of natural linen fiber

Comfort is key!

For items I wear, sleep on, or otherwise use against my body, comfort is paramount. Wool, for example, is frequently recommended for everything from winter coats to diaper covers (due to its natural insulation and water-resistance). However, many people — myself included — find even the finest wools irritatingly itchy. No matter the beneficial properties of a fiber, if it’s not comfortable, I won’t be wearing it! (I’ve learned to pass up the loveliest sweaters if they have even a tiny wool content!)

What are your favorite natural fibers? What natural or synthetic fibers can you identify around your home, and which ones are serving you best (and why)? Are there items for which you feel a synthetic fiber is worth the drawbacks? Let’s share!

Take good care,

Headshot photo of Karen Mary with her signature in blue ink to the right

P.S. Stop by the blog every Tuesday for the latest posts — next week we’ll learn how to store and keep jackfruit! (Have you tried it?) In the meantime, here are some posts you might want to visit this week:

How to hand wash clothes (new post!)

Quality clothing — How to tell if clothes are well made

How to clean a birdbath — and keep it clean

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