Guide To Natural Fibers: Earth-Friendly Fabrics For Fashion

by | Jan 16, 2019 | Sustainable Fashion

I use to be a fast fashion addict, hitting up the mall once a week shopping at Forever 21, H&M, and other trendy, inexpensive retail stores. Over the past couple of years, I’ve been dedicated to only purchasing clothing (unless thrifted) made from natural fibers. Here’s why:

  1. Better for the environment. Natural fibers biodegrade creating little to no impact on the environment. They also don’t leach microplastics into our waterways through washings.
  2. Better for your health. Ultimately synthetic fibers come from oil which isn’t so nice on the skin.
  3. Better investment. The fast fashion industry has been producing cheap clothing that isn’t made to last. Natural fibers typically hold up much longer.

Synthetic fibers could also be called plastic fibers. They are derived from petroleum or petrochemicals and wreak havoc on our eco systems if not disposed of properly, and even then, they never truly decompose. These are some common synthetic fibers: polyester, acrylic, nylon, and spandex. Even recycled plastic (like post-consumer water bottles) turned fiber is a bad choice for the fashion industry. Please read: WHY PLASTIC HAS NO PLACE IN THE FASHION INDUSTRY, EVEN RECYCLED PLASTIC for more info.

HOW CLOTHING IS MADE

Fibers   ➞   Yarn   ➞   Fabric   ➞   Clothing

Be sure to keep scrolling for some awesome fiber innovations that are taking over synthetic materials including synthetic vegan leather!

NATURAL FIBERS

ORGANIC COTTON

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The most popular natural fiber comes from the hairs of seeds on the cotton plant. Cotton becomes a material that is naturally soft, breathable, and easy to wash, hence why it is the most popular! Organic cotton can take as little as 1-5 months to completely biodegrade.

HEMP

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Potentially one of the first natural fibers used in history according to archaeologists findings in 8000 BCE. Hemp might be the best, it uses less water than cotton, yields more crops, and is easy to manage (doesn’t need herbicides or pesticides). It also cleans and rejuvenates the soil. Hemp is a very durable, strong fabric. It’s one downfall is that it easily wrinkles.

WOOL

Wool fiber comes from animal fleece, whether that be sheep (the most common), rabbits, goats, camels the type of animal will affect the quality. The animal’s fleece is shorn and then spun to make yarns. Wool is naturally elastic and has amazing insulating properties. It’s perfect for cold weather. Wool that is free from chemical treatments can 100% biodegrade in 1-5 years depending on the techniques used to convert it to fiber.

CASHMERE

Cashmere comes from goats. It is finer, stronger, lighter, softer and approximately three times more insulating than sheep’s wool.

SILK

Silk comes from the cocoons of caterpillars. After the caterpillars spin their cocoons, they’re then boiled which allows manufacturers to unwind the cocoons to unravel the long filaments. The cultivation of silk textiles dates back to ancient China. This material is naturally strong, shiny, smooth and has a beautiful drape. Silk is a very resilient fiber and can take about 4 years to biodegrade.

JUTE

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Jute is a long, soft, shiny vegetable fiber that can be spun into coarse, strong threads. You will mostly find jute sackcloth or in things like rugs and curtains, not likely in clothing.

CORK FIBER

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Cork fiber is harvested from the bark of a specific oak tree that naturally regrows its bark, making it a highly renewable resource. It’s lightweight and naturally insulating which is ideal in the textile industry especially for outerwear and activewear.

NETTLE FABRIC

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A lustrous fabric derived from the nettle plant. The fabric is made from the fibers within the stalks of the plant, not the barbs on the outer surface of the plant. Nettles have actually been used in food, fabrics and even medicine as far back as the 16th century. The plant grows almost uncontrollably making it highly renewable. Its related to flax and hemp, and can be used to produce a fine linen cloth, much stronger than linen and even increases strength when wet. It also blends nicely with other fibers and can help add softness and increase longevity.

FLAX (LINEN)

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Flax, one of the oldest cultivated plants in human history, creates linen. The fibers are taken from inside the plant’s stem, a process that requires rotting the plant and stripping away the stem’s exterior. Linen is good for warm weather because of its ability to absorb water quickly, however, it does wrinkle easy. Fun fact, the oldest garment in the world is made of linen. This material can take as little as just a couple weeks to completely decompose.

BAMBOO

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Bamboo plants create a soft, antibacterial fabric. However, not all bamboo fabric is created equal. Bamboo rayon or bamboo viscose are produced more like synthetic fabric that undergoes heavy chemical processes to create the material. A much better choice is bamboo linen, which requires minimal pretreatment and has a high affinity for dyes. This is less popular because it is more labor intensive and costly. Bamboo fibers made from the lyocell process are also a better choice.

ALPACA

Alpaca fiber comes from Alpaca animals, and it is similar in structure to sheep wool fiber. Depending on how it is spun, it is light or heavy in weight. It is a soft, durable, luxurious, and silky fiber. It’s warmer than sheep’s wool and because it does not have lanolin it is hypoallergenic. Alpaca fiber is also naturally water-repellent and difficult to ignite.

LYOCELL (TENCEL)

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More of a semi-natural fiber, Lyocell, or commonly known as the brand-name Tencel, is made of cellulosic fibers from dissolving pulp (bleached wood pulp), a natural component of all plants.  It is one of the most eco-friendly manufacturing processes of all fabrics. Lyocell has a unique moisture absorption ability, which makes it breathable, soft, and less prone to wrinkles. 

SOYSILK

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Soysilk (also known as vegetable cashmere) is made from soybean waste started being manufactured in the 1940s. Soy protein is liquefied and then stretched into long, continuous fibers that are cut and processed like any other spinning fiber. Soy has a high protein content, therefore the fabric is very receptive to natural dyes. When blended with other natural fibers, such as cotton, the soy silk adds a smooth silky quality while the other fiber improves the strength.

LENPUR

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Lenpur is a biodegradable fabric made from white pine tree clippings. It “offers the comfort of silk, the touch of cashmere and the lightness of linen.” It is a step above other cellulose fibers due to its softness, absorption capacity, ability to release dampness, and ability to sustain a higher thermal range keeping you cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter.

COIR

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Coir is extracted from the husk of coconuts. It is used in floor mats, doormats, brushes, and mattresses because of its very coarse texture.

FIBER INNOVATIONS

These up and coming fibers are game-changers for sustainable fashion. They are natural, vegan fibers that can replace animal and synthetic leather. You’ll be seeing more of these as development continues.

KOMBUCHA LEATHER

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Kombucha leather is made of the same sludgy symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast that makes the famous fermented tea drink. The slimy culture can be dried, then softened with coconut oil to create a fabric similar to leather in look and feel. When the material is at the end of its life it can be composted.

MICROSILK

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A high-performance textile spun from the same proteins as a spider’s web and created using biology, fermentation, and traditional textile production. The main input of this fiber-making process is sugar from plants that are grown, harvested and replanted. It’s a durable fiber with elasticity and softness. Learn more here.

MUSKIN

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MuSkin is a 100% vegetable alternative to animal leather. It comes from a big parasitic fungus that grows in the wild. MuSkin is made of the external peel of this mushroom. The material has a soft surface that is very similar to suede. Learn more here.

MYCOWORKS

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MycoWorks turns mycelium, a vegetative part of a fungus, and agricultural byproducts into leather. It’s uniquely customizable because they can grow textures and other features right into the material. It feels and performs like leather, it’s even water resistant. Learn more here.

MYLO

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A revolutionary material that looks, feels, and behaves like hand-crafted leather. Made from mycelium, the root structure of mushrooms. It can be produced in days versus years, without the material waste of using animal hides. Because Mylo is made from organic matter, it is completely biodegradable and non-toxic. Learn more here.

PIÑATEX

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The base of Piñatex is a byproduct of pineapple harvesting – the leaves. Their new use creates an additional income stream for farming communities. Even the residual leaf biomass is used as natural fertilizer/biofuel. This material is completely biodegradable. Learn more here. | UPDATE 2/8/19 it was brought to my attention that this material is currently not as sustainable as previously thought. Here is a statement from their website, “Piñatex is made of natural fibers and polylactic acid fibers which is 100% biodegradable. The resins we currently use for coating are petroleum based and such are currently not biodegradable. We are excited to be working on bio-based coating which will take Piñatex to the forefront of sustainability.

SEACELL

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SeaCell is a luxurious, soft, silky fiber made from seaweed and eucalyptus fiber. It is a cellulose fiber and is non-allergenic. SeaCell is produced by smartfiber AG. The seaweed for SeaCell is harvested from the sparsely populated fjords of Iceland in locations where there is no waste and no pollution from ship traffic.

ZOA (BIOFABRICATED)

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Zoa is the first biofabricated materials brand from Modern Meadow. It is able to be any density, hold to any mold, create any shape or size, take on any texture, and combine with any other material. Cells are designed at the DNA level to create micro-organisms that produce the proteins needed. Through fermentation, the cells are multiplied into billions of collagen-producing cell factories. These collagen proteins become the building blocks of the material. Learn more here.

WHERE TO SHOP

FOR NATURAL CLOTHING

There are so many amazing fashion brands using natural fibers, check out my ETHICAL + ECO-CONSCIOUS FASHION BRAND DIRECTORY for over 100 labels to love.

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