What Textiles are Made of and How
If you’ve read the Textiles learning page you would’ve gotten a basic grasp of the differences between textiles and their possible environmental effects. However, if you’d like a more in-depth explanation of each type of textile material and group, this page is for you.
Starting with the synthetic materials group, in short, these materials are essentially just plastic. Polyester is made from petroleum, it’s hard to recycle, usually ends up in landfills, and almost never biodegrades. Although there is a partially biodegradable polyester called PLA (Polyactide), it is rarely used. Similar to polyester, Nylon is also made from petrochemicals. As a result, it has similar qualities when it comes to sustainability. Acrylics are a little different. They are a group of synthetic fibers that are refined from mineral oil and hydrocarbons using a process involving hazardous chemicals. Elastane/Spandex is a rubber alternative, made from polyurethane during a process that is more complex than all the synthetic materials discussed above 1 https://www.ecofashionsewing.com/fibres-textiles/fabric-fashion-industry-synthetic-fibres/ . In summary, synthetic materials are made of plastics, most of which are derived from petrochemicals, they are hard to recycle, and they fill landfills for decades without degrading.
Regenerated materials are man-made fibers created by reforming raw materials like cellulose (wood pulp and cotton waste). Regenerated materials are often called Rayon as an umbrella term. Viscose is a regenerated material made from purified wood pulp that is chemically processed into a textile fiber. Modal and Cupro are produced similarly. Acetate and Triacetate uses pure cellulose to make the ester that formed the fabric. Although its raw ingredient is a natural material, the process that creates the fabric is highly toxic and hazardous to human and environmental health. Lyocell is a more environmentally friendly regenerated material made from wood pulp and is usually processed further into Tencel. These two materials are renewable and filly biodegradable, the main downside is that the process to make this material is energy consuming. Soya fibers made from well, the soya plant, is another great regenerated material. However, because it usually needs to be produced organically with no genetic modification in order to be environmentally sustainable, it is expensive to produce so it is used less often. Last in this category, Bamboo fiber is a renewable material. However, it is usually processed like viscose using chemicals and as a result has a similar environmental impact. Some bamboo fiber material though, can be made like lyocell, making it a very environmentally friendly choice 2 https://www.ecofashionsewing.com/fibres-textiles/fabric-fashion-industry-synthetic-fibres/ . In summary, regenerated materials are a better option compared to synthetic materials as their raw materials are renewable and they biodegrade. However, some are better than others due to the processes involved in turning the raw material into a usable fiber.
The final category of materials is natural materials. Silk is a material produced by silkworms during metamorphosis. The silkworm creates a cocoon made of silk, then textile producers kill the worm before it turns into a moth and eats the cocoon. This cocoon is what silk fiber is made from and although it’s a natural biodegradable fiber, its practice of killing the worm is unethical and unsustainable. A better alternative is Peace Silk, in which the silk cocoon is collected after the silkworm turns into a moth, therefore creating a more ethical and sustainable material. One commonly known material is Wool. Wool is made of the coat of domestic sheep that is sheared and spun into usable material. It is a sustainable material that is often used in winter clothes. The most popular and common clothing and textile material is Cotton. Cotton is grown and collected to form the material used in textiles. It is a natural and biodegradable material, however, if it is not organic is it not very environmentally sustainable as conventional cotton uses a lot of water and pesticides. Linen is another material that is grown, and the fiber is extracted from the flax plant. It’s a sustainable, natural, degradable, and environmentally friendly material. Even more sustainable, however, is Hemp. Hemp is from another fibrous plant, like cotton, but it is more durable and more sustainable. Lastly, Bamboo can be processed like linen and is a quite sustainable material. However, because of its manufacturing process for fashion materials, it usually is processed like regenerated material 3 https://www.ecofashionsewing.com/fibres-textiles/fabric-fashion-industry-natural-fibres .
Essentially, when looking for clothing and textile materials, natural and preferably organic materials are your best option as they are environmentally friendly, sustainable, use less chemicals, and are naturally biodegradable compared to regenerated and especially synthetic materials.
Alane Ertel is a graduate from the MPH program at the University of North Florida, and was an Intern at their Environmental Center during the creation of this project. Alane’s goal in creating this project is to increase awareness of environmental issues, spread zero/low waste practices, and improve environmental and human health by utilizing her passions for the environment and for creating a healthier society.