Clothes and fabrics get a great deal of attention here on Ecofrugals, and for a good reason. It is estimated that the fashion industry is responsible for a whopping 10 % of the total global carbon emissions. That’s a lot of room for improvement.
And we have talked about it. Angela has told us about her clothes shopping ban, Cathleen showed us how to quickly and easily turn old shirts into shopping bags, and I have tried to cover the various ways we can mend, patch, darn and upcycle what we already have or thrift second-hand.
But while we have all touched upon this in our posts, such as Cathleen advertising tightly woven cotton shirts as the far superior shirt to upcycle into shopping bags, we have not actually dedicated a full post to the praise of natural fibers.
I thought we would amend that today.
What are natural fibers?
Natural fibers are fibers that are made from naturally occurring resources without the use of petroleum or complicated chemical processes for their creation (well, petroleum is often used to power the machines that make natural fibers, but petroleum is not itself used as an ingredient. More on that in a bit).
These fibers are spun into yarn and that yarn is either woven or knitted into fabrics and made into clothes, bedsheets, furniture upholstery, curtains, etc. These natural fibers are typically divided into two main categories, animal and vegetable-based fibers.
Your vegetable-based fibers are your linen, cotton, hemp, jute, etc. They are typically quite strong, vics moisture from your body (they do, after all, derive from plants, who like water), keep you cool and can handle harder washing cycles required for clothing close to our body.
Your animal-based fibers are your wools and your silk. These fabrics are typically more expensive, more sensitive about washing and are good at keeping your body warm but still breathing. Wool also has the amazing feature of continuing to insulate your body, even when wet, making it an essential base-layer for really cold climates.
Also, and this is perhaps the most important thing: Natural fibers are… well… natural. Nature knows how to break them down so that they can be rebuilt into new plants and animals. In a word, they are compostable.
Their synthetic counterpart
By contrast, synthetics fibers are your polyester, acrylics, and other strange-feeling fabrics. These fabrics are typically based on petroleum (plastic) and their use, washing and disposal lead to billions upon billions of tiny plastic fragments in the form of microfibers being released into the environment.
But the crux is, of course, that they are disgustingly cheap and quick to produce. These are your fash-fashion outlet basics, your strange and specialized materials, such as wetsuits, raincoats and glitter. They are the nameless fast-fashion top that falls apart after a few wears because it is all about buying more all the time and not at all about quality or long-lasting clothes.
They also, uhm, I guess there is no good way of saying this, but they stink. Literally. They are made of plastic, after all, so they do not breathe. At all. I used to have in my closet a couple of half-cotton, half-polyester t-shirts alongside 100 % cotton ones, and I could never understand why I would absolutely stink at the end of some days, but not others. Turns out the shirts that made me stink were all partially synthetic! This also makes them exceptionally sweaty and uncomfortable. Do not like.
I have since experimented a fair bit with this, and noticed that old hygiene advice (such as only washing/changing undershirt every Saturday), works perfectly well if you’re wearing cotton, or even better, linen, base layer close to your skin (such as a short-sleeved t-shirt under your blouse). You only get stinky the way we imagine our ancestors of yore when you wear synthetics.
This has also, naturally, been a perpetrator in our hygiene-obsessed culture such as showering every day, changing clothes every day, and using things like heavily perfumed fabric softener because the stink just doesn’t go away, particularly in synthetic exercise gear.
The issue is of course that synthetic fibers are cheap, and often the only thing some people can afford. We are not here to shame anyone about their closet or their choices, so I really hope you’ll take this as an attempt to inform and educate, not an attempt to shame, bully or otherwise ridicule people, that is never our intention.
So what can you do if you realize your closet is all synthetic?
This is not a magical makeover show where a host of natural-fiber enthusiasts sweep in on you and your home to replace what you have with natural fibers. This is real life, so we need to treat it as such.
Start looking in your local thrift shop. Can you find a few garments for cheap that are all cotton for instance? T-shirts and jeans are a good place to start. Many blouses and shirts are pure cotton too. You can’t replace your whole wardrobe in one go, and nor should you aim to.
If you have or are already working on downsizing your closet, that really helps too. But yeah. Start with just one garment. See how you like it. Iterate and make adjustments to fit your specific situation from there. If it is at least decently made, it should last a fair bit longer than its synthetic, fast fashion counterpart.
A couple decently made garments could actually save you money in the long run, if you can afford it, because they last longer and don’t have to be replaced as often.
Repairing natural fibers
Last but not least, repair your clothes for them to last even longer. Underlayers like undershirts and stockings that don’t show are excellent practice candidates because the results and mishaps won’t be visible to the general public. And I’ll let you in on a secret: Natural fibers are SO much easier to mend and repair.
If you’re sewing on a patch on a broken garment, it is best if that patch is of a similar type and fiber as the original garment, because that means they will wash the same, stretch the same, and more or less wear in a similar way. With natural fibers, you only have so many options (wool, silk, cotton, linen, hemp + a few others. woven, knitted, heavy- light- or medium-weight), making it so much easier to find and store replacement fabric suitable for your specific wardrobe preferences.
Have to patch a crotch of my jeans again? Let me go to my sacrificial pair of mending jeans and cut out a piece of similar fabric. Have a hole in my cotton t-shirt? I can darn that with my cotton thread.
Synthetics, by contrast, are difficult to match because there is an almost infinite number of ways they can be spun and woven into fabric. They are also super-icky to pull a needle through because they are plastic. They pull and drag at your needle, make uncomfortable squeaky noises and often tear again just next to where you mended it because your sewing maybe broke some fibers and they’re just generally awful to work with (especially by hand). If I could tell young me that part of the reason my attempts at repairs looked so shoddy was in part because I was wrestling with synthetics I would have saved myself so much time and frustration.
Personally, I have reached a point where I am just so frustrated with fast fashion and their awful combination of environmental destruction and shoddy worker protection. I may or may not be playing with the thought of not buying more clothes (even thrifted and second-hand), and instead of making what I need from scratch. This has been pretty easy for things like shirts and skirts, I’m a little more apprehensive about my rapidly approaching need for new bras… Exciting times ahead? Maybe?
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