It’s confession time…Before we joined the slow fashion movement, we hardly ever looked to see what our clothes were made of. If we liked the style, and if the price was right, that was enough for us to buy something. Made of polyester? 100% linen? Grown using pesticides? We reluctantly admit these considerations never crossed our minds. Those days are happily behind us and now, we could never imagine buying something without knowing what it’s made of.
The materials in our clothes, also known as fabrics or textiles, are produced by weaving together fibers or blends of fibers to produce a finished garment. Fibers are exceptional materials because they serve two purposes simultaneously: form and function. In other words, we expect that our clothes will both look a certain way and perform a certain purpose. We need our clothes to keep us cool, help us stay warm, wick away sweat if we’re running, drape a certain way if we’re wearing a formal dress, and so on. The fibers in our clothes tell a much richer story than the few words on a tag reveal. Follow us through farms, fields, and factories as we take a closer look at what we’re really wearing.
For the boundless colors, patterns, and styles that make fashion such a rich medium for self-expression, there are only so many types of fibers we wear in our clothing. The starting point for mapping the materials in our clothes is this: all fibers fall into one of two categories: natural fibers or chemical ones.
Natural fibers can only come from two sources: either from plants or from animals. Plant-based fibers include cotton and linen, which is produced from the stem of a flax plant. Animal-based fibers include wool, which comes from the fleece of sheep, and cashmere, which comes from goats. Like our food, natural fibers come from a farm. In fact, there is a great deal of overlap between the natural fibers we wear and the foods we eat, a topic we’ll tackle in a later post. Natural fibers are renewable resources, which means that after they are consumed, the environment can replenish them over a fairly short span of time.
Moving along, chemical fibers are a bit more nuanced. Some chemical fibers, like polyester and nylon, both of which are made from crude oil, are purely synthetic, meaning that they are manufactured using an entirely chemical process. Other fibers, like rayon or modal, are known as semi-synthetic fibers because they are produced through a chemical process, but using a natural raw material source. For example, rayon, modal, and lyocell are made using wood chips from trees. Even though the source of these semi-synthetic fibers is natural, the process of turning this natural raw material into a fiber is entirely chemical, which is why we consider this family of fibers chemical and not natural. One caution with semi-synthetic fibers is that they are often sold as environmentally friendly materials, although in reality they are not. Bamboo is a case in point. While the bamboo plant is highly sustainable, bamboo the fiber is most often produced using heavy chemicals 1 that can deposited untreated into local water systems. 2
Because chemical fibers come from a range of different sources, some, like rayon, are considered renewable, because trees, particularly certain species of trees like eucalyptus, can grow back relatively quickly. Others, however, like polyester, are non-renewable because the environment cannot replenish the source in any reasonable span of time (the earth’s oil reserves, for example, will take millions of years to replenish).
Now that we’ve mastered materials, let’s talk about how the fibers in our clothes have changed over time. From the very first uses of clothing in human history until around 1900, clothing was made exclusively from natural fibers. 3 In the last century, cotton was the most common fiber in our clothes.  Until recently, that is.
In 2007, for the first time ever, the most common fabric in our clothing became plastic. 5 That’s right- plastic. Polyester, or polyethylene terephthalate (PET), the same material used to make plastic bottles, is the world’s most widely used fiber, found in 52% of our clothing.  Cotton is the second most commonly used fabric, used in 40% of clothes.  The trend towards synthetic fibers in our clothing is only expected to grow. For context, in 1980, the world produced 5 million tons of polyester fiber. By 2030, global polyester production is estimated to be 70 million tons. 8
Buying Guide: Becoming a Materials Maven
The next time you buy something, put your materials knowledge to use! Here are a few tips to help you shop with materials in mind:
Always look at the material content before you buy a piece of clothing. Get into the habit of knowing what your clothing is made of. That awareness alone will help you notice differences in the look, feel, and durability of various materials.
Value natural materials over synthetic ones. Natural fibers are considered more valuable than synthetic ones, and they set the standard for how we expect our clothing to look and feel.  Rayon, for example, was developed to simulate the drape and softness of silk. When it comes to investing in quality items for the long haul, always choose natural materials.
Support companies that are transparent about their material choices and their processing techniques. When we shop for our clothes, we are buying a process as much as the product that will hang in our closet. Support brands that tell you the materials you are wearing, as well as being clear about where and how your clothing is made.
We’d love to hear about your relationship with the materials in your clothing. Do you look at the fiber content before buying something? Do you notice a difference in the feeling or performance of natural fibers and chemical ones? Tell us!
- Not All Bamboo Is Created Equal
- Bamboo: Facts behind the Fiber
- Textile Fibers pg. 21
- Berg, L. (2007). Introductory botany: plants, people, and the environment. Cengage Learning. pg. 100
- If your clothes aren’t already made out of plastic, they will be
- Black S, Eco Chic 2008 via http://www.tedresearch.net/media/files/Polyester_Recycling.pdf
- The Water Footprint of Cotton Consumption pg. 10
- Man-Made Fibers Continue to Grow
- Textile Fibers pg. 21