In order to make more informed choices when buying clothes, one of the greatest helps can be a simple understanding of what fibres are used in a particular garment. A fibre is a thin thread. Fibres are combined by being twisted together to make yarns and yarns are used to manufacture woven or knitted cloth.
Fibres used in clothing can generally be split into two types ‘natural’ and ‘man-made’. The latter can then further be divided into wholly and partially man-made fibres.
Man-made fibres have been in commercial use for approximately 100 years.
What is a man-made fibre?
Synthetic fibres are entirely man-made from chemicals derived from fossil fuels. The word synthesise means to produce something chemically or biologically – in others words, it is the exact the opposite of a naturally occurring product.
Polyester, a synthetic fibre, is the most used fibre in the fashion industry today (followed by cotton, a natural fibre).
Regenerated cellulosic fibres are a combination of natural plant fibres (cellulosic fibres e.g. bamboo/wood pulp) and chemicals. They are a halfway house between natural and synthetic, sometimes referred to as semi synthetic.
Which man-made fibres are mostly found in our clothes?
There are of course additional fibres used in textiles. The above graph outlines the most common man-made fibres found in clothing.
What are some of the environmental issues surrounding man-made fibres?
- Water consumption and pollution (particularly nylon and viscose)
- Air pollution
- High energy use
- Synthetic fibres are not biodegradable
- Synthetic fibres are made from fossil fuels, a non-renewable resource
What are the pros and cons of man-made fibres for us as consumers?
- Often cheaper than garments made of natural fibres
- Easier to wear and care for (can be crease resistant, easy to wash and quick drying)
- Can be hypoallergenic
- They can be engineered to be high performing and for maximum comfort etc (eg sportswear)
- Chemicals used in processing may irritate the skin
- Often less breathable causing sweating
The challenge facing the industry in making man-made fibres more sustainable is to ‘close the loop’. In doing so, fibres, and in turn garments, must become fully recyclable and all harmful chemicals used in the processing and manufacturing stages must be prevented from entering the wider environment (and ideally recycled themselves too).
As it stands, clothing is often not recyclable and is instead put in landfill where it cannot biodegrade.
Check out my post on natural fibres to broaden your knowledge of the fibres listed on your clothing labels further.
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The aim of all of the posts in the DISCOVER section of STUDY 34 is to give you the knowledge to empower you to make better choices when buying clothing. By simplifying parts of the fashion industry that may seem complicated, I aim to inspire you to take more of an active interest in the stories behind your clothing.
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