Quick Guide To Different Types of Textile Fibres

Natural Fabrics

What is cotton?

Woven or knitted, cotton produces a soft, strong fabric that is breathable, absorbent and washable, and blends well with other fibres. It is now the world’s largest non-food cash crop and the most used natural fibre, but cotton only accounts for 21% of global fibre use.

Initiatives exist to produce cotton more sustainably and more equitably – currently contributing 15% of total cotton output - however, more than half of global cotton farms producing over 70% of the world’s cotton require irrigation, and chemicals are widely used. 

Cotton production employs around 350 million people mostly in low-income countries. 

Five programmes dominate the more sustainable cotton sector: Fairtrade cotton, organic cotton, Better Cotton Initiative, Cotton Made in Africa and REEL Cotton.  

>> READ MORE ABOUT COTTON AND SUSTAINABLE COTTON

What is linen?

Breathable and highly absorbent, linen’s natural crispness drapes the fabric away from the body, ensuring cool comfort.

Flax - its source material - was once prized until it was usurped by factory-made cotton and later synthetics; it now accounts for less than 1% share of the world fibre market. Separating flax fibres from the woody stems by ‘retting’, and then softening them by ‘scutching’ is a painstaking process, which partly explains linen’s luxury connotations. 

Flax thrives in cooler climates – France is the world’s leading producer, followed by Belgium, Belarus and China.

Over the lifecycle of a linen garment, the stage with the lowest environmental impact is, in fact, the first – cultivating the flax. Cotton cultivation, by contrast, can be highly water- intensive depending on where it is grown. Almost 80% of linen’s energy and water consumption derives from washing and ironing the garment over a lifetime.

>> READ MORE ABOUT LINEN AND ITS IMPACT

Hemp cloth

Hemp derives from the fibres of the cannabis plant; it is grown from a different (though very similar-looking) cultivar to the plant that produces the well-known narcotic. To get the fibres hemp is ‘retted’ (soaked in dew or chemicals to soften) and then ‘scutched’ (the fibres scraped off) like linen. It is now possible to do this mechanically using little energy and no chemicals.

Hemp has a reputation for being coarse and heavy. However, modern techniques now produce a fibre and yarn that are both soft and strong, that can be knitted and woven. It works well in blends with other fibres. As a crop, hemp requires little water and usually no chemical fertilisers and pesticides. It grows fast, with high yields, making it an environmentally friendly fibre.

>> READ MORE ABOUT HEMP

Animal Fibres

What is silk?

Renowned for its luxury and fluidity, silk is produced from cocoons spun by silkworms. It can be woven, knitted and dyed, and has thermal and wicking properties, making it good for use in underwear and base layers.

Silkworms are typically farmed on mulberry leaves, producing cocoons made of one single filament up to a kilometre in length. The smoothest silk derives from ‘reeling’ the filament in one unbroken piece. More textured silks are produced when the filaments are discontinuous. ‘Ahimsa’ or ‘peace’ silk is produced specifically without harming the silkworm.

Silk accounts for just 0.2% of the global textile market, but has a multi-billion dollar trading value. China is the largest producer, with a highly mechanised operation; India ranks second with a more rural production base. Silk’s environmental record is mixed. Mulberry trees require few chemical inputs and less water than cotton. However, silk reeling processes rely heavily on fossil fuels.

>> READ MORE ABOUT SILK AND SUSTAINABLE SILK

Wool

Wool comes from sheep fleece that is shorn, cleaned and scoured to remove impurities. A series of metal teeth then untangle the fibres (‘carding’) and – depending on the yarn required – the fleece may be further straightened by combing. Cheaper Asian imports, synthetic fibres and a downturn in formalwear in the 1960s pushed wool into decline.

Now only 1% of all fibres used in garment production are wool. The wool industry, headed by Australia and China, produces around 1,160 million kilograms of clean wool per year from a global herd of around 1.16 billion sheep. 

Wool’s environmental impact is mixed due to land use, water pollution and global warming issues. Over a lifecycle, it fares well thanks to its high recycling rates.

>> READ MORE ABOUT WOOL AND SUSTAINABLE WOOL

Where does cashmere come from?

Stronger and warmer than wool, cashmere dyes easily and is increasingly blended with other fibres. Once a rare luxury, it is becoming more casual and affordable, but its heavy environmental impact could make it a victim of its own success. Cashmere comes from the fine undercoat of the hircus goat that grazes on natural grasslands, mainly in Central and East Asia. It takes a year’s growth in four goats to make one sweater.

China and Mongolia dominate cashmere exports. To meet demand, ever larger herds and overgrazing are damaging grasslands to the point of becoming desert-like, particularly in Mongolia. This spiralling situation is jeopardising habitats, herders’ livelihoods and the entire cashmere supply chain. 

Environmentalists and parts of the luxury sector are seeking sustainable solutions – investing in climate-resilient production, protecting prices during downturns to stop herders over-stocking, and promoting better pasture management.

Alternatives to pure cashmere are being developed. Re.VerSo is generated from pre-consumer leftovers of cashmere and wool.

>> READ MORE ABOUT CASHMERE

Leather and alternatives to leather

Leather is animal hide that is cleaned, treated (or ‘tanned’) and then finished with a specific colour, embossing or feel. Manufacturers turn this into footwear – the primary use – as well as clothing, fashion accessories, interiors and car upholstery. Most leather comes from bovine animals reared in the meat industry. 

More than half the world’s supply of raw leather comes from developing countries - China is the leading buyer, processor and exporter of leather and leather goods.

While being a multi-billion dollar global industry, leather is linked to global warming and pollution, and is receiving growing criticism of its severe environmental impact. Chromium tanning – commonly used to preserve hides – produces highly toxic effluents that pollute waterways in developing countries. 

Sustainable and vegan alternatives are being keenly explored, including synthetic leather from recycled polyester, vegetable tanning of hides, and plant-based substitutes like cork, bark fibre and pineapple leaves.

>> READ MORE ABOUT LEATHER AND SUSTAINABLE LEATHER

Down

Down is nature’s best insulator – a soft layer of quill-less feathers that lie closest to the bellies of ducks and geese, keeping them warm and buoyant in water. Compared to other insulators like wool, down gives the most warmth for the least weight and is breathable. A by-product of waterfowl reared for meat, it is biodegradable, recyclable, and can last for decades.

With padded coats now a firm trend, there is a high demand for down in apparel. Yet down production raises welfare issues that are prompting consumers and brands to seek higher standards. Concerns over animal welfare arose over reports that some suppliers pluck the down from live birds – causing distress and injury – instead of gathering it after slaughter. 

Outdoor industry bodies have developed voluntary codes for greater traceability and higher welfare standards, although campaigners argue these are not effective enough. Non-animal substitutes currently are chiefly synthetic, but recycled polyester is increasingly being used.

>> READ MORE ABOUT DOWN

Synthetic fabrics and man-made fabrics

Polyester

Polyester is now the world’s most commonly used fibre, overtaking cotton in 2002. Prized for its relative cheapness, strength, lightness and wrinkle-free properties, polyester can be woven, knitted and blended with other fibres. Although not water absorbent, polyester can be processed (as polypropylene and microfibres) to ‘wick’ water away from the skin. It is made through a chemical reaction involving coal, petroleum, air and water. As such, it is associated with petrochemical pollution impacts and contributes to depleting a finite resource.

Processing polyester is energy-intensive and can release noxious, global-warming pollutants such as nitrogen and sulphur oxides, particulates and carbon monoxide. Polyester does not easily biodegrade. 

Recent studies show that much of the microplastics in the oceans, ingested by fish, shellfish and other aquatic animals, come from synthetic textile fibres shed in washing machines. Scientific evidence increasingly links microplastics to the passage of deadly, persistent chemicals through the environment.

>> READ MORE ABOUT POLYESTER AND SUSTAINABLE POLYESTER

Viscose or Rayon

Viscose is mainly derived from wood that is pulped, mixed with caustic soda, processed with carbon disulphide, more caustic soda and finally pushed through a spinneret (like a fine sieve) into a bath of sulphuric acid to create fibres. It dyes easily, doesn’t shrink and is biodegradable. 

Originally marketed as artificial silk and also known as rayon, viscose was the earliest man-made fibre, used in fashion for more than 100 years, and has been prized for its fluid, draping qualities when woven or knitted into fabric.

Both the harvesting of the raw material (usually wood but can be bamboo or cotton linters) and the processing with chemicals have negative environmental impacts, including water and air pollution. More than 70 million trees are logged every year to turn into cellulosic fabric. This raw wood often comes from unsustainable sources. Carbon disulphide and caustic soda also pose health risks to the workers in the plants.

>> READ MORE ABOUT VISCOSE AND SUSTAINABLE VISCOSE

Other cellulosic fibres including bamboo fabric

Cellulosic fabrics derive from cellulose – the main constituent of plant cell walls - using fibres from wood or woody plants like bamboo. First produced in the 1890s as ‘rayon’, these fibres are referred to as ‘manufactured’, ‘regenerated’ or ‘semi-synthetic’. Including rayon or viscose they account for 8.7% of global fibre production, a share expected to grow significantly.   

Despite their natural origins, cellulosics commonly used in apparel share similar processing methods – and negative impacts – with synthetics.  More sustainable cellulosics are modal and lyocell (brands include TENCEL and Monocel®). Some use closed-loop processing and certified renewable sources – but not all.

It can be confusing. Many fabrics described as ‘bamboo’ are essentially viscose – derived from bamboo pulp but processed with heavy chemicals and producing harmful emissions. However, cellulosics derived from or blended with milk protein, oranges, seaweed, coffee grounds are emerging in apparel.

>> READ MORE ABOUT CELLULOSIC FIBRES

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