Like most, you probably have a general idea of fiber content in clothing. We all are aware of most popular fibers such as cotton and polyester, but do you know where these materials come from? In this post, I’m going to give you the “run-down” on everything you need to know about fiber content and how to make sustainable decisions the next time you head to the mall.
Could you look at what you’re wearing right now and identify what the fabric it’s made of? Take a guess and then look at the tag and see if you’re right!
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Do you ever do this process before buying clothing?
Checking the tag is the first thing I do before I even consider making a purchase. I will often have to put something back on the rack because of the fiber content. It’s hard to do, but it’s important that I hold myself accountable to ethical and moral standards – even if greed is calling my name! If you’re thinking, “I don’t even know what to look for” or “I’ve never even heard of this fiber”, then this post is for you. Even if you know the answer to these questions, stick around, maybe you will learn something new!
Fibers come in two main types…
Staple Fibers are fibers that are short, maybe just a couple of inches. Some examples of these are cotton, linen/flax, and wool. These fibers are a set length – think of this as the length of one strand of a sheep’s wool after it has been shorn or the length of an individual fiber of cotton from a cotton boll (the word for the part of the cotton plant that contains the fiber).
Filament/Continuous Fibers are long, continuous fibers that go on forever – they can be as long as they need to be. These fibers are normally Synthetic (man made) fibers such as polyester, or nylon; however, silk is actually categorized as a filament fiber. Filament fibers are extruded through something called a spinneret, which looks like a showerhead – think playdough meets garlic press. Filament fibers can be miles long and a whole spool is one long continuous piece.
Staple Fibers need to be twisted together to make yarn. Shorter staple fibers are used to make thicker yarns and longer staple fibers are used for thinner yarns. This is why pima cotton is considered higher quality and why it often costs more.The staple length of pima cotton is about 1.4 inches, which is the longest staple fiber found in cotton. For this reason, pima cotton yarn can be thinner and finer than any other type of cotton yarn.
Blended yarns such as a cotton poly blend are made by chopping and texturizing polyester filament fibers to resemble cotton staple fibers. These fibers are then be mixed together and processed like cotton. This is the way most blends are made, except for those blends involving elastic fibers such as spandex and elastane. For these types of blends, the secondary fiber is wrapped around a core of elastic fiber. Blends such as cotton poly are not ideal because they cannot be recycled.
So what exactly are all of the different fibers and what are they made from? What are their properties and why should I care?
Let’s answer these questions below, categorized by fiber alphabetically!
Cotton is a natural fiber that grows on a cotton plant in what is called a boll. Cotton is an excellent fiber. It washes well, is durable, and can be composted. Some argue that cotton isn’t ideal because a lot of water and pesticides are used to grow it. For these reasons, organic cotton is the best option. However, when assessing the whole life cycle of cotton fibers, it is ideal because it can be composted where other fibers cannot. Read more about cotton production in a past Lady Farmer blog post, here!
FLAX / LINEN
Linen fabric is made from the cellulose fibers inside the stalk of a flax plant. It is one of the oldest knows fibers. Linen fabric is very strong and can be used for a variety of purposes from clothing to furniture. Since linen is part of a plant, it can be composted after use.
Hemp is very similar to linen. It is a natural fiber coming from the hemp plant. It is a very ideal fiber due to the small amount of water used to grow the plant. Unfortunately, hemp is illegal to grow in many places because of its similarities in appearance to cannabis. However, the hemp plant, is different, and produces no high when smoked. Hemp fabric is compostable and biodegradable.
Jute is the actual name of the plant fiber used to make burlap fabric. Jute fabric is compostable and biodegradable.
Ramie is a natural fiber derived from the inner bark of the china grass plant. It is one of the strongest natural fibers and is even stronger when it is wet. It holds its shape very well, adds a shiny lustre to fabric and reduces wrinkling. However, because it is brittle, it is often used in a blend with cotton or wool. Ramie is compostable and biodegradable.
Wool is a natural fiber coming from sheep. It has very good insulating properties because it is so crimped. It has low strength, but it is naturally elastic and has better fire resistant properties than other fibers. Wool also absorbs up to three times its weight in water and it actually releases heat when it is wet. Wool is compostable and biodegradable.
And the bad…
Acrylic was created as a synthetic alternative to wool. It is made from a polymer and the fibers are shaped similarly to wool to give it a similar texture and appearance. However, the downsides to acrylic fibers are that while they may look and feel like wool, acrylic is different from wool and does not perform the same way.
For this reason, acrylic garments will not keep you as warm as wool garments. Although they may feel soft and warm in the store, this is because the fiber is already room temperature. Acrylic is also not able to break down the same as wool and cannot be composted – it must go to the landfill. And one of the largest downsides of Acrylic is the fact that acrylic fibers make up 85% of the microfibers that end up in the ocean and waterways from wastewater after machine washing.
Acetate is similar to rayon in production; however, the main difference is the use of acetic acid. Acetate is used a lot in wedding gowns and other formal dresses as it has a lustrous appearance that is similar to silk.
Acetate has good moisture management, but it does not hold up well to washing and will disintegrate in the dryer. It will also melt if exposed to acetone, or nailpolish remover. Acetate is not very strong and has poor abrasion resistance as well.
See Rayon. Bamboo fabric doesn’t exist – it is ALWAYS mislabeled. “Bamboo” fabric is actually created through a highly toxic, chemically-intensive manufacturing process and should be avoided at all costs.
Modal is a type of rayon fabric made with beech trees. See “Rayon” for more information.
Polyester is a synthetic fiber made from polymer. It has good moisture management properties and is often used in workout clothing. It is often blended with cotton. The main downside of polyester is the polluting microfibers that shed during washing and get flushed into waterways, ending up in ocean ecosystems.
Rayon is made by taking cellulose (wood pulp or often, bamboo) and melting it with lye (sodium hydroxide). It is then dried and mixed with carbon disulfide, a highly toxic chemical that has been known throughout history to cause significant damage to the nervous system and even death. After, the mixture is forced through a spinneret (the playdough garlic press from the example above) and lands in a bath of sulfuric acid, another highly toxic chemical.
Rayon has a history of being mislabeled as bamboo fabric because bamboo is often one of the starting ingredients. “Bamboo” fabric that is soft to the touch and does not resemble burlap is always some form of rayon. It is very toxic to the people producing it and the environment. Rayon is technically a semi cellulosic fiber because the end result is cellulose and it is biodegradable; however claiming that it is natural is false advertising.
So, what’s next? Look at the fibers in your clothing to get an idea of what you like and don’t like. Consider only purchasing clothing made with eco-friendly fibers, like the ones in the “Good” list. Get in the habit of checking the fiber content of textile products before you purchase.
Each fiber isn’t just about look or feel, but they actually behave differently – so choosing the correct fiber when purchasing is important for a long lasting/performing textile product.
There is much debate in the industry about which fibers are better than others. In my opinion, every fiber is going to be bad for the planet if it is produced in excess. There is no magic fiber that will allow us to produce the same amount of clothing at the same prices we are now without hurting the planet. As with food and other goods, reducing your consumption and investing in sustainably, ethically made pieces is a step in a more regenerative and conscious direction!
Want to learn more?
The Good Dirt
Listen to The Good Dirt episodes that dig deeper into sustainable fashion, fiber types, and mending.
18th Century Fiber Production at George Washington's Mount Vernon with Sara Marie Massee
Linen: The Once and Future Crop for a Local Textile Economy with PA Flax Project
Creating a Regenerative Supply Chain with Janessa Leone, founder of the sustainable luxury brand Janessa Leoné, and Rachel Cantu, supply chain and sustainability advisor
This post was written by Grace Brian, founder and designer behind Line + Tow. Grace comes from a textile science background, having graduated from the North Carolina State University Wilson College of Textiles with a B.S. in fashion and textile design. She is also an incredibly talented designer and developed all of the garments for Line + Tow, now available in our shop!