A brief guide to high street fabrics

Last week Stella McCartney put her name to a new campaign with environmental charity, Canopy, to promote responsible practise in fabric manufacturing. It is estimated that ‘up to 100 million’ trees are cut down from ancient, endangered forests a year to produce fabric for fashion. And in just 10 years time, they estimate that figure to double.

When was the last time fabric was part of your purchase consideration? In light of this campaign, we’ve put together a brief guide about some of the most commonly used fabrics in fashion today and how they are produced, to make your buying process a more informed one.

Viscose

Viscose and rayon were originally brought to market as a cheaper substitute for silk, and is now one of the most commonly used fabrics in fashion. As a compound structure, it is very similar to cotton but rather than spun from the flower of a plant, it is made from wood pulp; a key contributor to the vast deforestation.

Lyocell (Tencel®)

Although in the same family as viscose and rayon, lyocell is made using a spinning technique to create a stronger, biodegradable fibre. It is often considered an eco fabric because energy and resources to produce it are economical but as it uses the same hard wood as viscose and rayon also contributes to deforestation. Eucalyptus based Tencel is available and a great alternative to traditional hardwood lyocell fabrics as eucalyptus grows quickly and without the need for pesticides and fertilisers.

Bamboo

It is not commonly seen on the high street yet, but bamboo is considered one of the most environmentally friendly fibres available. Being quick to grow, without the use of pesticides and fast bio degrading, this product is a great alternative to cotton and even silk but without the environmental or human health impacts. Other qualities include hypoallergenic and antibacterial.

Cotton

Used as the basis for many of our favourite fabrics such as denim, terrycloth and blended with rayon or polyester, this is one of the most commonly used fabrics in fashion, homeware and interiors. However, is not one of the most economical or environmentally friendly. In order to produce cotton in the vast quantities that we use it, pesticides are needed to ensure crops grow efficiently, but at the health cost of both the farmer and consumer. Cotton also requires a massive amount of water to grow; an estimated 20,000 litres is required to produce enough cotton for a t-shirt and pair of jeans.

Wool

Probably the most environmentally harmful fibre to manufacture, the production of wool takes a toll on land, air and water. Rearing animals for food and material is one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gases, deforestation and water pollution. On the other hand, wool helps reduce the use of domestic energy by insulating homes and as a warm textile for humans. After manufacture, it’s impact is relatively low by being durable, reusable and biodegradable.

Linen

Linen is made from the cellulose fibres that grow inside the stalks of a flax plant. Although it is inefficient in it’s single life span, from seed to flower, it needs very little water or pesticides during the growing process making it relatively energy efficient.

Polyester

One of the most durable fabrics, polyester is used across the home and in fashion but is also one of the most harmful to the environment. Essentially plastic, this synthetic fibre is derived from coal, air, water and petrol making it slow to bio degrade and harmful on the skin over a long period of time.

Silk

Historically one of the most luxurious fibres, silk gets its reputation from the long and intricate process it takes to produce. It starts by cultivating the silkworms on mulberry leaves. After being dissolved in boiling water, long individual fibres are extracted from the worms once they start pupating their cocoons. Around 2500 caterpillars are killed to produce around a pound of raw silk. In order to keep up with commercial demand, billions of worms are cultivated a year.

So what are the alternatives?

  • Wherever possible, choose natural fibres and make sure they are organic and fair trade. Linen and hemp are better alternatives to cotton but if you choose cotton always make sure it’s organic.
  • If you need to use a man made fibre for athletic wear, swimsuits etc, stick to recycled polyesters.
  • Steer clear of blended fibers, such as cotton elastane t-shirts, as they can’t be recycled.

Wherever you look, there are conflicting arguments for and against each material, the key is to reduce altogether! Buying less means reduced demand, which is ultimately leads to better practice. In theory, using hardwood cellulose is a sustainable approach to fabric production; trees grow and the garment can be recycled, but at the quantity we are consuming there is a huge strain on the planet.