Natural fabrics?
November 22, 2007 11:31 PM   Subscribe

What are the best natural clothing materials, and where can i buy them (possibly already made into clothing)?

Well, basically i seek certain qualities in the fabrics:
- natural; i tend to stay away from plasticy feeling fabrics, but only because they seem unnatural to me. Let's say i'm looking for the organic foods version of fabric, not the overprocessed, chemicals added, packaged, and so on.. Maybe, though, there are some that are fine. Do they biodegrade and not create a lot of waste in the manufacture process? I want to be conscious thereto, as well.
- still practical for the purpose; breathable for hot weather, durable for work, warm and protective for the cold

So far i could only think of cotton and hemp. I am beginning to modify and make my own clothing, so it is fine if i can find these materials alone, but stores that sell reasonably priced hemp or pure cotton clothing would be grand. Of course, thereabout might it be utopic to think.
posted by fjardt to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (10 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: To explain further: i want to stay away from synthetic fabrics
posted by fjardt at 11:38 PM on November 22, 2007

You should let us know where you are for store recommendations.

I'm with you - cotton and hemp whenever possible. But I also like wool for winter months - it's natural and insulates well and I always make sure to pick up sweaters and whatnot when I know (or have reasons to believe) that the wool and making of the sweater is local - I've picked up excellent stuff for great prices in South America, Romania and the Balkans, and I like that the sheep are local (!) and the local people get (by their standards) a very good price . . . and handmade stuff seems more durable and nicer.

Silk is natural too, but it's not my thing. Leather too, of course, but aside from some shoes and boots, I don't care much for leather.

I have a beautiful linen jacket, too. Real linen is made from a flax plant, and it's one of the most durable and oldest fibers used by mankind. You can make wonderful things - especially outerwear like jackets and 'outfits' from it.

Rayon is a sort of post-waste quasi-natural fiber, from what I know. Not as synthetic as polyester, but not as natural as cotton. Apparently, it's made from a wood by-product and will biodegrade, but it has to undergo a fair amount of manufacturing.

Now that I think about it, I don't wear any clothing that's not made from natural materials, except a few things that have a wee bit of elastic in them (but usually less than 7% or so) - socks and tights are the big offender, but even so, these are mostly cotton.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 11:49 PM on November 22, 2007

posted by IvyMike at 12:27 AM on November 23, 2007 [2 favorites]

Wool is an excellent natural fiber. People have been making wool fabrics since before there was a such thing as manufacturing waste.
posted by rhizome at 1:12 AM on November 23, 2007

"... Of course, thereabout might it be utopic to think."
posted by fjardt to clothing, beauty, & fashion

Most "natural" fibers, in their base state, make poor yarn, unless they are chemically treated and/or mechanically processed to improve their strength and finish. On top of this, very little woven or knitted fabric made from "natural" fiber is not later chemically dyed, size stabilized, or otherwise treated to improve its appearance and wear properties. Unless you are buying from traditional craft weavers, fullers/felters or knitters, it is difficult to find fabrics made of "natural" fibers, for good reason. Clothing made from minimally processed "natural" fibers is materially weaker, less rot resistant, less laundry tolerant, more easily pilled, more easily randomly felted and fulled in wear, and less able to hold shape or tailoring in wear.

The advantages of chemical and mechanical fiber treatment, and synthetic fiber blending on fabric and garment performance are so palpable, that about 99.999% of fabrics marketed as "100% cotton" or "100% wool" or "100% linen," will, in fact, have been mercerized, Sanforized, chemically dyed, and perhaps treated with silicon, petroleum oils, inorganic solvents, chemical bleaches and coal tar dyes, stabilizers, and anti-static agents, before you can have fabric and/or garments, as a consumer, in hand. This is due partly to the processing requirements of high speed textile machinery used to manufacture the bulk of cloth and clothing today, and partly to the expectations of fiber, textile and clothing consumers for fabric and clothing performance in wear.

So, it seems pretty arbitrary to draw some line of preference for "natural" fibers, based on fabric and garment labeling regulations initially developed and promulgated by various fiber trade groups, as tariff measures. As an example, in the case of cotton and wool fiber labeling in the USA, there is a regulatory or implicit 3% tolerance rule applied, so that "100% wool" labeling can be applied to good that are 97% wool, and 3 percent synthetic fiber, without regulatory penalty. There is actually no tolerance rule specified for wool labeling, so that wool goods technically need be only slightly more than 50% wool fiber content to be marketed as "wool," although in some cases the Federal Trade Commission will take the 3% content tolerance specified in the cotton standards as the intent for woolen goods labeling, too. So, caveat emptor, indeed, for many products labeled under "natural fiber" content labeling regulations. More importantly, the fiber labeling regulations don't require disclosure of material facts concerning fiber source, or mechanical properties such as average length, average diameter, or average breaking strength, which are known to correlate with garment and fabric performance properties.

My suggestion is that you, as a budding clothing maker, evaluate fiber and fabric choices based on a fuller understanding of fibers, fiber processing and the fabrics made from all forms of fibers, "natural" and synthetic, before rejecting several hundred years of textile science out of hand. Your efforts to create beautiful and practical clothing items will generally be vastly enhanced by taking full advantage of human knowledge in textiles.
posted by paulsc at 3:18 AM on November 23, 2007 [7 favorites]

posted by Reggie Digest at 3:30 AM on November 23, 2007

To be really environmentally friendly, buy clothes at Goodwill and Salvation Army. if you shop often, you can get great clothing. If you sew, it's even better. I've seen clothes in beautiful fabrics for less than the cost of the fabric at a fabric store.

Also, to be environmentally friendly, don't wash clothes until they're dirty, and avoid dry cleaning. Fortunately, wool stays clean pretty well, and you can wash some wool clothes by hand.
posted by theora55 at 5:24 AM on November 23, 2007 [1 favorite]

Silk and ramie (or ramie-wool/cotton blend) fabrics fit your criteria. I second buying clothes second-hand as well.

Also paulsc makes sense. Even 100% cotton garments are chemically treated in some way. I find when I buy clothing from an "all-natural" type store, they don't hold up to repeated washings. They look old and lose their shape much sooner than my other clothes. So then I have to buy new ones much sooner which, for me, is expensive. But cost may not be a problem for you.
posted by bluefly at 8:10 AM on November 23, 2007

Naturally colored cotton is the best choice, as it is more insect and disease resistant and requires less pesticide and chemicals to grow it. Also, since it naturally comes in colors, it does not need to be dyed.

Despite its reputation as a wholesome, natural fiber, cotton requires a huge amount of toxic chemicals and water to grow and process. Regular cotton attracts bugs and disease like crazy. It also has to be bleached, dyed and printed using some products that are very harsh on the environment.

Rayon is technically a natural fiber, as it is made of regenerated cellulose. You can get yarn made of corn and soy biproducts. Soy fabric has a nice feel to it as well.
posted by pluckysparrow at 10:55 AM on November 23, 2007

2nd linen.
posted by desuetude at 12:26 PM on November 23, 2007

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