All textiles are made from fibres of one sort or another. Natural fibre and synthetic or man-made fibres are very different. Natural fibre is extracted from plants and animals while man-made fibres are often by-products of oil. So what’s the difference, and why are natural fibres so much better for us and our environment?
As a completely renewable resource, natural fibres provide many benefits. While the past few decades have seen a boom in synthetic yarns and fabrics, the current ecological crisis and climate change threat means natural fibres are enjoying a strong come-back. If you were about to start knitting an acrylic item, here’s why it’s a good idea to think twice and take the natural route instead.
What’s natural and what’s man made?
Man-made fibres include polyester, crimplene, ‘fleece’, acrylic and nylon. Natural fabrics include linen, silk, wool, cotton, flax, hemp and of course viscose, which is actually made from plant fibres.
When crude oil is mined to make petrol and similar substances, the leftovers can be used to produce fabrics using a complex chemical process. This is how they make materials like polyester, rayon and microfibre.
Natural fibres come from different natural sources. There’s seed fibre, things like cotton and kapok. There’s phloem fibre, things like jute and hemp. Hemp also comes from the stem or leaves of the plant. Palm fabric comes from a tree trunk, and coconut fibres come from nuts. You can even make fabric from bamboo fibre, the ultimate in sustainability.
The differences between natural and man-made fibre
In general natural fibres are hydrophilic, easily wet by water, while man-made fibres are usually more hydrophobic, rejecting water and harder to wet. The length of natural fibres is set by nature, but the length of the man-made ones is decided by us.
Natural fibres have less natural strength and durability than man-made ones, but it’s generally accepted that fabrics made from natural fibre are often more comfortable and better for our health than synthetics. The same goes for the environment, with most natural fibres a clear environmental winner.
Natural fibres often have to be scoured or bleached before processing, something you don’t get with synthetics. And while a natural fibre’s structure can’t be changed, a man-made fibre’s structure can. Natural fabrics are often more expensive, sometimes considered a luxury. And it’s easier to dye natural fabrics than man-made ones.
The health benefits of natural fibres versus man-made fibres from oil by-products
Synthetic fabrics are made of plastic. So they’re dangerous when hot because heat actually melts them. There’s also a health and well-being side to the argument. Take rayon, which contains chlorinated hydrocarbons and also dioxin, a substance linked to the disease endometriosis. Acrylic is made from acrylonitrile, a chemical that’s a ‘probable human carcinogen’. And polyester is created using terephthalic acid ethylene glycol, which causes chronic respiratory irritation.
Natural fibre isn’t made from chemicals, perhaps only containing chemical substances added at the growth stage, things like herbicides and insecticides. If you choose an organic alternative you can assume no chemicals have been used during the growing period.
Textiles are dyed, of course, and dyes are an issue as well. Synthetic dyes are an oil by-product, while natural dyes are made from natural materials from living things, for example, plants and insects. While synthetic dyes have been linked to everything from skin irritations to cancer, natural dyes come with a clean bill of health.
Some fabrics are also ‘finished’ as well as dyed. These special finishes make fabrics water, stain and wrinkle proof as well as flame retardant, and while they’re handy features they might not be the best for your health. Some research reveals finishes like these may be linked to asthma, cancer, and more.
And finally? Natural fabrics don’t pollute the seas
You won’t notice it. But every item of clothing you wear and every item of fabric in your home gives off dust, tiny particles and threads that get into the air and water. Manufacturers are stopping using nasties like plastic micro-beads in cosmetics because they end up in our rivers and seas. Plastic in all its guises sheds these particles, which end up damaging the environment and poisoning wildlife. Fleece, for example, is a dreadful shedder, a major ocean pollutant simply because washing it releases loads of plastic particles into the waste water system, then onwards out to sea.
Our recommendations? Pick organic natural materials whenever possible. When you can’t do that, opt for natural materials. And find unfinished textiles coloured with natural dyes, avoiding those described as things like ‘stain resistant’ and ‘wrinkle free’.