Natural Versus Synthetic Fiber
Natural Fibers: Defined as “ substances produced by plants and animals that can be spun into a filament, thread or rope and further woven, knitted, matted or bound.” i.e. linen, cotton, silk, wool, alpaca, cashmere etc.
Synthetic Fibers: “Man-made textile fibers created by extruding fiber forming materials through a spinneret”… take a look at this video to see the process in action. (i.e. rayon, nylon, polyester etc.)
So what are these “fiber-forming materials” that go into the synthetic fibers you may ask? When you look at the raw materials used in manufacturing there are basically two categories of synthetic fiber derivatives- those that utilize cellulose from plants/trees- these include rayon, modal and lyocell, and those that utilize petroleum/petrochemicals- these include polyester, acrylic, nylon, and spandex.
Some say that those fibers derived from cellulose are neither synthetic nor natural but a category all their own- regenerated cellulose fibers. The manufacturing involves breaking down the cellulose from tree pulp, or other plant material in a chemical solution, and then regenerating it to form the final product. These materials are biodegradable at the end of their life cycle. The sustainability of the manufacturing process though is wholly dependent on the practices of the company. Lenzing AG of Australia is one of the largest manufacturers of tencel and it now utilizes a “closed loop” process for producing the fiber in which all of the chemical solvent is either reused or treated to eliminate contaminants. Other manufacturers of these cellulose-derived fibers are jumping on board and taking responsibility for their chemical output. The production of these fibers also requires much less water so there is great hope for this industry!
On the other hand, polyester, acrylic, nylon and spandex are a little trickier. Just hearing “petroleum derived” makes my stomach turn and my skin start to itch and I kind of hyperventilate a bit… well not really, but I can’t believe how many things are derived from petroleum these days! There are so many reasons why these fibers are detrimental to the environment but just some quick examples: petroleum is a finite resource which we are dependent on for a long list of things and it does not help that fiber is one of them. These fibers are not biodegradable there is no end to their cycle, and every time we wash fabric made from one of these fibers it leeches micro-plastics into the water, which then get distributed into all of our streams, rivers and oceans…not good.
Lastly, the naturals- for some people, synthetics hold the upper hand in comfort. However, natural fibers come from plants and animals- they are renewable, sustainable, biodegradable, and do not require any chemical solvents in processing. They do often require a lot of water for scouring, and after dying wastewater must be treated in order not to contaminate. Nonetheless naturals are carbon neutral, and most of the properties of synthetics that people find so appealing, like moisture absorption, breathability, insulation, etc… nature has already done for us so beautifully in wool, cotton and alpaca! Most importantly natural fibers are critical to the economies of the countries where they are grown and harvested. The artisans, who spin, weave and dye the fiber benefit too!
So in the end it’s up to you to decide what to invest you’re hard earned money into. Natural fibers may cost a little bit more but when you factor in chemical exposure, environmental impact, and thousands of artisans who have spent a lifetime perfecting their craft, where are the real costs?
Written by Hannah Elmer Photos by Amanda Zehner