Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Green Materials Course - Part 1: Natural Fibers

As with anything else in the sustainable world, there are many shades of green when it comes to sustainable fabrics. It can be challenging to decide just "how green" a fabric is. There are three basic factors to consider: fiber, blend, and finish. That's not so complicated, is it? Depends on how deep you want to go. Today we're discussing fibers. We have natural fibers and synthetic fibers, and synthetic fibers made from natural fibers. What to choose?

In my opinion, natural fibers are usually the "darkest green" of the bunch... naturally. They are made from renewable resources, and can decompose when we dispose of them. I also prefer them to synthetics because many of them don't build up static electricity. Unfortunately, designers are limited when using natural fibers in commercial settings because of flammability and durability requirements. Natural fibers can also fade, stain easily, and be susceptible to mildew. (Wool is an exception to many of these limitations, but it's often too pricey for commercial use.) Fabrics are often treated for fire and stain resistance, but that brings up issues that will be covered in another post.

Not all natural fibers are created equal. The most common choices are bamboo, cotton, linen, wool, silk, and hemp. Would leather be considered a natural fiber? Yes, in my opinion, but there are enough challenges with leather to warrant another post as well!

Bamboo is currently my favorite natural fiber. It grows crazy fast (rapidly renewable), and the plant doesn't need a lot of specialized care. Bamboo fabrics are super soft and absorbant. Bamboo fabric is a relatively new material, but it has finally become affordable. There are many concerns, however, about the chemicals used in processing a lot of the bamboo currently on the market. For a much more in-depth look, check out Organic Clothing's opinion of bamboo.


Cotton is the most common natural fiber. It has developed a bad reputation in environmental circles because of its growing methods. Cotton crops typically require a lot of pesticides, fertilizers and water, and are very labor intensive (read: pollution runoff, soil erosion, and bad labor conditions). Organic cotton has become a popular choice for these reasons. Here's a good review of the pros and cons of cotton.


Linen is fairly common in drapery fabrics and wallcoverings because of its natural sheen. Made from the flax plant, it's strong and absorbent, though easily abraded. Linen can feel course, but softens with use. It's naturally more eco-friendly than commercial cotton, as even commercial linen is grown with only one-fifth of the pesticides that cotton requires. Of course, organic linen uses no pesticides at all.


Hemp still isn't really a mainstream fiber. Heavily promoted in hippy circles, it's valued for its durability, insulation, absorption, and mildew resistance. Its strengths are best utilized when blended with other fibers. The hemp plant has properties similar to those of linen, in that it grows easily with very little pesticides or fertilizer.


Wool is an exeptional fiber. Since it's actually animal hair, not plant fiber, it has many unique properties. It's naturally resistant to fire, mildew, and moths. It holds up to wear quite well. Wool can be felted, which gives it extra versatility for some really creative design products such as rugs, cushions, bowls, and other accessories. Harvesting wool doesn't hurt the sheep at all. The only things to watch out for are how well the sheep are treated, and how the wool is processed (as with any textile, there are many eco drawbacks inherent in the processing). Check out Organic Clothing's post on wool.


Silk is another animal fiber. Your opinion of it may depend on your views on ethical treatment of silkworms. It's renewable, durable, luxurious, and provides unmatched color effects, but fades easily in the sun. Treehugger has a very informative post on the green credentials of silk. Organic Clothing also has a well-written post about silk.


Jute, Sisal, Seagrass, etc. These strong, durable fibers are usually used for mats and rugs, as they tend to feel rough. The plants need only minimal processing to be turned into usable materials.

So where do you look for these green materials? I'll be posting more resources in future posts, so stay tuned. In the meantime, here's a mini-directory of green fabrics from our friends at Treehugger.

1 comment:

  1. The environment offers an array of materials that can be utilized as fabric. The use of these sustainable fabrics have slowly found its way in the manufacturing of a number of products, and a lot more could be on the way with a little imagination and creativity.

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