I was recently telling a friend about the microfiber issues that I touched on in my last post when she stopped me and asked “wait- what are synthetics made of?”
Because I’ve spent the last several years soaking up as much I can about fabric, sewing, sewing machines, apparel manufacturing, fibers, material sourcing and supply chains, and just about anything clothing related I can get my hands on, I regularly forget that other people, sane people, don’t spend their evenings reading Preferred Fiber Reports or graphic novels about factory conditions in Southeast Asia.
Fibers are the very first piece in the puzzle of understanding where your clothing comes from. These are the raw materials that will be spun into yarns, then woven or knit into fabric, and finally cut and sewn into actual pieces of clothing. Fiber types aren’t too complicated- there are basically three: Natural, Synthetic, and Natural-Synthetic. The third is, as you might guess, kind of a hybrid of the first two. Here’s a rundown of what types of fibers are out there, where they come from, and the implications, pros and cons of each.
Natural fibers are the easiest to wrap your head around, and probably the fibers that you're most familiar with by name. These materials come from animal and plant sources, and can be mechanically processed and spun into yarn. By "mechanically" processed, I mean that they only need to be physically manipulated (i.e. cleaned, rinsed, combed, etc.) to prepare them to be spun into yarn, as opposed to materials that must be chemically processed (like natural-synthetics, which we'll get to in a minute). To give a concrete example, cotton grows in these lovely little puff balls, which are picked, cleaned, combed, and twisted into yarn. If you'd like to see the process in action, here's a great video of cotton's transformation all the way from field to t-shirt.
From an ecological standpoint, natural fibers have the huge draw of being biodegradable, and they can be dyed with natural materials. However, that doesn't always mean that they're low impact; conventionally grown cotton, for example, makes use of some truly nasty pesticides, and even organic cotton requires immense amounts of water to grow and process. My favorite thing about wearing these materials is that they have a warm, natural (duh) feel to them. The trade off is that they have somewhat limited functionality- little to no stretch or stretch recovery (think the opposite of spandex) and they aren't very good at repelling water. This is where synthetics come in.
Examples: Polyester, Nylon, Spandex
Synthetic fibers are wonders of modern science. They can be made to stretch and shape, to wick moisture away from the body, and to insulate and carry heavy loads even when the fabric is thin and light. Because of these properties, most technical outdoor and sports apparel is made of synthetic materials. Synthetics also hold color beautifully, can be used to make extremely soft, silky fabrics, and are economically cheap to produce; as a result you'll find them in high percentages in most modern clothing. I say "economically" cheap because the actual resource use for the production of synthetics is high.
This is where the list of cons starts to rack up. Synthetic fibers are essentially very thin, pliable threads of plastic. Petroleum based chemicals are cooked up into a soft, semi-melted liquid, and then extruded out of a spinneret to create threads (picture a shower head, but with melted plastic instead of water). As you might imagine, the base materials used to make synthetics have negative implications for environmental impact, as well as the health of those working with and wearing these materials. And, as mentioned in my previous post, little bits of plastic tend to shed into our water systems when synthetic garments are washed, furthering the pollution they cause. Once they are thrown away, these materials can take hundreds of years to break down. This is, to put it mildly, not awesome.
But the truth is that we rely on the technical properties of synthetics quite heavily for modern life. They do things that natural fibers just aren't capable of, but that's where this next category of fibers gets exciting.
Natural-Synthetic or Cellulosics
Examples: Rayon, Tencel/Lyocell, Modal, Bamboo
Natural Synthetics are fibers that are produced using the same extrusion method as synthetics, but instead of using petroleum based chemicals as their base material, they use plant cellulose. This can come from any number of sources, including wood pulp, bamboo, soy, corn- the list goes on. Breaking plant matter down into a form that can be manipulated in this way generally takes some heavy chemical processing. Some materials, like bamboo, have gotten a bad reputation for overstating their eco-friendly properties and ignoring the heavy pollution that their processing often creates. Luckily there are solutions on the horizon for this issue. Lenzing Fibers has been developing responsible processes for innovative plant-based fibers, which recapture and reuse the chemicals that they use for processing. This helps to minimize pollution and environmental impact while taking advantage of renewable, biodegradable source materials.
Because we've relied so heavily on petroleum for so long, we're just now starting to see how much can be done with these materials, and to my mind they are the most promising and exciting category of fiber for sustainable progress.
Over the past four years, VAVA has used materials from all three of these categories. Though fabrics from a natural source are preferred, every lace suitable for lingerie that I have ever come across has been synthetic. Recycled synthetic laces are starting to appear on the market for companies with the buying power to purchase large, wholesale quantities, and may be an option that I explore in the future. Right now, all of VAVA's laces are deadstock fabrics, which means that they are surplus stock from larger companies that may have otherwise wound up in a landfill. In the future, I would be thrilled to see laces developed using natural synthetics like Tencel. Having worked with these types of knits in the past, I think that they have the technical properties and potential to replace at least some percentage of the nylon traditionally used in lace materials. If you all keep buying my bras and undies until I'm forced to become a big, giant, evil corporation we'll see what I can do ;)