Microfiber Pollution 101


What Happened to the Velvet?

It’s funny when you hear something that’s exactly what you would expect, and at the same time something that never occurred to you before.

I’ve struggled with whether or not to continue purchasing velvet fabric for VAVA for a while.  As much as I love velvet, I hate working with the stuff.  All those tiny little fibers that give velvet its plush texture also shed like mad when cut, and the fabric pieces continue to shed a fine, glittery cloud as I work with them.  Not only does this leave an unwelcome shimmery dusting on every other material in its wake, it gets into my lungs and gunks up my sewing machines. 

Magnifeco Radio is a regular on my sewing podcast rotation, and it was Kate Black’s episode on how fashion affects the ocean that introduced me to the concept of microfiber pollution.  While listening, I instantly realized that the shedding of those fibers doesn’t end once a garment is sewn- it primarily continues to occur during washings, and those tiny fibers then make their way into our oceans and water systems.  Duh.  If this stuff pollutes my small studio environment, it probably does the same to the environment at large.

Microfiber pollution is something it seems we’re just beginning to understand, and something I hadn’t heard of until rather recently.  If the concept is new to you too, here’s a very basic rundown of what’s up.

What happens is this: garments shed fibers when washed.  It’s one of the reasons they tend to get thinner and softer over time (think about that favorite t-shirt you’ve had since high school).  When the fabric in question is made from a natural material, like cotton or wool, its not such a big deal.  Those fibers break down; they’re biodegradable.  When the fabric in question is synthetic, like polyester or nylon, it contaminates our water with plastics, which can then break down into dangerous chemicals.

If you’re not familiar with textiles and fibers, this might sound weird, but that’s what synthetics are- they’re basically plastic.  (If you’re curious about the difference between synthetic and natural fibers and want to learn more about just what the hell fabrics are made of, and how, check back here for a super nerdy post on fibers coming soon.)

These tiny fibers are too small to be filtered by standard methods- studies estimate that up to 40% of them make it past water treatment plants and into waterways.  They’re also small enough to be easily consumed by fish and other aquatic life.  One researcher studying water pollution in the Great Lakes found microfibers so densely present in fish there that they were practically woven into their gastrointestinal tract.

Continuing studies are beginning to find that micro-fibers may be the most prevalent and pervasive form of human-made water pollution on earth.  This obviously has an adverse affect of the health of those species living in oceans, rivers, and lakes, and researchers are still trying to figure out the extent to which these toxic substances affect those higher up the food chain (like humans) who are consuming them second hand.

When I read things like this, my first response is super reactionary.  I think that I should instantly stop buying, owning, and sewing with synthetics entirely.  But I’ve found that if becoming educated about an issue requires an immediate and extreme lifestyle change, I’m actually just less likely to continue to educate myself.

It’s the same reason that crash diets rarely work for people; they get burnt out, they feel like they’re constantly denying themselves, and the results aren’t profound enough for the drastic change in lifestyle they’re imposing upon themselves.  Giving up isn’t just something that happens, it quickly feels like the only sane option, and it leaves the person feeling defeated and powerless.  It’s been my experience that extreme all or nothing positions tend to have this effect in most areas of our lives.

I’ve tried to shift my approach.  Rather than setting hard and fast rules for myself, I try to be as informed as possible about how my decisions affect the world around me, and to develop a habit of thinking through each and every decision individually.  It’s more difficult because it takes more time, and moreover requires that I constantly acknowledge that I am complicit in inherently fucked up, exploitive and harmful systems.  

But I think that if we as individuals can affect positive change on the larger systems that govern our lives, this is how.  The first step is simply being informed: seeking out information that might make you feel uncomfortable and sharing that information with others, without a soapbox if you can ;)  The second part is to just consider that information as you go about your day.  If you’re looking at two t-shirts, one made with polyester and one made with organic cotton, remember that the most responsible decision would actually be to buy neither.  Maybe you don’t always buy the organic cotton one, but maybe after thinking on it for a while you decide that it really is worth the extra $15.  

So- don’t feel like you have to go home and immediately purge your closet; here are some small things to consider that can help lessen your impact moving forward:

  • Natural fibers like (cotton, wool, and linen) and natural-synthetics (like rayon, modal, and lyocell) shed biodegradable fibers and are not harmful in the same way as synthetics like polyester, nylon, and lycra.  Again, if you want to know more about fibers, check back here soon!  I promise it will make shopping for clothing infinitely more interesting.
  • High quality garments tend to shed less than cheaper garments, as they’re generally made with more durable textiles that do not break down as quickly.
  • Front load washers are not only more efficient in terms of water use, they also filter out more microfiber particles than their top-load counterparts.
  • Not everything has to be washed every time you wear it!  I wash my bras about every 5-10 wearings, depending on the weather and my activity level while wearing them.  Handwashing also helps, as its gentler on the fabric, causing it to shed less and extending the life of your garment.
  • One company has developed a micro-fiber filter bag that can be used to contain this contaminate when washing your clothes.

We learn new information and develop new solutions all the time.  My hope is that as we develop more natural-synthetic fiber options we will be able to ween ourselves off of petroleum-based fibers entirely.  The more we as consumers understand about our options, and the more we actively ask for and support better materials and production methods, the more this industry will improve. (side note: be on the lookout for a whole collection of Organic Cotton goods coming soon!)

If you’ve read this whole post, you’ve already done the most important thing by my count, which is to have a curiosity about how your choices affect the world around you.  I think that the most positive change comes not from a place of panic, but from active, informed, and determined concern.  If you’d like a little information nudge from time to time, subscribe below and we figure this shit out together.  Thanks for reading!


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