The qualities of fabrics and their origins, which most fast fashion consumers are oblivious to, can make a huge impact on the outcomes of our clothing purchases, from how they fit and wash to their greater environmental impact throughout the fashion life cycle.
Cotton is the seed fibre of the cotton plant that grows wild and can be cultivated in many parts of the world. Cotton is the 2nd most commonly used textile fibre in the world. It is extremely versatile and is widely available in many different qualities, most of which are inexpensive. It is prized for its comfort, and low cost, and is easily blended, normally with polyester. In its conventional (non-organic) form, cotton production uses over 25% of the world's pesticides and insecticides.
Flax, the plant that produces linen, is a bast fibre and is extracted from the stalk of the flax plant. Historically flax and other bast fibres (jute, hemp, ramie) were very important fibres prized for their strength and durability. Flax is now seen as a luxury fibre due to its long and intricate harvesting process, excellent performance and cool, crisp, lustrous handle.
Viscose, otherwise known as rayon, is a man-made fibre created from wood pulp, usually from renewable Eucalyptus, Pine, Bamboo or Spruce trees. The wood pulp is considerably cheaper than cotton fibre, though the production costs of viscose have risen in recent years due to the need to meet the environmental legislation, as the chemicals involved in processing are damaging to the local habitat.
Silk is the only naturally produced filament (extra long textile fibre). Most of the world's silk is extracted from the cocoon of the Bombyx Mori moth caterpillar, also known as the Mulberry silk worm; this process exterminates the pupae using heat and steam. Approximately 420 ‘silk worms’ produce 1kg of raw silk. In the Roman period silk was worth the same as gold and entire trade routes were established based on its trade.
The cashmere fibre is combed from goats, with each animal only producing around 110g of this fibre per year. Cashmere fibres only come from goats producing at least 30% down hair, where down fibres are extremely fine. The best quality cashmere comes from China (particularly Inner Mongolia) and poorer quality cashmere mostly comes from Iran and Afghanistan.
Acrylic, a synthetic fibre often used as a cheaper alternative to wool, is made from a plastic polymer called polyacrylonitrile. Acrylic fibres are normally texturised and spun into voluminous yarns that are inherently warm with good wickability and comfort to imitate wool's properties.
Polyamide, more commonly known as nylon, was developed in the 1930s, and was the first truly synthetic fibre produced. Nylon is directly derived from crude oil, and has almost unlimited uses in textiles for apparel, and was originally create to make sheer stockings and tights as a cheaper alternative to silk.
Polyester, invented in the 1940's, is an enormously popular fibre, it has excellent easy care properties, strength and durability, is very cheap and is the most versatile of the man-made fibres, often blended with most major fibres. This synthetic fibre is extruded from plastic polymers, essentially made from crude oils, then spun and texturised to act as a textile fibre.
So how do we choose clothes wisely based on the fabric content label alone? As a general rule, natural fibres (cotton, wool) are superior to synthetic ones (polyester, acrylic), and fibres with a cellulosic origin (viscose, lyocell) are superior to those with an oil-based (polyamides, polyurethane) or animal-based (silk) origin.
These choices are important both in terms of quality, aesthetic, comfort and most importantly, sustainability. Also, its a good idea to look out for clothing with fewer 'blended' fabrics and more 'pure' fabrics, as this makes the recycling process at the end of the garment's usage period much easier. Finally, if possible, always aim for organic and fair trade materials, looking for the certified standardised logos in these cases, to prioritise the wellbeing of people and the planet over simply profit.