Do you know words like acrylic, polyester or cotton from the tags on clothing, but can never remember what is what? Here’s a short recap of the characteristics of the most common textiles used in clothing.
Textiles can be roughly divided into two groups: those made from synthetic fibre, and those made from natural fibre. Synthetic fibre is industrially made, often with polymers and chemicals. Natural fibre, on the other hand, is made from animal or plant fibre. We will first look at the most commonly used synthetic fibres, then the natural ones.
One of the most common synthetic materials is acrylic. It is often used in clothing for socks, gloves, sweaters, sportswear, and knit apparel. The advantages of acrylic are that it’s easy to wash and doesn’t wrinkle, stretch or shrink easily. It’s also resistant to damage by moths or chemicals, as well as sunlight. It is lightweight, soft, warm and feels very much like wool. It absorbs colour very well so it can be dyed easily into any colour. Acrylic clothing can be washed in the machine and they dry quickly. The downsides are that acrylic has low absorbency, that it develops static and is heat sensitive. It’s also not a very strong material, which is a reason that acrylic is not considered a very ecological option. The other reasons for that are the use of chemicals to make acrylic fibre, which is the case for all the synthetic fibres mentioned in this list, and that acrylic fibres often end up in nature, where they decompose slowly.
Elastane, on the other hand, is used a lot in sportswear because it is a very stretchy material. It has a very good resistance to perspiration and lotions, it’s lightweight, soft, strong and durable. However, it does not breath well and it is sensitive to heat.
Nylon is a shiny, smooth and silky material. It’s very lightweight and strong. Nylon can be warm or breathable depending on how it is made. It’s very resilient, easy to care and resistant to insects, fungi and perspiration. Unfortunately, it is not very absorbent, doesn’t resist well to sunlight, and can develop static.
Polyester is used in a lot of different types of clothing. It is strong and durable, easy to wash and it dries quickly. It also retains its shape well and is resistant to shrinking and sun. The biggest problem with polyester is that it is not breathable, but also that stains can be hard to remove and that, like many other synthetic fabrics, it is not eco-friendly.
The most common natural textile used in clothing is probably cotton. It is made from the part of cotton plants that appears after the flower has fallen. Cotton is a very soft and comfortable material, it’s absorbent and colour-absorbent, strong but easy to handle and sew. It is also a cheap material, which makes it so popular. The problems with cotton can be that it shrinks easily in hot water, weakens with perspiration and sunlight and burns easily. Cotton is an eco-friendly option as it is also biodegradable (but a piece of clothing can contain many different textiles as well as metal parts, so you should check for those before, for example, composting a piece of cotton clothing), but ecological and ethical are not synonyms, and no type of textile can be guaranteed to be ethical.
Silk is made by breaking silkworm cocoons into fibres. It is thus, even if we don’t always even pay attention to it, animal based, and there are many different opinions about how ethical animal based textiles can be. As a material, silk is soft and shiny, strong but lightweight, resistant to oils and moths, absorbent and easy to dye. On the other hand, it is quite pricey, needs taking good care, stains with water and yellows with age. It’s also weakened by perspiration, sun and soap as well as attractive to insects.
Wool comes from sheep fleece which is sometimes ethically, sometimes unethically produced. It is very warm, lightweight, wrinkle resistant, absorbent and durable. Wool dyes well, and it is recyclable. The downsides are that it can also be itchy on the skin, moths love it, it shrinks with heat and moisture, weakens when wet and can be harmed by bleach and perspiration, so it needs to be washed and handled with care.
Cashmere is similar to wool, but it comes from the wool of cashmere goats. It’s a very soft, lightweight and silky material ,which is also quite expensive. Cashmere goats may be farmed and forced to live in bad conditions for the production of cashmere.
Angora rabbits’ fur is used to make angora. Angora is a very soft and warm material, but unfortunately angora is the a very controversial material in terms of ethical production: there is a lot of talk about the horrible conditions in which the rabbits are kept for their fur.
Angora shouldn’t be mixed up with mohair, which comes from angora goats’ fur. Mohair is also soft, easy to dye and light, absorbent and non-flammable. Once again, we can still question how the animals are treated for their fur and how ethical the production of mohair is.
Bamboo, as it can be quite easy to guess, is made from bamboo timber fibres. It’s often seen as an ecological choice, but that depends on what bamboo is used to produce it. Bamboo is a very versatile material because it is warm in cold weather and breathable in warm weather. It absorbs well and is soft, which makes it good for underwear and socks.
Linen is made from flax fibres. It’s used a lot in summer clothing because it lets the skin breathe, It’s strong and durable and usually comfortable on the skin. Linen also resists dirt and stains. Unlike some synthetic or animal-based materials, linen is hypoallergenic. It’s hand washable, so you should be careful with it, and it also wrinkles and burns quite easily.
Cannabis sativa plant is used to make hemp fibre. The plant is very rich in fibre, doesn’t exhaust the soil and grows very fast: it’s an ecological choice and the production takes less space than cotton or flax for example. Hemp is a strong material, it is hypoallergenic and breathable, but also UV resistant. Hemp wrinkles easily, it can be a bit harsh on the skin if not mixed to other materials and doesn’t take in colour very well.
Finally, there is one commonly used material that is neither entirely synthetic nor natural. Viscose, sometimes called “artificial silk”, is made from regenerated cellulose fibre. It’s very low-cost and it can be very different depending on how it is made. Viscose breathes similarly to cotton. It is durable, dyes well and doesn’t cause static, but it wrinkles easily and is heat sensitive, as well as stretches and shrinks when washed. Viscose may need dry-cleaning to keep it looking good. It also weakens when wet and has low resiliency. You could think that viscose is environmentally friendly because it is made using reused natural fibres, but those are treated with chemicals, which means viscose is not any more ecological than other synthetic textiles.
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