Eco-Fashion: Fabric 101

By Feifei Sun / September 7, 2011

Once considered an expensive alternative, organic clothing has become ubiquitous in major fashion houses and retail stores alike. While the majority of conventional clothing requires the use of harmful pesticides and insecticides, organic clothing uses natural fibers and materials that don’t endanger the environment. Here, an introduction to some of the most commonly used eco-fabrics.


This nourishing plant, which has been a regular ingredient in after-sun products for ages, is now bringing those same comforting qualities to clothing. Tao Freedom uses the ingredient with a Meryl nylon in their Spring line. “It is so luxurious,” designer Dorothy Szeto says of the fabric. “It’s like butter. It drapes beautifully on the body, like a second skin.”


Although the plant is grown without harmful fertilizers and pesticides, some degree of chemical processing is still required to derive textile fibers from bamboo. Despite this fact, this woody plant is popping up more and more in designers’ green lines, including Toggery by Kate D’Arcy.


This new form of organic cotton is grown and cultivated in a socially responsible manner by artisans in Brazilian cooperatives. Used by designer Bonnie Siefers in her Jonäno collection, the colored-fiber cotton is strong, but soft to the touch, and has a natural light brown tint. Thus, the fabric is chemical free—Colorgrowns do not require any harmful processing or dyes.


Unlike traditional cotton, organic cotton is grown without the use of pesticides, fertilizers, or herbicides. The end result means higher thread counts and a finer, softer fabric that is just as strong. Blayne Siegel, president of Kinetix, uses a version called Pima in his eco-friendly line. “In the contemporary clothing business, quality needs to speak for itself,” Siegel says. “I found that by using Pima cotton fabric, the inherent features of the cotton gave my products the softness many companies tried to achieve by multiple washes. It is by far one of the softest cottons in the world.”


The original eco-fabric, hemp is highly versatile and has been used in the softest of soft T-shirts, as well as sturdy denim wear. Patagonia and Giorgio Armani are just a couple of the fashion houses who are incorporating this renewable, natural fiber in their collections. Hemp is harvested from fields that don’t require the use of pesticides and grows quickly, giving this already eco-friendly fabric additional benefits.


One of the cheapest natural fibers, the jute plant matures in just four months, making it highly renewable. Commonly known as burlap, this tough textile has been used in bags, shoes, and jackets. The material is also 100 percent recyclable and biodegradable.


A smooth, water-absorbent fiber, Modal is made by spinning reconstituted cellulose from Beech trees.  Because of its silky finish, the material is often used in intimates and other clothing worn close to the skin. Oscar de la Renta and Calvin Klein have used the material in their sleepwear pieces.


Soy fabric is so soft and silky that designers often call it “vegetable cashmere.” Grown from soybeans, this renewable resource is durable yet biodegradable. BECCA designer Rebecca Virtue says, “We all know how important it is to be conscious of our environment. Soy fabric brings a whole new level of comfort and luxury to my swimwear.”


The trademarked brand name for lyocell, this natural fiber is made from wood pulp cellulose. Tencel combines some of the most attractive qualities into one fabric: the material is soft, yet strong; luxurious, yet lasting. The fiber is highly absorbent, allowing it to be dyed without a great impact on the environment.


Similar to cashmere in its physical properties, this luxury fiber comes from Yak, a large, long-haired bovine indigenous to the Himalayan mountains. Stewart + Brown designer Karen Stewart uses and loves the material because it is socially conscious as well as environmentally conscious. “We buy our fiber from a co-op in which over 200 herder families participate,” she says. “The co-op means the herders and their families pool their resources to control their distribution in order to procure the majority of profits from their sales instead of being exploited by middle operators.” This incredibly sustainable fiber doesn’t itch like some knits and can even be tossed in the washing machine. No dry cleaning necessary.

Feifei Sun

Feifei Sun

Feifei Sun is a freelance writer based in Atlanta. She began her career at Vanity Fair and later worked as an editor at TIME, where she wrote about fashion and politics and helped edit the magazine's special issues, including the TIME 100 and Person of the Year. Her writing has also appeared in Real Simple, Marie Claire and the Huffington Post.
Feifei Sun

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