The Fiber File

By Leena Oijala / August 31, 2012

Photography by Kacper Kasprzyk, Courtesy of H&M

Now that sustainable fashion is more than a passing trend, sustainable textiles are sweeping into the collections of fashion designers around the world. Here is a snapshot of the newest, most sustainable materials available. We’ve spotlighted creative designers along with their solutions for environmentally and ethically made clothes that don’t compromise on design. Established mainstream labels are also noticing the demand for sustainable apparel and using their influence in the fashion world to help make a difference in the way we buy and wear clothes.

The Anticipators: Wood Pulp and Plant-Based Synthetics

Plant-based synthetics could render oil-based synthetics such as polyester completely obsolete. An Austrian company called Lenzing AG produces textiles from cellulose fibers like beech or eucalyptus wood pulp, processed in an eco-friendly and water-conscious manner. Their Tencel and Modal fabrics are widely used by designers and offer excellent draping and durability, alongside natural cooling and moisture management. Big brands like H&M feature plant-based materials in their Conscious Collection, while smaller brands like Covet, Nicole Bridger, PACT Underwear and Topo Ranch produce great basics and pieces that offer the benefits of chemical free, silky smoothness suitable even for the most sensitive skin.

The Reclaimers: Recycled PET

Our world is now full of plastic, so what to do with it? Teijin, a Japanese company, found an answer by pioneering technology that melts plastic bottles and food containers and re-spins them into fibers for apparel-grade yarns (recycled PET). Nike and Patagonia have been at the forefront of utilizing recycled PET to demonstrate how petrochemical plastics don’t have to go into landfills. Nike calculates that recycling PET reduces energy consumption by 30 percent compared to manufacturing virgin polyester.

The Stalwarts: Organic Cotton, Bamboo

Organic cotton is the backbone of eco-fashion, but has become so green-washed that many of its faults, such as need for excessive watering and depletion of soil quality, are easily overlooked. However, look for labels like Prairie Underground, Feral Childe and American Apparel, among others, that integrate responsibly sourced organic cotton into their garments, ensuring that farmers and factories involved are using sustainable methods.

Bamboo, frequently labeled ‘eco,’ is controversial. The extraction of long fibers from bamboo stalks for spinning high-quality yarn is so energy- and chemical-intensive that potential benefits of using a natural and fast-growing resource cancel out. Until alternative technologies for extracting bamboo fiber are developed, the material cannot be considered sustainable.

The Mavericks: Hemp, Nettle, Jute

Hemp fiber can be spun into luxurious silk-like yarn. It is a low-maintenance, fast-growing plant that thrives even in poor soil, and blends well with cotton to produce durable, breathable, comfortable fabric. Jeans label Kuyichi, Deborah Lindquist and new LA label Groceries have all caught on to hemp’s versatility. Nettle textiles are also on the rise, and Dutch label Netl and Norwegian designer Leila Hafzi use nettle textiles, advocating the use of a plant that grows like a common weed in many countries. Jute is still in its infancy, but has been found in the collections of shoe labels like Neuaura.

The Adventurers: Salmon Skin and SeaCell

On the fishier end of the spectrum are the experimental fiber types. Textiles recycled from discarded fish skins of the food industry have been popping up in the collections of adventurous designers like Lindsay Long, swimwear label SKINI London and shoes by Manolo Blahnik and Osklen. Salmon, tilapia and piracucu skin produce a suede-like material that is stronger and more flexible than leather, but doesn’t smell of fish! Another experimental fiber is SeaCell, found in the collections of LA based Linda Loudermilk. Made from a blend of wood fiber and seaweed, the material is soft and breathable.

Leena Oijala
Leena Oijala

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