Fibers cover our skin every day almost all the time. From jeans to t-shirts, towels, sweaters, scarfs, pants, shirts, dresses, socks, stockings, bed sheets, blankets and more, they provide us protection from the weather.
Clothing fibers can be natural, derived from crops and animals, or synthetic, which are chemically treated. Natural fibers are gentler, softer to the skin; they last longer and are healthier because they do not include chemicals in their make up. Synthetic fibers such as nylon, rayon, acetate, polyester are treated with chemicals and thus less healthy and environmentally friendly.
Here are the main natural crop and animal fibers used for clothing and their main characteristics.
It is one of the most used fibers in apparel worldwide.
Cotton fiber derives from the cotton plant Gossypium primarily grown in tropical and subtropical regions in America, Egypt and India.
Its use can be dated to 5.000 BC, the earliest evidence having been found in Pakistan. It was used in garments by ancient civilizations in Mexico, in India and Arabic regions. It spread to the Mediterranean region and Europe during the Wars of Alexander the Great.
For many centuries cotton was produced manually using the spinning wheel. Between the 13rh and 14th centuries, the worm gear roller gin was invented in India, paving the way to place cotton as a predominant trade product of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century.
China is the largest producer, and the United States is the largest exporter.
Fibers made of cotton are durable, easy to dry and iron, inexpensive and soft to the skin. They are mostly used for everyday clothes such as jeans, t-shirts, sports garments, and also for towels, bandages, uniforms, bedsheets, and disposable products for hospitals.
It is a resistant and fine fiber for clothing, made from the flax plant. Linen garments are considered to be of higher quality than cotton ones, and more expensive.
Linen has been historically associated with purity. Egyptians used it for mummification, burial shrouds and priests’ cloaks. Garments made of linen were meant for high-society.
Manufacturing linen is more difficult than cotton, as the threads are not elastic and are harder to weave. It is also very strong and durable: linen curtains dating 3,000 years have been found intact in Egyptian tombs.
Linen is one of the most ancient fibers. Dyed flax fibers have been found in a prehistoric cave in Georgia dating back even to 36,000 BC.
The largest producers are located in Western Europe. Ireland has been historically the world’s industrial linen center, enjoying significant growth during the cotton scarcity period during United States’ Civil War.
Linen is mostly used in bed sheets, tablecloths, and fine garments like shirts, dresses and suits.
Silk is produced in the cocoons of certain larvae (Bombyx Mori, cecropia moth, Chinese tasar moth and the allanthus silkmoth are the best known).
The most salient quality of silk is its shine, resulting from the triangular shape of the fiber structure, allowing light to reflect in different ways throughout its surface.
China introduced silk, the oldest findings dating to around 8,500 years ago. Silk has been considered since ancient times a luxury material. Historically its use was exclusive of the emperors, later it spread through trade and became a product of high value and price all over Europe.
Catanzaro (Italy) was the first production center and supplier in Medieval Europe.
Silk is often used for luxury garments: nightgowns, dresses, shirts, blouses, suits and lingerie.
Wool is the textile fiber obtained from sheep and other animals.
The way sheep are raised; geography and climate determine the quality of the fleece, the wool taken off the animal.
The finest and best quality wool comes from Merino sheep, mainly bred in Australia and New Zealand, the world-leading suppliers.
Around the 4th millennium BC Breeding of sheep for wool were introduced into Europe from the Near East. Romans used wool, linen and leather for their clothing, as cotton had not yet been spread outside India.
Wool keeps warmth but is also highly thermally resistant and thus suitable for deserted climates.
It is an expensive and exclusive fiber obtained from cashmere or pashmina goats, and it is famous for its use on top quality shawls and other luxury items.
Although cashmere is believed to have been produced from ancient times, possibly 3000 BC, the industry is believed to have been developed by Kashmir ruler Zamir-ul-Abidin in the 14th century.
Later on, French companies imported cashmere to make their own version of shawls, sold by top brand shops all over the world.
Today’s leading producer is China followed by Mongolia, Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey.
Cotton, linen and wool are fibers derived from nature – crops and animals. They are softer, gentler and healthier than synthetic fibers; they fit better on the body too. They ensure our skin does not absorb chemicals, while also keeping it dry. Plus, natural fibers are environmentally friendly: the production process requires less energy consumption and contaminants, and they are biodegradable.
Natural fiber clothing has protected and kept us warm for centuries. Why would we prefer lower quality synthetic clothes, which are less healthy for us and for the environment?
Next time you shop for clothing, look at the garment’s label and check what is made of. Choose clothes that are purely natural: they will last longer, will look better on you, and will make you feel good.