Until the turn of the twentieth century, the only fabrics available were natural fabrics made from fibres which came from animal, insect and vegetable sources.
Natural fibres include cotton, wool, linen, hemp, silk, ramie, jute and sisal. Bamboo has gained popularity in the last few years.
In the last century, petrochemical based synthetic fabrics had gain popularity over natural fabrics due to the short term economic advantages of synthetics.
However, we are now seeing a shift back to natural fibres as more and more people become aware of the environmental and health costs involved in the production of these petrochemical based fibres.
Synthetic or man-made fabrics include fabrics such as rayon, acetate, nylon, acrylic, polyester, fleece, olefin, spandex, lastex and kevlar. They are made from chemically produced fibres and fibres created by scientists including some manufactured from natural materials like cellulose and wood pulp.
Most synthetic fibres are manufactured from polymer-based petrochemical materials. It is an energy intensive process requiring large amounts of crude oil, coal or natural gas. It releases toxic emissions including volatile organic compounds (VOC), particulate matter, and acid gases such as hydrogen chloride which can cause respiratory problems.
Toxic by-products contained in the wastewater from manufacturing plants pollute our waterways, killing marine animals and disrupting the aquatic eco-system.
Both synthetic and natural fabrics can have synthetic dyes and other chemicals added to make the fabric softer, more colourful, crease-free, fire-resistant, water-resistant, stain-resistant, soil-resistant and moth-repellent. While all these qualities are desirable, they can have harmful effects on our health and the environment.
Although natural fibres are derived from renewable sources and are biodegradable, those that are not certified organic may still have pesticide residues and may be processed or treated with chemicals during the manufacturing process.
With an increasing awareness of the amount of chemical usage in conventional cotton production and its impact on our health and the environment, more people are searching for alternatives such as organic clothing made from certified organic cotton or hemp clothing.
Cotton plants are highly susceptible to pests and diseases and conventional cotton farmers are responsible for 25% of global pesticide use. Cotton is one of the most environmentally destructive agricultural crops. Heavy use of pesticides depletes the soil nutrients resulting in the need for synthetic fertilisers, thus creating a dependent cycle of increasing chemical use.
Some use chemicals such as defoliants before and after picking the cotton to clean plant residue out of the cotton. In addition, it may be bleached with chlorine based chemicals, which are known to be toxic to the environment.
During the conversion of conventional cotton into clothing and fabric, many hazardous materials such as softeners, silicone waxes, harsh petroleum scours, heavy metals, flame and soil retardants, ammonia, and formaldehyde are used and added to the product.
Conventional cotton manufacturing processes often result in large volumes of toxic waste water that carry away residues from chemical cleaning, dyeing and finishing. This toxic waste pollutes our waterways, depleting the oxygen from the water and destroying marine animals and disrupting the ecosystems.
Most chemicals applied during the cultivation and processing of conventional cotton leave chemical residues in the fabrics, which could cause allergies, skin irritations, chemical sensitivities and other health problems.
On the other hand, organic cotton is grown in soil that is certified free of chemical fertilisers and pesticides. Organic cotton farmers use environmentally sustainable systems that replenish and maintain soil fertility, promote biodiversity and natural pest control. They use natural fertilisers such as compost and animal manure that recycles the nitrogen within the soil.
All the ‘nasty’ chemicals used in the processing of conventional cotton are prohibited in organic cotton processing. Only certain biodegradable, low impact dyes and oxy, hydrogen peroxide bleach is allowed in organic certification. Therefore, organic cotton is non-toxic and hypoallergenic, thus ideal for those with allergies and chemical sensitivities.
Organic cotton is becoming increasingly available but it does cost more than conventional cotton in the short term. However, we do need to consider all the hidden, detrimental long term costs of conventional cotton to our health and our environment.
Hemp is the longest and strongest natural plant fibre. Hemp is a dense, fast growing plant reaching up to 5 metres in height and can be cultivated in as little as 100 days. It can be grown in most climates and is tolerant of a wide range of conditions.
It is easy to grow hemp organically, thus eliminating many of the ecological problems associated with conventional cultivation of other fibres. Hemp does not require herbicides to grow as its dense foliage blocks weed growth, keeping the field weed free for the next crop.
Unlike cotton, hemp does not have a high water requirement. It has a deep tap root system that aerates the soil and draws nutrients and water from deeper soil layers, eliminating the need for fertilisers and irrigation.
Hemp actually enriches the soil it is grown in, thus it can be grown in the same field year after year with no negative impact on the land. After the crop has been harvested, the leaves rot down and return a high proportion of nutrients back to the soil. It is pretty much organic by nature.
Hemp fibres are easy to remove from the plant and immediately ready to comb and use. Anything that can be made from cotton or linen can be made from hemp. It is very versatile as it can be as comfortable as linen and ramie, as soft as the softest cotton flannel and as strong as denim.
Hemp is an amazingly durable fabric which softens with every wash, rendering it a great fabric for items such as jeans. Due to the strength of the fibre when wet, it does not weaken or lose its shape with washing. It is extremely hard wearing and outwears other natural fibres. It rapidly absorbs moisture, which accounts for its coolness and comfort when used for clothing or bedding.
Despite its desirability, hemp production was illegal in many countries for years as it is closely associated with the recreational drug, marijuana. Industrial hemp and marijuana are varieties of the Cannabis Sativa plant. Industrial hemp contains almost untraceable amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the “active” ingredient in marijuana.
More information on this topic can be found in Chapter 6 of the ‘Go Natural’ Book.
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