Most of the garments we wear day to day are made up of a combination of several different materials and fibres which have probably been sown, grown, spun, dyed, cut and sewn in a number of different countries. Below is an overview of the most commonly used fibres as well as details on new advances in fibre and material technology.
Materials are the building blocks of the clothing industry and they can be made from almost anything from experimental fibres to industrial synthetics. Either way the materials have come from somewhere and taking a closer look at them makes assessing their ethical and environmental impact easier. However, because of the global distribution of production within the clothing industry this part of the cycle can be the hardest to relate to…what do have to do with a farmer 5,000 miles away or the pollutant processes of synthetic fibre production? We say…EVERYTHING!
You choose what you buy and every time you put your hand in your pocket you cast your vote.
Fibres are the basic building block of textiles.They are tiny hair-like strands that are combined to make yarn and fabric.There are two types of strands; stable strands which are short like cotton, and filament strands which are long continuous strands like those of man-made fabrics like polyester. Fibres come from natural sources like wool from sheep, or man-made sources for example polyester which is made from plastic.
Wool has been produced in Ireland for centuries. Woolen mills like Donegal yarn, Foxford Mills and Avoca Handweavers use traditional methods to produce woollen yarn as a raw material for textiles. Wool is a sustainable material, it is renewable – it is produced annually from sheep flocks. It can also be ethically produced if the sheep are fed grass that is free from pesticides and if they are not dipped in chemical baths to treat the wool. Considering the energy used in the production of textiles for the garment industry, wool uses a third less that that of cotton and a fifth less than that of nylon. Despite being a sustainable raw material, wool needs quite an amount of ”finishing’ to make it usable. Some of the stages of finishing include carbonising, fulling, bleaching and dying, which use water and chemicals in their processes.
Sheep are generally an introduced species in environments where they are held in large numbers (monoculture), this means that they can have adverse effects the local environment including established wildlife. Sheep graze very close to the root of grass, meaning it can take a long time for the crop to recover and this can leave large areas of land bare for long periods of time. Australia is the worlds largest producer of wool, with 350 million kilograms produced from 75 million sheep in 2010/2011. Biological wool shearing has been introduced experimentally in Australia. This involves injecting an artificial growth factor into sheep to interrupt hair growth. This results in breaks in the wool fibre within a month, the fleece can then be pulled off in half the time it takes to shear a sheep.
Silk production originated in China over 5000 years ago and the techniques have not changed dramatically. Silk is produced from the chrysalis of the silkworm. Cultivated silk is produced in a sericulture system and results in the death of the silk moth chrysalis after if has spun its cocoon. Wild (tussah or peace) silk is produced in a much more humane way – it allows the silk moth to emerge from its cocoon unharmed – but produced silk with a shorter staple length. The process is outlined below. Silk production is not limited to the silkworm. Spiders produce a silk that is stronger than its equivalent weight in steel. Experiments infusing genetically enhanced goats with spider silk genes at genetic level have led to the production of goat milk that includes the spider silk protein. The silk is removed from the milk and spun into yarn much like that of the silkworm.
Cotton 4.5 trillion litres of water is used to produce the 252 billion kilograms of cotton used in the world annually. 148 trillion litres of oil and 90 billion litres of chemicals are also used in the process. The challenges associated with producing sustainable cotton include reducing the amounts of pesticides, water chemicals and fertilisers used in the process. Organic cotton is produced in a system that does not use synthetic pesticides, fertilisers or insecticides. Presently, only 1% of the worlds cotton is produced organically. Low-chemical cotton production is feasible but is not the preferred method as it increases the use for manual labour. Low water-use cotton production takes place in areas with high rainfall that can be manipulated to irrigate crops, however the irrigation lines need to be lain by hand at the beginning of the season and are automatically destroyed by mechanical means at the end of every season. Fairtrade cotton production has come to the forefront in recent years with companies like Marks and Spenser committing to using the material in its clothing production. It benefits the cotton farmers that produce the crop by working with them to guaratee fair wages and working conditions. A huge amount of the cotton produced in the world today happens in Uzbekistan. The film short ‘White Gold‘ (see sidebar for link) gives a shocking account of the unsustainable production process and slave-like working conditions faced by cotton-pickers (mainly young children) in this country. It also highlights the depletion of the Aral Sea water resource which led to the collapse of the fishing industry. Europe buys a third of the cotton produced in Uzbekistan, supporting substandard working conditions, the depletion of environmental resources and increasing the demand for unsustainable products.
Synthetic fibres were first produced as an experiment to improve on the qualities of natural fibres. the first synthetic fibre ‘rayon’ was mass produced around the time of World War II as a replacement for silk. It is most famously known as being the component of ladies stockings but was also used to replace silk in parachutes and other military items. There are many ways to produce synthetic fibres but the most common way is to heat the materials to melt them, draw out the molecules and force them through a ‘spineretes’ forming a continuous thread. The compounds used to make these fibres come from raw materials like petrochemicals.
Lyocell is the generic name for a high performance viscose fibre produced from wood pulp. Amine oxide, a non-toxic solvent is recycled in the closed loop production process. The fibre is very versatile and can be used as a weave or blended with other fabrics. Products made from lyocell can be recycled, incinerated, landfilled or degraded in anaerobic digestion facilities.
Mineral fibres are made from natural or synthetic minerals or metal oxides. They include fibres like amianto, a hydrate of calcium and magnesium with great insulating power, glass fibres which are obtained by stretching molten glass (fibreglass) and metal filaments obtained by stretching metal threads (lurex).
New Fibre Technologies
New fabrics are constantly being developed and today there are a range of unconventional fibres available for use as fabrics in the industry. One example is crab & cotton. ‘Crabyon’ fabrics are composed of shell pulp, binders and cotton. The results is a soft knit that is antibacterial, anti-odour, absorbent, durable, biodegradable and can be dyed.
Some others include:
- bubble & felt: popped plastic bubble wrap is coated with industrial felt for a soft, insulating, non-woven fabric
- steel & linen: stainless steel and linen cord are hand woven together, making the fabric highly flexible one way and with shape memory the other way
- aluminium & plastic: two supple materials are combined for protection against sunlight, radiation & weather
- metal & knit: stretch polyester knitwear with a shiny silver coating that will not rip/crack
- ceramic & shell: seashells are sliced thinly and laminated onto a ceramic base
- natural & mutated: a new species of rabbit (Orylag®) was genetically mutated at the INRA in France. Its fur is as fine as cashmere, 2 to 3 times longer than chinchilla, soft as mink and the animal is raised for tender meat as well.
- 3D printed: instead of being woven this textile (plastic, metal & nylon) is conceived on a computer and created on a 3D printer, no cutting sewing or assembly required