Synthetic fabrics come with many obvious benefits, but there is also an environmental cost. How do they compare with natural fabrics, and is there an argument to be made, and a place in our wardrobes, for both?
By Steven Woods, from Yorkshire Fabric Shop
Natural vs Synthetic Fabrics
Fibres come in two fairly distinct kinds, depending on their origins: natural and synthetic. Natural fibres come from plants and animals with little in the way of processing, while synthetic fibres generally require several steps, involving complex machinery, the employment of various chemical compounds, and often come from non-renewable sources. Both types have advantages and disadvantages; and, for various reasons, each is valued in the textile industry.
As the worldwide demand for textiles grows, the possible environmental impacts resulting from their manufacture, usage, and disposal will increase. Both natural and synthetic fabrics greatly impact our environment, and the future of this industry will surely affect us, whether for good or for bad.
Bearing that in mind, let’s try to compare the impact of fabrics on our environment, considering their advantages and disadvantages.
Raw, natural materials are spun into threads, then woven or knitted into natural fabrics and yarns. All three sectors of nature, including animals, vegetables, and minerals, produce fibres that can be used in the manufacture of textiles.
Some of the fabric considered natural is used as design upholstery fabric, such as cotton, silk, and wool. It is generally thought that, because natural fabrics are made out of natural material, these are environmentally positive fabrics. For the most part, this is true, although they aren’t without environmental issues.
Popular Natural Fabrics
Wool is a fabric made from the fur of sheep, goats, alpacas, llamas, and/or various other animals. It is a fibre that is very warm, absorbent, and strong. Thanks to the lanolin oils from some of these animals, it can be water-resistant, and is commonly used to produce outerwear and cold weather clothes such as sweaters and coats.
Cotton fabric is developed from the cotton plant’s plant fibres. Cotton consists primarily of cellulose, an insoluble organic compound essential to the structure of plants, and is a soft and fluffy fibre.
In addition to that, Cotton fabric is soft and sturdy and is also used to make undergarments and t-shirts. Natural cotton, denim, and canvas are several examples of various types of cotton fabric.
Silk is a natural fibre for their nests and cocoons that is developed by insects as a material. Silkworms produce the most common type of silk. Silk is mostly made of a protein called fibroin, and as a substance, it is known for its shine and softness.
Benefits of Natural Fabrics
Natural fibres are well-regarded and easy to find, as the fabric is typically more environmentally friendly, durable, and typically more suitable for children. Here are some reasons why its good to use natural fabrics.
In addition to often being naturally hypoallergenic, fabrics such as cotton, silk, and linen are considered natural fabrics and have certain antibacterial properties. Bamboo fabrics also have a anti-microbial bioagent, and due to its structure is inherently suitable for individuals with sensitive skin.
During the process of producing bamboo fabric, this natural antibacterial agent is retained, which makes the fabric naturally anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, and odour-resistant. Pure silk bed sheets are also advisable for babies and adults who have very sensitive skin.
Natural fabrics are have a high degree of absorption. This allows them to wick moisture away from your skin, if you happen to get caught in the rain, while this increased internal ventilation helps these fabrics to dry faster. If you suffer from the heat in these warmer months, such fabrics might make a big difference.
Sustainable and Renewable
Being sourced from natural materials, these fabrics have a lower impact on the environment, as the expense of higher production costs. Natural fabrics require less mechanical processing, and the addition of fewer chemical compounds, but often require larger amounts of manual labour.
Most natural fabrics are biodegradable, moisture-wicking, breathable, flexible, heat-responsive, and naturally repellent against mould and soil, as well as being environmentally friendly.
In addition to that, fibres such as organic cotton also have the bonus of being organically grown, which means that no synthetic pesticides or fertilizers were used in their production, and they can safely be composted back down when they’ve reached the end of their life cycle and returned to the soil.
Synthetic fabrics, typically produced by chemical processes, are made of synthetic materials. During the chemical phase, the fibres are usually extracted using a spinneret, which is a system that takes polymers to form fibres. As cheaper and more easily mass-produced alternatives to natural fibres, synthetic fibres have become a mainstay of the textile industry.
Popular Synthetic Fabrics
Made from extremely finely woven filaments of acrylic, nylon, polyester, or rayon, microfibre can be woven so tightly that wind, rain, or cold can not penetrate the cloth, making it perfect for use in raincoats.
The material used to create rayon is regenerated cellulose. It has similar characteristics to soil, a brilliant look, excellent draping qualities, a high absorbency, and no static or pilling issues. While rayon is made from plant fibres, it is called semi-synthetic because of the chemicals used in the manufacturing process, such as sodium hydroxide and carbon disulfide.
Polyester is made of polyethene terephthalate. A fast-drying, durable, soft, and sturdy textile that does not wrinkle and keeps its shape well, it combines well with natural fibres–including cotton, wool, or artificial fibres–to make the fabric more durable and easier to wash.
Benefits of Synthetic Fabrics
Synthetic fabrics are cheaper than natural fabrics. They are inexpensive because they are made from cheap raw materials and are produced very efficiently; nylon and polyester, for example, are often manufactured from by-products of oil and are produced in enormous quantities efficiently.
Synthetic fibres tend to be more resistant to stains, and some are even engineered to avoid staining. The resulting fabrics are more stain resistant, making clothing made from synthetic fibre more useful for everyday wear.
Most of them are also water-resistant, though many natural fabrics are not. Since these qualities can vary widely, it is highly recommended to check the water resistant nature of any garment carefully before any purchase.
Natural Fabrics VS Synthetic Fabrics
A common misconception is that natural fabrics are perfectly environmentally friendly, while all the harm is done by synthetic ones. The truth, however, is more complicated. For example, with chemicals and additives, both cotton and polyester have similar environmental impacts due to having similar manufacturing types.
Furthermore, chemical additives like bleach or detergents are harmful to the environment. The processing of cotton needs a lot of water, while the production of polyester requires the burning of fossil fuel, something that is inarguably harmful to the atmosphere. Although cotton is biodegradable, polyester is a cloth that can be recycled.
In conclusion, both natural and synthetic fabrics have their strengths and problems, but it all narrows down to one thing: purpose. Natural fabric is your choice if you want clothes for summer, while your winter wardrobe could also feature synthetic fabrics.
But if you want to save nature and live healthily, then your best shot should be natural fabrics, especially reused and recycled ones. In addition to that, fabrics, may it be natural and synthetic fabrics, have lifelong environmental impacts. The material used to make the fabrics, as well as their durability and production, greatly affects the environment.
If you intend to buy new fabrics, and you are torn between natural and synthetic fabrics, we recommend that you consider the above advantages and weigh them before making your decision.