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Know your fibres Part One: Natural Fibres

Know your fibres Part One: Natural Fibres

December 01, 2017

Know your fibres

Buying secondhand or pre-loved is a great way to reduce the impact of your clothes shopping. One of the most important things to look at when buying clothes for you or your children is the ingredients list - a.k.a what the garment is made from. When buying clothes go for fabrics that look & feel durable. Their colour fastness and yarn strength will keep them having clothing adventures for longer - be that with your kids or the next lot that get to wear them. For more detail on how to reduce your clothes shopping impact, read our blog here.

In the next three posts I’ll cover the three main types of fibres: natural, regenerated and synthetic. I'll give a brief summary of their environmental impacts and what you can do about them, as well as the pros and cons of each fibre, and some basic washing instructions. Always refer to the clothing label for washing instructions specific to that garment. You’ll find a handy guide here to help decipher all those confusing symbols on the labels.


Part one: Natural Fibres


Cotton is a soft, fluffy staple fibre that grows in a protective case (the boll) around the seeds of the cotton plant. It’s the most popular and common fabric used today, and covers approximately 95% of the world’s natural textile fibre demand. Read more about different types of cotton fabric here.

Environmental impacts & what to do about it

Although many think that it’s the most sustainable option, in truth cotton production has a huge environmental impact in terms of the massive amounts of water, pesticides and chemical dyes that are used in its production. The quality of life for many cotton growers/workers is also very poor. A sustainable alternative is organic cotton, which uses less water and pesticides. Unfortunately it costs more to grow and cultivate, which in turn leads to a limited supply, which then makes it more expensive to buy. You can also purchase Fairtrade cotton. The Better Cotton Initiative started in 2005 and you can find a list of manufacturers that have signed up on their website here

Pros: Comfortable and durable. It breathes well. Easy to clean. Biodegradable.
Cons: Very absorbent. Shrinks easily. Environmental impact of non-organic cottons.
How to wash: Wash in cold (30°C or below) water, whether using a washing machine or washing by hand. Give garments a gentle stretch when they come out of the wash to get them back into shape. Always air dry and out of the sun if possible. More detailed washing info can be found here.



Wool is a yarn made by spinning the fibres from animal fleece, usually sheep, but it can also be from goats (cashmere & mohair), llamas & alpaca, rabbits (angora) or camels. Woollen yarn is made by twisting two or more strands of yarn together, in the opposite direction to that in which they were spun, in order to make a strong, balanced yarn.

Wool is naturally stain and wrinkle resistant. It is also moisture absorbing and known for its warmth. Wool dyes easily so many colours of garment can be achieved. Wool is often mixed with other fabrics to improve strength and endurance. It is used either for weaving fabric (usually using a fine yarn), or for knitting fabric (a variety of thicknesses are used, depending on the garment required). Read more about different types of wool yarns & fabric here.

Impacts & actions

Wool of course is not without its own set of environmental impacts. On the positive side it is generally a sustainable, renewable and low impact resource. Sheep don’t need massive inputs of artificial stuff, they get by on grass and can live in places that aren’t useful for other forms of agricultural production. On the other side however, the production of wool can use pesticides (including the sheep dips), fertilisers and feeds which all require energy, resources and emit greenhouse gases and produce waste. If not managed properly, overgrazing can degrade land. Cleaning the fleece can use huge amounts of water, and dying can also create water pollution. Again you can look for organic wool, or of course buy pre-loved.

Pros: Soft and warm. Dirt and water resistant. Can take up to 30% of its own weight in moist without feeling wet.
Cons: High maintenance. Can be itchy. Prone to pilling.
How to wash: Only wash when it really needs it. Try spot cleaning stains instead. Always use a cool wash and a gentle washing detergent specifically designed for washing woollens. Dry flat, gently pulling to the correct size, away from direct sources of heat and do not tumble dry. More detailed washing info can be found here.



Silk is a delicate and luxurious material made from the cocoon of the silkworm. Extracting raw silk starts by cultivating the silkworms on mulberry leaves. Once the worms start pupating in their cocoons, these are dissolved in boiling water in order for individual long fibres to be extracted and fed into the spinning reel. Chiffon and crepe are examples of silk fabrics. Read more about different types of silk fabric here.

Impacts & actions

Production of silk has a relatively low environmental impact, however, many people are uncomfortable with the process in which the larvae are killed when the cocoons are boiled. Luckily, there is now ethical silk, also called ‘wild silk’ or 'peace silk', where the silk is extracted only after the silkworm has completed metamorphosis and emerged from the cocoon as a moth.

Pros: Feels and looks luxurious. Smooth and warm. Easily adjusts to different temperatures.
Cons: Very delicate and difficult to clean. Not always animal friendly.
How to wash: Many silk garments are dry-clean only, but same cane be hand-washed in cold water with mild detergent. Always air-dry flat. More detailed washing info can be found here.



Linen is made from fibres of the flax plant stem, and requires almost no pesticides for cultivation. It takes quite a few steps to create a flexible wire from the stiff fibres and that explains the price. Linen fabric feels cool; it is also breathable, stronger and more lustrous than cotton. The more it is washed, the softer it gets. Linen is stronger when wet than when it is dry. It is also resistant to clothes moths and dirt.

However, linen fibres do not stretch, so repeated folding or creasing in the same place will tend to break the linen threads, for example on collars, hems or pressed tablecloth folds. Linen is known for wrinkling easily: this is because it has poor elasticity so does not spring back readily. There are different grades and thicknesses of linen fabric available. It can be crisp, textured, rough, soft or smooth.

Impacts & actions

Most flax growing still uses fertilisers and pesticides, although less than used for crops like cotton. It also grows in cooled climates so can require less water for irrigation. The traditional process of degumming flax fibres from the stalk (called retting) involves placing small bundles of stalks in water tanks, open retting ponds, or running river water while the stalk rots and the fibres are separated from the woody core. This method of retting creates water pollution. Like cottons, linens also need to be dyed and treated to reduce wrinkling. However, many flax crops do meet organic standards, whether they are certified or not, and there are less damaging ways to carry out the retting process. Finding clothes made from organic or Fairtrade linen is difficult, so the easier option is to buy pre-loved linen.

Pros: Very strong and breathable. Absorbs and loses water rapidly, so keeps you cool in the summer without feeling unpleasantly damp.
Cons: Wrinkles and shrinks easily. Poor elasticity.
How to wash: Machine-wash on gentle or hand wash in cold water with a mild detergent. Line dry or dry flat. Do not tumble dry. More detailed washing info can be found here.


Hemp, which is similar to linen, gives the longest plant fibre and so is the strongest and most durable of all natural textile fibres (25 times more durable than cotton). Today’s technologies allow manufacturing of great clothing fabric with unbeatable properties. Long hemp fibres can be spun and then woven to make a crisp linen-like fabric.

Hemp fabric breathes well and absorbs moisture. 100% hemp textile has superior 95% UV resistance which makes it attractive material for summer clothing, especially in countries with high UV levels like here in New Zealand. Additionally, hemp fibre is naturally resistant to mould, dump, mildew, bacteria, moths and silverfish.

Impacts & actions

Hemp is considered to be even more sustainable than linen. Hemp grows in a variety of climates and soil types meaning less water & fertilisers are needed. It is naturally resistant to most pests, and grows very tightly spaced allowing it to out-compete most weeds both of which result in less pesticide use. It can also be pulped using fewer chemicals than wood because of its low lignin content, and its natural brightness can obviate the need to use chlorine bleach. As well as fabric, hemp can be used for a huge variety of products, from organic body care, to construction materials, to health foods. It's hard to find clothes made from hemp, but some high-end designers have started using it so it may become more available.

Pros: Very durable. Breathable. Increased UV resistance. Highly renewable.
Cons: Wrinkles easily & can be scratchy. Not as colourfast.
How to wash: Wash in cool water, on a gentle wash cycle or hand wash. Use a mild detergent sparingly. Air dry. Do not tumble dry.



Although bamboo is a natural fibre, only a small amount is processed like linen (extracted directly from the bamboo stems). When processed like this it is stable and has tensile strength, but the end result is coarse and unattractive for fashion use. Therefore most of bamboo, especially for fashion textiles, is processed differently, more like regenerated fibres, and so I've covered it in the next part (see Part 2).


Sources - with thanks to



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