Technically any fibre can be woven into fabric, yet the fashion and textiles industry has become hugely dependent on a limited selection of materials. Cost-effective and fast to produce, polyester is the most commonly used textile in clothing, ergo at any time, most of us are dressed in petroleum-based fibres. What may be kind on the purse strings however, isn’t necessarily so kind for the planet: virgin polyester is highly energy- and water-intensive to manufacture, coloured using toxic dyes, sheds microfibres and can take hundreds of years to decompose.
Cotton is the second most popular fibre, and although natural and biodegradable, conventional non-organic cotton is water-, land-, labour- and pesticide-intensive. Farmed in warm countries where access to clean water is often already scarce, cotton also tends to be grown in monoculture and so comes with the attendant risks of soil (nutrient) depletion, increased fertiliser usage, agricultural runoff, and faster buildup of pests and diseases.
Before the emergence of synthetic fabrics in the 1900s, all clothes were made from natural fibres derived from plants or animals, while cotton only started becoming widespread after the Industrial Revolution and increased overseas trade in the late-1700s. Prior to this, Europeans made the most out of locally-available wool, fur and bast fibres such as linen, hemp and nettles. These cellulose fibres collected from the stems are increasingly seeing a resurgence as they are not only stronger than cotton but also require less energy and resources to cultivate.
Cellulose fibres can be collected from all sorts of plants and trees that naturally grow in abundance across the planet. For centuries bashofu fabric has been made from native banana trees on Japan’s Ryukyu islands, piña from the long leaves of pineapple plants in the Philippines, and across Southeast Asia, Buddhist monks have been known to wear lotus flower stem robes. Today the Cambodia-based social enterprise Samatoa Lotus Textiles is bringing these historic eco-luxury fibres back into fashion, simultaneously reviving ancestral techniques and providing jobs for the local community.
As we move towards a circular economy, forward-looking companies and startups are developing processes to transform post-consumer and industrial waste into new materials. For instance, coffee grounds are being spun into S.Café yarns by Singtex, Orange Fiber are squeezing the last drop out of citrus juice byproducts, while Frumat, Piñatex and Vegea are making vegan leathers out of apple pectin, pineapple leaves and grape pomace respectively. Electronics behemoth Sony is in on the game too with their deodorising carbon textile, Triporous, made from excess rice husks.
Icelandic tannery Atlantic Leather has even revived fish skin – once worn on the feet by Icelanders of yore – transforming the seafood industry leftovers into colourful luxury leathers sought out by the world’s leading designer brands. Owing to its criss-cross arrangement of fibres, fish skin is actually stronger than regular cow leather, and as a byproduct, doesn’t require the resources or leave the carbon footprint associated with raising cattle.
Across the planet, the enormous, self-sufficient kapok tree grows naturally in the wild, requiring no pesticides or artificial watering. Previously its fluffy seed pods were only used as stuffing, but thanks to modern technology the short fibres can now be blended with others into silky cloth. Extremely resilient, fast growing and leaving no human footprint behind, according to kapok textile manufacturer Flocus, replacing just 30% of a kilogram of cotton with kapok fibres can save 3000 litres of water!
As one of the fastest growing organisms on earth, seaweed or macroalgae is also a rapidly renewable wild resource that has been tapped into by the likes of SeaCellTM, AlgiKnit and AlgaeFabrics. There is also much potential for mycelium, the root network of fungi, which can be quickly cultivated in the laboratory and moulded into clothing and accessories that do not require any cutting or stitching – and is 100% compostable after use. Keep an eye on MycoTEX, MycoWorks and Mogu for the latest developments on fungi fabrics.
Utilising an assortment of raw materials takes the pressures off cotton and polyester production. Recycling fabrics and waste immediately minimises landfill and keeps resources in use for longer – recycled polyester not only repurposes waste PET bottles but often requires less energy to produce than many natural fibres, including cotton. By growing, sourcing and processing raw materials close to home shortens transport routes, lowers carbon footprint and increases transparency across the supply chain.
So whether it’s a native plant fibre, local industry waste or breed of sheep, nearshoring textile production can provide exciting opportunities for the community whilst minimising environmental impact, both locally and globally.
TEXCYCLE #2: Biofabrication – exploring lab-grown materials from stem-cell leather to synthetic spider silk.
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