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Fabrics make a huge difference in the beauty and durability of clothing items. In this post we discuss the content and manufacturing processes of different fabrics, and other information that will help you make informed choices regarding fabrics
Photo credit: forageandsustain.com
Clothing fabrics are made out of fibres twisted into yarns and then knitted or woven together. These fibres can also be heat pressed or glued together to create non-woven fabric. Natural fibres are silk, cotton, wool and linen(flax). Artificial fibres include rayon, nylon, acrylic and polyester. Fabrics are woven, knitted, felted, or bonded.
Photo Credit: Princesse Foulard
We make woven fabrics by interlacing two or more sets of yarn at right angles to each other. Knitted fabrics require interlocking yarns by means of needles to construct an elastic, porous fabric. Some fabrics use fibres rather than yarns. For example, for non-woven fabrics, fibres are laid randomly or in a uniform way to make web-like layers. They are subsequently held together by either the felting or bonding process.
Natural fibres have been used for thousands of years for constructing clothing. There are two groups of natural fibres: protein (animal) and cellulose (plant) fibres. The most common protein based fibres are wool and silk, while the most common cellulose based fibres are cotton and linen.
The oldest fabric known to man is linen. It is cultivated from the flax plant and a refreshing choice for hot weather. However, cotton is the choice for most clothing. Like linen, it is also a breathable fabric, but most specifically, it retains heat in the cold. It is also durable, strong and easy to clean. Silk is harvested from the cocoon of the Chinese silkworm. This supple fabric is strong and feels cool on one’s skin on hot days. For cold weather, we turn to wool, which comes mainly from sheep.
Over time, we began to produce synthetic fabrics, mainly from petroleum, as substitutes to expensive natural fibres. Nylon is the first synthetic fibre, invented in the 1930s. It was a substitute for silk, used for stockings. Nylon stockings were not as itchy as silk or wool and they were sold as being “as fine as a spider’s web”. During the war, parachutes cemented nylon’s status as a useful material. Today, we use them for swimwear and luggage. Because of nylons strong and lightweight engineered characteristics, it is a hard fibre to replace with natural options.
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Polyester is the most common synthetic fabric because of its price and its perception as a substitute for cotton due to its added sweat wicking properties. The substitute for wool is acrylic. Elastane is another synthetic fabric, usually sold under the brand names Spandex and Lycra. It has the ability to stretch while retaining its natural shape. It often used in active wear because it is lightweight, stretchy, and is able to transfer sweat away from the skin. Unlike other synthetic fabrics, elastane has no natural occurring substitute.
The first mass produced regenerated fibre is viscose. The cellulose from a purified wood pulp is chemically transformed into a viscose solution and the yarn produced from this solution is manufactured into fabric. The collective generic name for regenerated cellulose fibres is rayon. A popular type of rayon is tencel, which is also very soft, easy to maintain and wrinkle resistant.
A range of factors influence the selection of certain fabrics for certain purposes. For example, a plain, sturdily constructed medium weight cloth is appropriate for durable work clothes. Similarly, knitted cotton fabrics suit a baby’s very sensitive skin. Aesthetics also play a role in fabric selection. We recognise fine silks as precious because of its glamorous and luxurious attributes.
The beauty of a garment is often dependent on its fabric quality Some fabrics are classified as luxurious due to their beauty, rarity, texture, and a number of other factors. Fabrics such as Cashmere, Silk, Brocade, Chiffon, Crepe, Lace, Lamé, Satin, Velvet, Wool, etc, are a few of the many luxury fabrics for clothing.
Natural is not always better, and synthetics are not always bad. There are a few reasons for that. Rayon is a breathable cellulose fabric, made from wood pulp. It can mimic the feel of smooth cotton, silk or linen, and is biodegradable. You’ll often find it mixed in with cotton.
Viscose is also a type of rayon. It has a similar drape and smooth feel to silk and is a known substitute to the luxury material. However, the environmental impact of producing viscose is high due to the use of chemicals and water consumption. Moreover, the wood to make viscose oftentimes does not come from sustainably-grown forests. This wipes out large natural forests and negatively impacts local ecosystems. This is why here at U.Mi-1 we have chosen to now use cupro as an alternative to viscose for our linings.
There is a still a huge difference between budget brands’ synthetic materials and that used by high quality brands. Fast fashion brands usually use polyester because it is cheap. There are designers who choose synthetic materials for its specific properties (e.g. weight, texture) to enhance the final garment. Prada is a great example. Their nylon bags are iconic and they are now using recycled nylon from Cameroon.
A small amount of stretchy synthetic fibres like elastane or lycra improves the fit of some garments. For example, items with a fabric composition of 2-5% of a stretchy synthetic material enhance fitted clothes like jeans or t-shirts that you want to curve around your body. It should account for a very small percentage of the final fabric, which would therefore retain most of the look and feel of the other fibres. Our twill trousers are an example. We are happy that a new primarily bio-based elastane made from 70% dextrose sugar derived from corn, is now on the market. We look forward to our mills using this instead of the non-biodegradable option.
We believe the fur industry typifies the case for natural not always being better. Fur cultivation not only subjects the animals to inhumane conditions and excessive stress but it is also bad for the environment and consequently, our health. In order for the fur not to decompose, it is treated with toxic chemicals. This poses a risk to waterways and the health of workers who handle them. Moreover, the animal carcasses are incinerated, releasing pollutants into the air such as carbon monoxide.
The synthetic alternative to fur “faux fur” isn’t much better either. It is often a petroleum based material like polyester, which is almost impossible to recycle. In the case of fur, we think it is a lose-lose situation, because neither natural nor synthetic eliminate the underlying problems. Many high-end brands have stopped the use of fur in their collections and we hope that soon it would be a thing of the past.
We believe the fashion industry should help people make better clothing choices. Giving materials like polyester the boot, and finding natural, biodegradable replacements would be a great start. Adopting real sustainable practices, industry-wide, will signal its importance to the consumer. One innovative way is through initiative schemes, where brands encourage consumers to mend their old clothes or incorporate something to make it new again. Responsible recycling is another. Schemes that encourage customers to hand in their old clothes are becoming commonplace. However, a lot of these clothes that cannot be sold in local charity shops, or repurposed get sent to African countries. There, they compete with and threaten the livelihood of local artisans and the budding fashion industry. Brands must manage their schemes responsibly so that they don’t contribute to century old traditions dying out.
Here at U.Mi-1, we are proud to work with local Nigerian artisans to produce our beautiful Aso-oke fabric, a 15-cm piece of cloth made from cotton. We use this for our African denims. This not only helps the local communities from which we source from, but it is also a more environmentally friendly and sustainable option to using regular denim.
We are also moving into SEASONLESS collections, our new approach towards becoming more sustainable. Instead of producing a new full collection each season, we stand for reinventing and reinterpreting our pieces. We are working with concepts of upcycling, finding creative ways to rebrand and give new life to existing items. We believe in freedom of self-expression and LIFE-WEAR; our products are timeless pieces and we want them to be a life-long experience.
Customers can also be the drivers of this change by buying for longevity as opposed to price. You can also request for brands to make their sustainability efforts clear, and ask for change. If no one clamors for change, brands may well believe that their customers love them regardless. Buy less and buy quality to make significant environmental savings and eventually save you money. Your cost per wear is higher on quality products and high quality products are easier to repurpose or find a new home for. The more consumers who educate themselves about fabrics, the quicker buying and manufacturing patterns will change.
Subtle differences in fabrics content, and manufacturing processes make a world of difference in style. Knowing what makes up your fabric will make you a lot more comfortable, and a good knowledge in identifying fabrics will improve your style and your sustainability efforts.