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October 26, 2020
Learn from the our resident Chemist and Fabric Queen, aka Debbie, about the things to keep in mind when selecting natural fabrics and fibres.
Natural fabric is made up of fibres. Plant and animals fibres are the two main types of natural fibres. Mineral fibres also exist, with asbestos an example of this but we’re going to stick to the nice ones today and dive into the natural variety.
Off all the plant fibres the ones you’re probably most familiar with are cotton (a seed hair fibre), flax and help (stem or blast fibres), sisal (a leaf fibre) and coconut or Coir (a host fibre). When you think of animal fibres wool is the first to spring to mind for most people but alpaca, angora, cashmere, mohair and silk are also examples of animal fibres.
Before these fibres can be used in the forms we know them as, such as clothing and soft furnishing, they need to be matted or felted for use, or spun be spun into yarn and then woven into fabric.
Natural fibres tend to yellow with prolonged exposure to sunlight (except linen and hemp) and water. However, natural fibres do have an affinity to water (meaning they swell as they absorb water) and hence will dye quite readily.
Many natural fibres are also hypoallergenic - which is useful for those with sensitive skin. However, natural fibres can be prone to mildew and bacterial attack so keeping a good air flow can address mildew, and to fight bacterial I use a lavender spray in my cupboard.
For a quick look at the 15 most used natural fibres take a look at this website: http://www.fao.org/natural-fibres-2009/about/15-natural-fibres/en/
If you are wanting to use natural fibres in the home for decorating Homes to Love ( a NZ company) provide a nice summary of how to choose between wool, cotton, silk or linen at https://www.homestolove.co.nz/inspiration/tips-and-advice/natural-fibre-fabrics
For use in fashion, there is increasing awareness of how materials are produced and the cost to the environment.
Natural fibres will generally decompose (although this depends on how they are produced) in your compost, particularly if cut up into little strips. This is not the case for synthetic materials such as nylon and polyester, which are made from petroleum.
Synthetic fibres are durable and so should not need to be thrown away, but this rarely is the case. It is for this reason that I try to only use synthetic fabrics in garments that I expect to have for a long time such as raincoats or winter coats (although my best winter coat is made from wool).
My personal favourite material to wear is linen- and yes while it wrinkles (just like me), the more you wear it the better it gets. It breathes and so is great in hot weather as it keeps you dry and cool, and is uv resistant and anti-bacterial. In winter months I love wool or alpaca - their warmth but breathability in winter is perfect whatever you are doing.
More and more fashion companies are being mindful of the impact of their clothing on the environment- for example check out Kuwaii, a Melbourne made brand that creates ‘beautiful, intelligently designed clothing and footwear for women’ - click here. (https://kuwaii.com.au/behindthebrand/fabrics-fibres/)
For creating beautiful crafts.
The more I work with different fabrics, the more I appreciate understanding how the different fibres or yarn behave that create the fabric.
Natural fibres for me are a dream to work with and understanding about their fibre length tells you how to use them. Synthetics have their place, but I only use them when I have to introduce some long lasting durability - often in conjunction with natural fibres.I do like to reduce microplastic accumulation that result from synthetics.
I try to use natural fibres whenever possible because:
Care of natural fibres
Many people steer away from natural fabrics as they think they stretch and get out of shape easily. They do if you do not understand what is happening at the fibre level.
Natural fibres generally have a great deal of give (or elasticity) in them and so the more you wear them, the greater you pull on the fibres' natural elasticity. Washing them regularly but gently and supporting the fibres when they are wet is often how to return the fibres to their natural position.
Drying them flat and out of the sun (except for linen and hemp) will work wonders for the longevity of your natural fibre materials. And because they are natural fibres, they do not need harsh chemicals to wash them - I wash most of mine in an eucalyptus wool mix wash - or make up my own soap mixture (plenty of recipes for these are available on the internet).
If you've got any questions about natural fabrics and fibres, I'm happy to answer them. Write a comment below and I'll get back to you!