Pros & Cons of Common Fabrics

Hey guys, welcome to my fibres and fabrics series. In this lecture, I’ll be talking about some common materials that you likely have or will come across. And what the pros and cons are for both everyday use and the environmental impact. Part two will be about vegan synthetic versus animal materials. And part 3 will be all about upcycled and recycled materials. So definitely check those out as well. So first up is cotton, and I’ll include time codes below for the different materials if you want to jump ahead or reference certain ones. Cotton is probably the most common fabric and it’s a natural fibre, it comes from the cotton plant And it is: soft, breathable (meaning that air can move through it and moisture can evaporate through it), easy to clean (it’s machine washable), absorbent, versatile ( there’s tons of different kinds of cotton materials and garments), it’s good for people with allergies or skin sensitivities The cons are that it doesn’t hold dye really well so it fades overtime and can also bleed while being washed.

It wrinkles, it can shrink in hot water, especially the first time it’s washed. The environmental pros are that it is biodegradable. And the environmental cons are that it needs a lot of water to grow. It’s also usually bleached and chemically treated and dyed. Cotton also has one of the highest pesticide uses for crops. And it’s generally GMO as well. But these two things are prevented by purchasing organic cotton. Next is Linen, and it’s another natural material It comes from the flax plant and it was used all the way back in ancient Egypt. And linen as a fibre is: breathable, durable, lightweight, absorbent, it’s generally very cool and good for summer time, I also read that it’s antimicrobial but I wasn’t able to find very much in-depth information to back that up The cons are that is wrinkles easily It often requires gentler or hand washing and sometimes there is fake linen or ‘linen look’ material so you have to be careful of that. The environmental pros are that it requires little pesticides and water to grow, especially compared to cotton.

And it is biodegradable. And the cons are that it can sometimes be dyed with toxic chemicals but it depends on how it’s made. Another plant fibre is hemp. And it comes from the cannabis plant but a type that’s only used for hemp production. And as a fibre it is: durable, absorbent, it becomes softer with wear and washing, it’s breathable and it can also be hypoallergenic. The cons are that it can sometimes be rough, it wrinkles and different countries sometimes have very strict laws around growing and processing hemp. So there are difficulties around that with hemp fabric production. The environmental pros are that it doesn’t require pesticides or lots of water to grow, It doesn’t deplete nutrients from the soils so it’s a really good crop. It is biodegradable and because it’s very durable the garments usually last long And for environmental cons, I really couldn’t find anything. It’s basically seen as being the most eco-friendly material. Then there’s polyester, which is likely the most common synthetic fibre.

It’s made from petrochemicals and is: wrinkle resistant, durable, it dries quickly it’s colourfast, it’s machine washable it tends to retain it’s shape well and it’s cheap. The cons are that it doesn’t breathe which can also cause it to become smelly, it builds up static and it can also irritate the skin. An environmental pro is that it can be recycled but this does require another chemical process. And the environmental cons are that it doesn’t biodegrade, fibres come off of it when it’s being washed and those end up polluting the ocean, it’s energy intensive and very polluting to make, toxic chemicals are used to make it and it’s also very difficult to dye which requires a lot of chemicals. Then we have wool. Wool is a natural protein fibre like your hair. And it mainly comes from sheep but can also come from alpacas, goats and other animals. Wool as a fibre is: very warm (it’s even warm when wet), water resistant, durable, very absorbent, flame resistant and hypoallergenic. The cons are that it shrinks in hot water, it must be hand washed or dry cleaned, it can pill and depending on the kind of wool, it can be itchy or irritating to the skin.

The environmental pros are that it’s easily dyed, which usually means there are less harsh chemicals used, it’s biodegradable and because it’s very durable it means that the garment will usually wear really well and can be kept for a long time. The environmental cons are that because it comes from an animal there are issues and concerns around the treatment and care and wellbeing of those animals.

And I will talk more about that in part two. Toxic chemicals and pesticides can also be used and this can be avoided by looking for organic wool. Next is acrylic which is a synthetic petrochemical fibre. It was developed to be a man made alternative to wool and it is: lightweight, soft, colourfast, machine washable and cheap. The cons are that it tends to pill easily it doesn’t breathe, it builds up static. For the environmental pros, I really couldn’t find anything. And the cons are that it doesn’t biodegrade, it’s not easily recycled, there are toxic chemicals used to make it, it’s energy intensive and again fibres wash off of it that end polluting the oceans. Then there’s silk which is a natural protein fibre. It comes from the cocoon of the silk worm. And it is: very soft, it has a natural sheen, it’s lightweight has a good drape, so it generally looks very nice in clothing and it’s often good for very sensitive skin.

The cons are that it’s expensive, it requires hand washing or dry cleaning, it’s not very durable and it’s susceptible to discolouration from sunlight or perspiration. The environmental pros are that it is biodegradable, and it dyes very easily. And the environmental cons are that the silk worms are actually killed in the process of harvesting the silk from the cocoons so it is not at all an ethical or vegan material. Next is nylon another synthetic made from petrochemicals It was developed to be a synthetic replacement for silk. And it is: strong, weather resistant, versatile, water repellent, machine washable, it dries quickly and it’s cheap. The cons are that some types of nylon build up static, it can irritate skin The environmental pros are that it is a pretty durable material so the garment will usually last a long time And for the cons, like with polyester, fibres come off when it’s washed that end up polluting the oceans, toxic chemicals are used to make it, there are a lot of harmful emissions, it’s energy intensive and it’s not biodegradable.

Then there’s spandex, also called elastane or lycra. It’s a very elastic fibre also made from petrochemicals. And it’s usually found blended with other fibres. It is: stretchy, it helps clothes retain their shape, and it can help with fit. The cons are that it breaks down over time, it can also become brittle and yellow. The environmental pros are that it can help make clothes not stretch out and the environmental cons are that it doesn’t biodegrade, it’s energy intensive and polluting to make and toxic chemicals are used. Finally there’s a few naturally derived synthetic fibres. The first I’ll talk about is rayon and it’s primarily made from a wood pulp that goes through a chemical process. And as a fibres it’s: soft, inexpensive, absorbent, anti-static, (unlike other synthetic materials), The cons are that it’s not very durable, it tends to pill, it wrinkles, it loses strength when wet and can easily become misshapen and it also shrinks very easily.

I actually couldn’t really find any environment pros for rayon except for the fact that it uses less toxic chemicals than other synthetics but there’s still toxic chemicals, so I still see that as a con. Because it’s a wood pulp it can contribute to deforestation and it’s energy intensive to make. There’s also bamboo and the majority of bamboo is actually bamboo viscose or a bamboo rayon And countries have different laws about whether or not it has to be labeled as viscose derived from bamboo or a bamboo rayon.

But basically it’s the same process as rayon but instead of using wood pulp, they use bamboo. You can find it at : And as a fibre it is soft, breathable, very absorbent, and also doesn’t build up static. The cons are that like rayon, some bamboo fabrics will pill really easily and I like I mentioned different countries will have different rules as how it’s supposed to be labeled so that can be confusing. The environmental pros are that bamboo is very renewable to grow and requires little water and pesticides. And the cons are that there are still toxic chemicals used to make the material, and it’s energy intensive.

And the last fibre I’m going to talk about is lyocell or tencel. And it’s another naturally derived synthetic made from wood pulp. And it is: soft, very absorbent, resistant to wrinkles, versatile, durable, breathable, anti-static and also claims to be hypoallergenic. The cons are that it can pill easily and also sometimes needs special care. The environmental pros are that it is biodegradable, It’s made in a closed loop system so the chemicals are recycled.

And it’s much less toxic to produce than other synthetics and natural synthetics like rayon. The cons are that it is still uses quite a bit of energy to produce and because it does come from wood pulp it could also contribute to deforestation but overall it is the most environmentally friendly synthetic material. So of course there are also other materials than the ones I’ve mentioned and you’ll also likely find a lot of blends. And blends can combine the benefits of both materials but it can also negate some of them. For example, a polyester/cotton blend will mean that the item is no longer biodegradable. As you’ve probably noticed, no material is perfect. And it’s just about trying your best to make informed decisions and also choosing the right materials for the function of the garment. I personally try to stick with natural materials for both comfort and environmental reasons. But it doesn’t make sense all the time. For example with swimwear, it makes much more sense to have something that doesn’t absorb water and dries quickly. So I hope you’ve found this interesting and maybe learned something. Please let me know in the comments if they are any pros or cons that I missed.

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