Cotton, Cashmere & Chemicals: A guide to clothing labels

Clothing materials – what they mean, where they come from, are they ethical and will they be kind to your skin?

Fast fashion, slow fashion – it can be difficult to keep up with the speed at which the fashion industry changes, especially now that consumers are becoming more educated about the origins of their choices. There are so many different types of clothing material available that the landscape can often be a little confusing.

Here is a summary of some of the oldest and newest (bamboo, jute, mushroom leather) textiles you’re using to hide your hide.

POLYESTER 

One of the most common materials in clothing, polyester includes both naturally occurring chemicals and synthetics. The natural ones are usually bio-degradeable whereas the synthetic ones are predominantly not broken down by the environment and are manufactured from petroleum.

The most widely used form is PET, which is made by mixing ethylene glycol and terephthalic acid, so essentially it’s a kind of plastic. It’s popular as it’s durable, retains its shape, is light weight, easily dyed and quick drying. It’s often blended with materials like cotton to prevent static build up (bad hair days) and be more breathable.

The downside is that this material doesn’t absorb moisture very well, which can leave you feeling sweaty and uncomfortable. People with very sensitive skin may find themselves slightly irritated by this fabric but the chances of a reaction are lower when blended with other textiles. It’s also highly flammable so should not be worn near open flames.

Despite being a form of plastic, the material is not as unsustainable as you might think. Things like recycled plastic bottles can actually be made into polyester fabric and the trend is catching on. Therefore there should be a focus on up-cycling old clothes and materials to create new pieces, instead of manufacturing from scratch. As these items are usually durable and long-wear, they’re perfect for this lifecycle.

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@staywildswim made from ocean plastic

WOOL 

The result of shearing sheep. This natural material has been used for thousands of years and in other forms is used to create cashmere (from the cashmere goat), angora (mohair from the north African angora goat) and rabbit angora. It’s different from other animal hair as the individual strands are coated with scales and tightly crimped, it’s also coated with a wax known as lanolin.

The positives are that wool is hypoallergenic and incredibly warm, even when wet. It’s soft and doesn’t conduct easily, making it perfect for those that can’t stand static. On the flip side, it can be a bit itchy and when washed or dried at high temperatures shrinks to doll-sized proportions.

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@emilyannenash

COTTON 

One of the best-selling materials in the world, this is naturally-derived from the cotton plant. It’s durable, soft, comfortable, breathes well, extremely easy to take care of and good for the environment – the fabric of life. With one small catch – it wears down over time, losing its shape and colour after a certain number of washes.

Cotton is also used to make denim, which is a sturdy material because of the way the yarn is woven. The name is derived from the french serge de Nîmes, after the little town where it was first produced.

LINEN (FLAX)

A natural fabric derived from the flax plant (similar to flax seeds). It has been used for thousands of years, including for the purpose of mummification in ancient Egypt. It’s cool, light weight and perfect for summer. The drawbacks are that it wrinkles in seconds and takes a lot maintenance.

RAYON

A fabric that can mimic silk, linen or cotton and is manufactured from regenerating cellulose (found in plants) fibres. It’s made from naturally occurring polymers but is manufactured so is not technically synthetic or natural.

It’s soft, smooth and comfortable, draping well and holding colour very well. However it decays faster than cotton and the manufacturing process produces a lot of waste materials.

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@pinamist

SILK 

A natural fibre derived from the Chinese silk worm. The fibres of the cocoon are typically two forms: mulberry silk (the worms feed on mulberry leaves) and wild silk (aka Tussah silk, where they feed on oak leaves). The worms eventually turn into moths so although they’re responsible for a -hole- lot of destruction to our garments, we also have moths to thank for the creation of our slinky nightgowns and anti-wrinkle pillow cases, once the cocoons are boiled down and spun into silk.

It’s an incredibly luxurious and soft material, reflecting light so that it is aesthetically pleasing and sheen. However it’s not vegan-friendly as not only is it expensive and hard to care for, but involves killing the silk worm in the process.

NYLON 

Another man-made material with a silky feel. It’s claim to fame was when it was first used in women’s stockings (nylons) in the 40s. It became a substitute for silk when this was scarce during WWII.

Nylon is strong, inexpensive and versatile – a good options for those that are against silk. However too much washing and drying can make the fabric pill and it melts at high temperatures (don’t iron).

LEATHER

Created by tanning animal (mostly cows) rawhides. Preparation includes deliming, hair removal, degreasing, bleaching and pickling. Tanning then stabilises the material so that it does not putrefy…. It can then be oiled to improve its water resistance.

The result is a soft, warm and flexible piece of clothing. The downsides are that there is a large carbon footprint involved in cattle rearing, a lot of toxic chemicals are required for the tanning process (mercury and solvents) and air pollution is produced during the transformation process.

(FAUX) FUR

Any material made of cellulose or synthetic fibres designed to look like fur. While forgoing fur may be doing animals a favour, you’d be doing little for their habitat. The problem with faux fur is that it is often made from synthetic fibres that are not biodegradeable and primarily created from petrochemicals. The advantages are that it is relatively impervious to moths, does not require factory farms like real fur does and is much more affordable.

SPANDEX / LYCRA

Stronger, more durable and more elastic than rubber, its major non-synthetic competitor. Spandex tends to be the US term whereas lycra and elastane are used worldwide. First invented by two scientists in a lab, it’s usually mixed with cotton or polyester and is not biodegradeable. It is lightweight and statistically much more prevalent in female than male clothing.

BAMBOO / JUTE / MUSHROOM LEATHER

Sustainable, modern day alternatives to some of the materials above. They can be a little more expensive and difficult to get ahold of via retail (online is a lot easier) but have a great array of benefits that often justify the price.

Bamboo clothing is naturally anti-bacterial, therefore helps to keep you odour-free. It is highly sweat absorbent so keeps you dry whilst being insulating. It’s soft, it is said that it cuts out 97.5% of UV rays and is good for sensitive and allergy prone skin (would need to look at the research behind these claims as I imagine they are recent), antistatic, breathable, biodegradeable, grows naturally without chemical assistance and can yield the same volume as cotton from 10% of the land area. The disadvantages are much like cotton, that after a lot of washes it can wear out and the price is high due to increasing demand with supply that does not currently match up.

Jute is a long, soft, shiny vegetable fibre that can be spun into coarse and strong threads. It is made from the stem of a plant which is a rain-fed crop that needs few pesticides and fertilisers to grow. The material is also used to make rope and twine and in Nigeria the leaves of the plant create a sticky soup.

Mushroom leather as the name suggests, is made from fungi instead of cows. The future may be fungal as this vegan muskin is much softer than its bovine counterpart. It’s breathable, pliable and naturally water-repellant. However all of the above materials and many more like them, are still a growing industry backed by socially conscious consumers and cutting edge research.

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