There are so many materials surrounding us daily and it is important to understand their environmental and social impact. Especially the materials that are touching our skin every day. Is it cotton, wool or something completely different? How are those materials made and how sustainable are they?
To answer these questions PALANTA created a list in collaboration with Dora Varga to showcase the materials that are most commonly used in the fashion industry. In this list we are going to talk about four different categories of materials; plant-based, animal-based, semi-synthetic and synthetic. Each category consists of different materials, their history and current use to paint you the complete picture of these substances that have made their way to your closets.
Renting is a great way to reduce our ecological impact on the environment. Fewer resources are needed because the garments can circulate instead of being thrown away after a season or left in your wardrobe unworn. Keep this list close to you the next time you are renting at PALANTA.
Plant-based fibers (cellulose)
Cellulose fibers are plant-based fibers made of branches, leaves, or other parts of a plant. These ancient fibers have been used already 34.000 (!) years ago for clothing, furniture, isolation and food.
Cotton is a natural material made of the seeds and flowers of the cotton plant. It is one of the most used materials in the fashion industry next to polyester. Cotton grows in warm climates such as in India, China, or the southern states of the US. It needs a lot of water and land to grow.
Most cotton plants are treated with pesticides – toxic chemicals that prevent the cotton from any damage from bugs, bacteria, or mold. These chemicals not only enter the plant and, during the transformation, the fiber and eventually the clothing item, but they also penetrate the soil where the cotton was growing.
When growing and harvesting organic cotton no chemicals and pesticides are used, leaving the fiber as pure as possible. That is the main reason why organic cotton, in most cases, is more expensive.
Most cotton farms have to sow new cotton seeds every year. The seeds of the cotton can be used for cotton oil and other food supplements. The branches and roots of the plant are a waste product.
Hemp-based textiles are made of the Cannabis sativa plant. As with linen, the stem of the plant is used for the textile. Hemp is a very strong and breathable material. Sailors’ ropes were made of hemp before synthetic materials replaced them.
Other parts of the plant, such as the roots are used for medicine or paper. The seeds can be used for replanting the plant or for food supplements such as oils. Hemp is also widely used as a hallucinative and psychoactive substance, however the Cannabis sort that is grown for fibers does not contain enough THC to be used as a drug.
Because of the wide variety of uses, hemp is one of the least wasted sorts of fibers. It is also a CO2 negative plant, which means that it removes CO2 from the atmosphere and holds it for a long time. When the plant is cut down, very little of the CO2 is released, making the plant sustainable for farming.
Linen is a natural fiber from the flax plant and the oldest fiber discovered by archeologists. Flax grows all over the world, also in Europe and The Netherlands. The inside stem of the flax plant is used to make fiber from the plant.
Linen is a very light and breathable fabric therefore perfect for a summer dress, a light coat, or a blouse. Linen does wrinkle but after 3-4 washings the material becomes softer and does not wrinkle as much as when it was new.
The flax seeds are used as a food supplement. They are full of Omega 3 fats and can be added to salads and yogurt bowls.
Animal-based fibers (protein)
Animal-based fibers are from animal origins, such as the fur or skin of an animal. These methods have not been around for so long since animals have been domesticated only 8.000 – 10.000 years ago. Animal fibers have great characteristics such as keeping you warm, cold or being very flexible to use. These fibers are still considered natural instead of man-made. However, negative environmental impacts, such as land use, cattle feed and animal cruelty, are the dark side of the coin.
Wool is a widely known material used in clothing, isolation, and furniture. The wool comes from sheared sheep. As a result, the animal does not have to be put down but lives further after being sheared. However, when a sheep is sheared too early in the spring, it might freeze to death because of a lack of natural protection against the cold. Next to that, in some farms sheep are treated in bad conditions that increase the stress and health factor of animals.
After shearing the sheep, the wool is carded and spun into yarn. Then, the yarn is washed and dyed. The yarn can be used to knit or weave clothing.
Wool, as a natural fiber, is biodegradable, recyclable, reusable, flame resistant and breathable. Many baby products are made of wool instead of synthetic materials. On the contrary, synthetic materials have a much lower flame resistance and can release toxic chemicals into the atmosphere when heated. However, children and adults are not warned against these factors, it is only mentioned on baby products.
Alpaca wool originates from South America. The characteristics of alpaca wool, in contrast to sheep wool, is hypoallergenic because it does not contain lanolin. It is naturally water- and flame- resistant. In addition, alpaca wool is warmer and softer than sheep wool, therefore it is less prickly to the skin.
Alpaca wool is recyclable and compostable as well.
Cashmere is made from the fleece of cashmere goats. It is much softer, lighter, and longer than sheep wool. However, it is also much more expensive.
Cashmere goats are from the Himalayas where temperatures can go way below -20 Celsius degrees. Therefore, the animals have been growing incredibly thick and warm fleece for themselves.
Cashmere goats produce way less wool than sheep or alpaca. Because of this, the fiber is very limited and only collected once a year. The goats are not sheared but combed for their wool, which takes extra time as well. The rest of the production process is very similar to other wool fibers.
Angora wool is made from the fur of Angora rabbits. These animals have extremely thin, soft, and warm fur. They produce very little wool per year. Because of this, Angora wool is one of the most expensive sorts of wool there is.
However, there are many ethical concerns regarding wearing Angora wool. Most Angora rabbits are plucked alive without any sedatives. As a result, the rabbits die from stress while being plucked. Besides, these animals are kept in small cages that often never see any daylight. In the last couple of years, many brands have stopped using Angora wool in their collection because of animal cruelty. However, there are still brands using this type of wool, so check the labels to avoid them.
You can sign a petition against using rabbit wool:
Silk is made by the silkworm when the worm creates a cocoon. Production of silk was developed in ancient China around 9.000 years ago. The cocoon is boiled to make silk thread. During this process, the worm is still inside the cocoon, being boiled alive. A single thread, which can become hundreds of metres long, requires 30-40 cocoons at the same time.
Silk is one of the finest and most luxurious fibers. It is mostly used in formal wear, such as blazers, pantaloons, dresses, suits, but also in lingerie. It has a cooling effect, making it an ideal material for summer dresses, blouses and light jackets.
A great alternative for silk is Tencel (Read more in the semi-synthetic fibre section).
Our silk products are made from organic silk: Organic silk (aka raw silk) is created without the use of any chemicals or treatments using insecticides, pesticides or synthetic fertilizers. The silkworms are allowed to live out their full lives and die naturally.
Leather and suede are made of skins of sheep, cow or other domesticated animals. Leather can be a waste product of the meat industry but there are cows kept especially for their leather (as in the case of Italian leather).
Leather is a very flexible material, it can be used as a hard basis for shoes but it can also be softened by chemical processes. Leather is a very durable and also waterproof material. Because it is made of a natural, animal-based material, it is also compostable, however the chemicals used during the process to soften and dye the leather make it harder to decompose.
Suede is made of the underside of the animal skin, which makes it softer. It has a napped effect that makes the material less durable yet softer than leather.
In Palanta’s collection you can find a leather alternative: Vegan Leather items.
Fur & exotic leathers
Fur is made of thick hair that grows on wild animals such as bears, foxes or rabbits. The use of fur in clothing has become controversial but fur clothing is still a large market, especially for luxury brands. Illegal fur, especially exotic fur, such as of a tiger or leopard, is still sold on the black market, speeding up the extinction of certain species.
Next to fur, there are exotic sorts of leather, such as alligator skin, snakeskin or ostrich skin (and feathers). The use of exotic and wild skin in clothing has become controversial as well but luxury brands still use them in their collections.
Petition against using fur:
Semi-synthetic fibers are fibers made of wood pulp. The fibers are called semi-synthetic because the process of making fiber from wood takes a lot of chemicals, therefore can not be called completely natural. However, these fibers are developing faster than before, improving the sustainability of the process.
Viscose and rayon are fibers made of wood pulp, usually beech wood or other agricultural wood waste. The wood becomes soft enough to spin fiber from it in a chemical process. A lot of trees need to be cut down for viscose production, creating a debate that bridges deforestation with the usage of natural materials instead of synthetic ones.
Viscose has the same characteristics as silk or wool. It can mimic the material very well, which makes it a vegan variant.
Tencel is quite a new material, made of eucalyptus wood. Eucalyptus can be cut down but will regrow again from the same stem, making it sustainable to harvest. Tencel uses a chemical process as well, however, it has developed a closed-loop system where the chemicals can be used multiple times before dissolving them.
Tencel has the same characteristics as silk, if not better. It is a very soft and light material, however, it is surprisingly warm in the winter months as well.
Synthetic clothing, such as polyester, acrylic or nylon, are made of fossil fuels. Effectively, this means that they are made of plastic since plastic products and packaging are also fossil fuel-based. Fossil fuels need millions of years to become the oil that we dig up to create plastic-based and synthetic products from.
During the washing of synthetic clothing, microplastics and microfibers are released and they end up in the water systems. Eventually, they reach rivers, lakes, seas and oceans. Smaller fish cannot tell the difference between microplastics and microorganisms, so they eat plastic that comes from our clothing. Bigger fish eat smaller fish and they end up on our plate with microplastics in their stomach. You can watch an explanatory video about the circle of microplastic here.
Synthetic fibers have been widely used commercially since the 1950s. They are flexible and waterproof, making them ideal for sportswear, raincoats, or swimwear. However, synthetic fibers, such as acrylic or polyester, do not absorb water. Therefore, odours and bacteria from the armpits will stay on the skin instead of being absorbed by the garment. That is the reason why many people experience more sweating and smells while wearing synthetic clothing. Wool and cotton are ideal materials that absorb water and sweat making them better for the skin to wear.
It may be a good idea to install a filter on your washing machine. Older models of washing machines do not have the right filters against microplastics. Newer models are coming with built-in filters for microplastics but they can also be purchased separately. Or use a bag in your washing machine that will catch the microfibers. Purchase it via PALANTA here.
List of synthetic materials: Polyester, Acrylic, Nylon, Elastane/Spandex, Polyamide, Faux-Fur and more!
The term ‘vegan leather’ can be used for all kinds of fibers and materials that mimic animal-derived leather. Synthetic materials can also be called ‘vegan leather’, which makes choosing the right product more complicated.
We offer bags and belt from CANUSSA made from vegan leather:
Biodegradable: Only if the blend only contains natural fiber
Microplastic: Yes, when the blend contains synthetic fiber
Blends such as 50% cotton and 50% polyester might be more durable but can not be recycled as of now. Blends that come from different groups, such as plant-based and synthetic, can not be recycled or composted making it a useless fiber when discarded and adding to waste pollution.
Blends such as cotton-linen or cotton-silk can be composted but not recycled. Recycling is developing rapidly at the moment and in the near future these blends might be recyclable, but as of now, they are causing more harm than good in the long run.
We offer a solution for microplastics, purchase your own GUPPYFRIEND washing bag.
Got some questions?
We hope this list helps you the next time you rent at PALANTA and will function as a guide for you. If you have any questions regarding material, please send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and we will get back to you.
About the author
Dora Varga is researching materials and their social and environmental impact. Currently located at De Wasserij, Dora is bending the narrative between graphic and textile design by doing hands-on research and experiments.