Though the layperson might not spend much time ruminating on the fibers in their clothing, many of the most important advancements in modern technology have involved synthesizing new manmade alternatives to the classic textile fibers that we have used in clothing for thousands of years.
The invention of synthetics like nylon, polyester, and spandex have radically changed the clothing industry and now, nearly two-thirds of the textiles produced globally are made from these synthetics. These relatively recent inventions have become so integral to our daily lives, that you probably don’t spend an awful lot of time thinking about them or where they come from.
Oddly enough, a close examination of these landmark manmade fibers might just cause you to pivot back to the all-natural ones. Unless you’re climbing a mountain or HALO-jumping, these high-performance fabrics aren’t necessarily necessary. Read on as we weigh natural and synthetic fibers in the balance, and see which is found wanting.
For everyday wear, these natural materials ought to get you where you need to be. Cotton, silk, hemp, bamboo, linen, leather, feathers, wool, and rubber are all naturally-occurring materials and unless they’ve been irresponsibly processed or dyed, there’s no risk of absorbing dangerous chemicals through your skin. (A risk you sometimes run with synthetics.)
Natural materials naturally break in, so they become more comfortable with wear, and usually look better as the fibers start to degrade a bit. You buy a wool sweater, hoping that in a few years it will be stretchier, softer, and look a little more like you than when you bought it.
The new high demand for bamboo, for example, makes an extremely versatile fiber and has caused a great deal of China’s forests to be destroyed. Though natural fibers may be less problematic in terms of manufacture, they must come from somewhere. The materials derived from animals, like silk, leather, feathers, and wool, may not be done in an entirely ethical manner. And even when your cotton or linen might seem natural and fair-trade, there may have been a variety of pesticides used on the crop, or toxic dyes or other processes used later on in the manufacturing.
In the grand scheme, however, all natural materials are typically less environmentally damaging than their manmade counterparts. Though manufacturers and growers may be exploitative, you can easily shop for natural materials that are cruelty-free or free of toxic dyes and pesticides. Their greatest drawback is their performance in specialized circumstances… no natural fiber will ever be as waterproof or bulletproof as anything made in a lab.
The journey to creating today’s synthetic fibers was an intriguing and highly flammable one. The earliest artificial fibers actually used naturally occurring substances (cellulose), which was broken down and reformed into rayon and cellulose acetate, which could be used as a substitute for the rarer and much more expensive silk.
It wasn’t until the 1930s that the first truly synthetic fiber was created–nylon. Another silk replacement, used in stockings and wartime parachutes, nylon would form the basis of most other synthetic fibers. Nylon uses a petrochemical base, which is polymerized and can be spun into a thread, like that seen above. The resulting fibers are incredibly strong and depending on the chemical compound used, these petrochemicals can be transformed into any variety of synthetics: polyester, spandex, acrylic, etc.
Synthetics also have supplementary chemicals to make them waterproof or flame-retardant which can also be harmful. Sweat-wicking synthetic fabrics can actually hinder your toxin release by preventing you from sweating, which can cause more lingering health risks than a damp shirt.
To Synth or Not to Synth?
An educated consumer can limit their negative impact on themselves and the world around them, but maybe we had best just buy second-hand unless we absolutely need something new. And when you’re out shopping, take a moment to check out what’s in the blend of your new clothes and resist the temptation to buy for the here and now – try to buy in a way that can help to secure your future and that of our planet.