What’s the deal with natural fibres? Why are they important?
Organic Cotton, Jute, Hemp, Alpaca, Cashmere, Flax, Silk & Wool. Oh My!
So, what’s the deal with natural fibres? Natural fibres are “elongated substances produced by plants and animals that can be spun into filaments, thread or rope. Woven, knitted, matted or bonded, they form fabrics that are essential to society.”[i],[ii]
According to Encyclopedia Britannica, they are “any hairlike raw material directly obtainable from an animal, vegetable, or mineral source and convertible into non-woven fabrics such as felt or paper or, after spinning into yarns, into woven cloth. A natural fibre may be further defined as an agglomeration of cells in which the diameter is negligible in comparison with the length.”[iii]
Read more about sustainable natural fabrics here.
Plant fibres include: abaca, coir, cotton, flax, hemp, jute, ramie, and sisal. Plant fibres are come from seed hairs, stem or bast fibres, leaf fibres, and husk fibres.
Animal fibres include alpaca wool, angora wool, camel hair, cashmere, mohair, silk, and wool. Animal fibres come from hair, secretions, or wool.
The Government of Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI) provides information on four specific examples: cotton and flax for plant fibres, and silk and wool for animal fibres. [v] Cotton and flax are made of cellulose and vegetable fibres. Silk and wool are protein fibres made of a variety of amino acids from animals.
There are some geographic considerations and plant/animal specific information such as the fact that cotton and wool represent the most pervasively utilized natural fibres in North America. Further, since silk and wool come from animals, they are subject to affects from the ageing of the animal.[vi]
Why are Natural Fibres Important?
It’s actually pretty straightforward. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations argues from five “choices”: healthy choice, responsible choice, sustainable choice, high-tech choice, and fashionable choice.[vii]
As The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations stated in 2009, [e]ach year, farmers harvest around 35 million tonnes of natural fibres from a wide range of plants and animals…[and] [t]hose fibres form fabrics, ropes and twines that have been fundamental to society since the dawn of civilization.” [viii]
Throughout the last 50 years, synthetic, or man-made fibres, began to dominate the landscape previously carved out by natural fibres in “clothing, household furnishings, industries and agriculture.”[ix]
Natural fibres, as a means for production and, thus, a predominant aspect of the livelihoods of millions of people, are adversely effected by global economic downturn and the increased and ubiquitous competition from synthetic materials. In fact, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations declared 2009 as the International Year of Natural Fibres to attests to natural fibres’ importance to the millions of producers and their consumers, too.[x]
Natural fibres are also the healthy choice. There is natural ventilation from natural fibres. Wool can be an insulator in cool and warm weather. Coconut fibre has a natural resistance against fungi and mites. Hemp fibre appears to show various antibacterial properties as well. What’s not to love?
Natural Fibres: The Responsible, Sustainable Choice.
Natural fibres remain the source of economic vibrancy for millions of people including small-scale processors and farmers. That means “10 million people in the cotton sector in West and Central Africa, 4 million small-scale jute farmers in Bangladesh and India, one million silk industry workers in China, and 120 000 alpaca herding families in the Andes.”[xi]
Further, they are the sustainable choice for the future. Emergent technologies in the coming decades will increasingly be the ‘alternative’ energies such as wind, solar, hydro, geothermal, and others. The focus is shifting to the oncoming and ongoing green economy. So that means “energy efficiency, renewable feed stocks,” and “industrial processes that reduce carbon emissions and recyclable materials…Natural fibres are a renewable resource,” and natural fibres are, as noted in A How-To On Composting Your Clothes, are capable of decomposition compared to synthetic materials.[xii]
These fibres are also used in high technology given their mehanical strength, low weight, and low cost. As such, they are attractive to the automotive industry.[xiii] Take, for instance, the European example with their car manufacturers utilizing an approximate 8,000 tonnes of natural fibres per year for the reinforcement of thermoplastic panels, which, as with all of the aforementioned information from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, comes from 2009.[xiv]
Finally, natural fibres exist as a fashionable choice, too. There’s a whole new area of eco-fashion, focused on things like sustainable clothing produced for people of all ages and representing all styles. These items are much more environmentally friendly as they are some of the only clothing items able to naturally decompose. The cycle of natural fibre.
That’s the brief what and the why.