A Guide to Finding your Ideal Fabric
If you looked in your closet right now you’d probably be able to pin point exactly which clothes are your favourite. That cozy sweater you always turn to when it’s a rainy day, or your favourite t-shirt that’s well-worn to perfection, or the pair of jeans that fit just right that you’d wear them every day if you could. But have you ever thought about what your clothes are made of? Most of the time good qualities in clothing are associated with brands and high expenses; consumers will automatically gravitate towards familiar stores that are well-known for their quality, pricing, style etc. It goes without thinking about where in the world the garment was made, or which type of fabric was used; natural or synthetic? We never really bother to research the reason our favourite clothes are just that, our favourites. Well, today that’s going to change. We are going to compare and contrast natural and synthetic clothing to determine what to look for when discovering new can’t-live-without favourites, and love them while being conscious of our decisions.
What are Natural and Synthetic Fabrics?
Natural fabrics—such as cotton, silk and wool—are made of animal or plant-based fibres, while synthetics are man-made and produced entirely from chemicals to create fabrics like polyester, rayon, acrylic, and many others. Over the years these synthetic fibres have increasingly grown in popularity. The demand for polyester fibres have increased by over half since 1980, making polyester the single most used textile—overtaking cotton. Although synthetic fibres are known for better durability and cheaper manufacturing, they are acquired from petroleum products and require a complex processing procedure, like all synthetic fabrics. But natural fibres are found naturally on our planet without being scientifically invented. Knowing this, there have been many long debates between the benefits of synthetic vs. natural textiles and which is considered superior.
The journey of a cotton plant starts somewhere on a farm in late March. A dry breeze blows across the endless stretch of fields as the woolly cotton seeds are planted in neat rows in the sunny state of Florida. In autumn the crops will be ready to harvest, but first the plants are intensely watered for up to 200 days. Transformed from a small seed into the clothes you see in stores, cotton has been around for thousands of years. Travelling from fields to manufacturers and back again, cotton accounts for 40 percent of clothing manufactured around the world. Although, cotton is prone to shrinking and has little resilience; it is very absorbent, soft and strong, while still easy to care for. This natural fibre is hypoallergenic making it a suitable choice for those with sensitive skin. Cotton is all-natural, making for a comfortable and breathable fabric year-round.
Polyester, derived from coal and petroleum, the fibres are the result of a chemical reaction between acid and alcohol. The exact process which the material goes through varies, though the specifications are kept secret because of competition between different companies. This fabric is exceptionally durable and long-lasting, compared to natural fibres, due to its synthetic qualities. Polyester is resistant to stretching, shrinking and wrinkles; although the synthetic has a “plastic-like” characteristic, which is non-breathing and unfit for the summer months. It is easily cared for and retains shape well, in addition to drying quickly, which is helpful for outdoor clothing. Since polyester is man-made the toxins used may cause irritation or become uncomfortable on the skin.
Most people will prefer cotton over polyester because it is a natural plant-based product, but both fibres are surprisingly similar regarding environmental impacts. Both types of materials are manufactured in factory plants, where they go under multiple chemical procedures which involve additives—such as detergents, chemical softeners, and bleaches—that are often toxic to the human body and can pollute the environment. Pollution is also caused from transporting the products around the world.
Cotton requires a lot of water and land to grow, as well as additional power for machinery used for harvesting. About 2,700 litres of water is needed to make enough cotton for one t-shirt, though the necessary water is less than the average crop. And the amount of pesticides used has decreased over time, however it is still the highest amount used out of any crop. Polyester synthetics are harmful since they are and made from fossil fuels and other chemicals, destroying habitats during the process of extracting these non-renewable resources.
Cotton is also biodegradable, so it will eventually breakdown after discarded. But the fabric can also be reused, which requires 97% less energy than brand-new material requires in manufacturing. Garments created from synthetic fibres are non-biodegradable, spending about 30 or more years in a landfill before they start to decompose. Though polyester can be made of recyclable materials such as plastic bottles which will reduce waste in other ways; polyester production rates are continually increasing, vastly exceeding the decomposition time after disposal—inescapably creating more waste on our planet.
Depending on your concern, both fibres are roughly even when it comes to environmental impacts and consequences. The most eco-friendly method would be purchasing vintage or used clothing from thrift stores, or producing your own clothing from organic cotton.
Both fabrics have their fair amount of advantages and disadvantages. Along with the environmental impact, the decision is narrowed down to a few simple factors. Purpose, whether you’re buying a winter coat or a sundress, a synthetic material may work better for one more than the other and vice versa. Your personal opinion, it matters. Now that you know the difference of characteristics between the options you can base your decision depending your skin sensitivity and particular comfort preference for the article of clothing. In general I personally prefer cotton to a synthetic alternative, even though it is the more expensive option. The fabric is more versatile as well as comfortable and I continue to find it suitable all year-round, for many years to come.
Now you can go out into the world, happily no longer shopping in ignorance of your options and the impact. You may just find a diamond in the rough where you never would have looked before. So next time you’re at the mall and have a choice between a natural or synthetic material, think of our little journey through the pros and cons.
About the Author
Amy is a high school student who enjoys using writing for the purpose of expressing an opinion or point of view on a subject matter. She most enjoys creative writing in the form of fictional stories and descriptive writing pieces. She hopes to be able to give advice and impact the lives of other through the written word, and pursue a career in writing in the future. As a hobby she also enjoys reading, listening to music and composing her own short stories.