What Are Artificial Fibres?

Artificial fibres is a term for materials which are made by man from naturally occurring substances. There seems to be some confusion over whether they’re truly classed as synthetic materials or natural fibres, but I felt it best to discuss them separately to synthetic fibres, as they are not derived from plastics. Check out the previous post on synthetic fibres for more information about them.

Artificial fibres and synthetic fibres are different

Artificial fibres are often referred to by brand names or even just the plant they’re derived from. Virtually all are plant based, though there’s some debate over how ecologically sound some of them are due to their production methods. Let’s take a look at the different types of artificial fibres.

colourful fabrics, including those made with artificial fibres
Artificial fibres are common and can be hard to distinguish from synthetic fibres

Viscose

Viscose is more commonly known as rayon and this fibre is often mis-identified as being plastic based. It’s actually produced using cellulose from pulped wood or bamboo, so often you’ll see clothing advertised as being made from bamboo while the care label says viscose (though there’s a lot of controversy over this and a big lawsuit in the US to do with mislabelling viscose). There’s a few issues with viscose though which are fuelled by fast fashion’s drive for cheap, throw-away clothing.

The process for creating viscose doesn’t require a specific type of wood (though some are better or easier to process than others, so they’re favoured) and so virtually any tree can be cut down and used to create it, causing serious deforestation issues – especially in areas of rainforest or ancient woodland. The process involves a huge amount of waste (some sources quote 70%, others say more) and it uses highly toxic chemicals. On top of this, according to an ocean survey in 2014, viscose accounted for as much as 57% of fibres found in deep water, though this finding has been contested. It’s therefore not great for people or the environment. There are, however, a growing number of sources of eco-viscose, which use a highly controlled sustainable wood source local to production factories, less water, less energy and they recover and reuse all chemicals.

Lyocell

Also known as tencel® or – if made from bamboo – monocel®, lyocell is similar to viscose in that it is made from pulped wood, however the cellulose is treated very differently. It uses a direct solvent to dissolve the pulp into cellulose which is safe for humans to work around and there is very little waste created – plus around 98% of the chemicals used are recovered and reused. Lyocell is very strong and resilient, while also being soft, absorbent and resistant to wrinkles. It’s therefore a great alternative to polyester, as it has many of the same qualities.

Acetate

Acetate is born from the same chemical process which created celluloid film for cameras; it’s a lightweight and silky material which is often used for women’s clothing. The process of creating acetate uses less toxic chemicals than viscose to process the wood cellulose, however acetate is prone to melting and heat degradation – so don’t put any clothes made from acetate in the tumble dryer as they’re likely to disintegrate! Of all the artificial fibres, acetate seems to be the least biodegradable according to a study of fibres in soil burial and sewage sludge in Korea. It’s also the only other artificial fibre identified in the 2014 ocean survey mentioned above, the rest being the synthetic fibres polyester, polyamide (nylon) and acrylic.

artificial fibres like acetate share manufacturing processes with other items
Acetate shares the same chemical processing techniques as celluloid film

Modal

A super absorbent and soft fibre, modal is a particular favourite for sportswear. As with the above artificial fibres, it’s made from pulped wood (specifically beech trees) and can be produced with minimal waste and emissions. The problem many environmental groups have is that in order to make it cheaply, factories in countries such as Indonesia often clear parts of the rainforest for their plantations and it’s often produced using high volumes of chemicals and water.

Alzon

Unlike the above fibres, azlon is made from the protein of plants including soy, maize, peanut and cotton seed, though it can also be made from animal milk and keratin (typically gathered from feathers). While it’s unlikely you’ll find it by itself (it’s not all that strong or stretchy), you might find it in blends with other fibres. It is anti-static, less flammable than viscose and soft to the touch.

artificial fibres like viscose are popular in clothing
Viscose and other artificial fibres are popular in fashion and are often used for items like this dress

Like synthetic fibres, the choice to use artificial fibres is one which should be considered carefully. As a consumer, it is difficult to trace materials and fibres back to the production factories and trees of origin, making it hard to know if it’s been sustainably produced or not. That being said, artificial fibres may be preferable to using synthetic ones in many cases – especially where you’re unable to find or verify whether the synthetic material is virgin or recycled.

Beware of low bio-degradeability

It’s probably best to avoid acetate for both its lack of biodegradability and the likelihood it will disintegrate if you accidentally put it in the tumble dryer. Artificial fibres are generally a step in the right direction, though if you can find eco-viscose or lyocell they’re much better ecologically than regular viscose, acetate or virgin synthetic fibres. Both eco-viscose and lyocell are becoming easier to find in fabric shops as well as in clothing stores.

Work with good suppliers

Keep an eye out for EcoVero™, as they have super high standards in their production of eco-viscose – if a roll of material has their name and trademark on the fabric details, you can trust that it really has been manufactured using the best methods for people and the environment. Fabric stores like Dragonfly Fabrics have the details of their eco-viscose listed on both the product pages and the category, making it really easy to understand the quality of the material. However, be aware of the credentials of some eco-viscose – if it’s not clear who manufactured it or what its eco-credentials are, it’s probably best to stay away.

Whether you choose natural fabrics, artificial fabrics or synthetic fabrics – you can always ensure that your fabric shears have been sourced sustainably! For example, my online haberdashery store stocks handcrafted shears, scissors and threadclips that are made locally in the UK using traditional techniques.