Working With Natural Fibres

Natural fibres is a surprisingly broad term for quite a few materials. The better known ones are cotton and linen, though there are a whole range of different natural fibres out there. Sadly, although they’re natural, not all natural fibres are actually good for the environment – some take a great deal of resources such as fresh water to produce. Others – like bamboo – are marketed as natural fibres but are actually artificial fibres and require chemical processing.

So where do you begin? Well, that’s one of the reasons we’ve written this series of posts, to help you understand how to choose sustainable fabrics which are right for your project. Let’s check out the different types of natural fibres.

Natural fibres come in many different types
Materials made with natural fibres include flannel, woven knits, canvas, poplin and denim

Firstly, there’s two main types of natural fibres – those of vegetable or plant origin and those of animal origin. Each has a slightly different use, though if you’re making a gift for a vegan or you are a vegan yourself, you’ll want to stick with vegetable fibres.

Natural fibres derived from plants

Cotton

One of the most commonly available natural fibres, cotton is a versatile fibre which can be spun into different thicknesses and woven or knitted in different ways without losing its strength. It is soft and breathable and can readily take almost any type of dye. This fibre has been used by humans for textiles for thousands of years, yet it’s not particularly fantastic ecologically speaking. Typically, the plant requires a specific amount of rainfall, however many areas which produce cotton today simply irrigate the fields with fresh water, diverting it away from where the water could be used for washing, drinking, or simply keeping a river system healthy. There’s also an incredible amount of pesticides used in commercial cotton growing, many of which aren’t great for people or wildlife. The solution to this is organic cotton – grown without using chemicals, organic cotton uses natural means to control pests and care for soil. While it still requires quite a lot of water, organic cotton farms are managed in such a way that nature and wildlife are carefully considered and protected.

Cotton is one of the better known natural fibres
Cotton is one of the better known and more widely available natural fibres

Linen

Made from the fibres of the flax plant, linen is a lightweight and breathable fabric that is particularly favoured in hot climates and sunny weather. It does wrinkle reasonably easily, however it is incredibly heat resistant and strong. It’s easy to care for, though you’ll need to be wary of creases regularly occurring in the same place as this can damage the fibres. Some linen production does use chemical techniques to separate the fibres from the rest of the Flax plant, however there’s also an increasing amount of “bio-linen” available, which uses biological enzymes to separate the fibres instead of chemicals. Ecologically speaking, bio-linen is among the most sustainable sources of fibres as the Flax plants are used in many different ways – alongside the fibres, Flax seeds are used for both food and oils, while the dried remains of the stalks can also be used to make a soft, rubbery bio-plastic which is ideal for things like phone cases.

Hemp

From the cannabis family (but without the hallucinogenic oils), hemp is another strong, versatile fibre. It’s been used for all sorts of items over the years, including rope, sails, shoes, paper, clothing, bio-plastics and heavy duty sacks for food storage. It’s seen as a good sustainable fibre as hemp plants don’t require much land, pesticides or water to produce, however its position as a member of the cannabis family saw it deliberately misidentified as a dangerous drug by influential groups in the early 20th century. This has made it difficult for farmers to grow in countries such as the USA, which takes a very strong stance on the growing of drug related plants, though this attitude is changing as biochemists are able to prove that hemp used for fibre and seed oil doesn’t produce the psycho-active and hallucinogenic drug oils, making hemp fabrics easier to get hold of.

Jute

A coarse, thick fibre, jute is used in many materials and products worldwide. Here in the UK, it’s commonly used to make shopping bags as it is very strong, though it’s also used to make heavy duty food sacks, rope and nets. It’s typically grown in India as the monsoon season provides the perfect growing conditions for the plants. While it doesn’t require much in the way of pesticides, there are issues with child labour as women and children traditionally strip the fibre from the plants once it’s been harvested.

Piña

Stripped from pineapple leaves, piña fibres can be used to make a range of materials from very fine lace and muslin cloth to a dense, water resistant alternative to leather. Initially, pineapple as a food was a by-product of producing piña fibres, though it’s now the other way around. As it’s produced using a waste product, this fibre is a good, sustainable option, however it’s not currently widely available outside of the Philippines, where it’s been produced since the 17th century. Piña fibre is soft and lustrous, which makes it an excellent alternative to silk.

Abacá

A species of banana found in the Philippines, abacá has been used for centuries by indigenous people in creating all sorts of textiles. It can be woven into very fine, luxurious materials, stiff fabrics or even spun into rope and paper. It’s extremely strong and its resistance to salt water makes it ideal for the Philippine fishing industry to use in nets. Sadly, as a member of the banana species of plants, it is vulnerable to diseases. Abacá is a highly sought after fibre and can be found in sinamay fabrics used for making hats. It is commonly woven together with polyester – or polyester is woven to produce the look and feel of abacá – so be aware of this when purchasing fabrics made from abacá.

Ramie

Made from perhaps one of the most overlooked yet useful family of plants (nettles), ramie is also among the oldest fibres to be used for fabric production, with examples found that date back over 6,000 years. Ramie is an incredibly strong natural fibre which holds its shape well, leading to it being commonly used to make structural pieces in clothing. This fibre is even stronger when wet too, though like linen it will get brittle in places where it is constantly folded and stressed. While it’s typically blended with other natural fibres such as wool and cotton to increase strength and reduce shrinkage, it can also be made into fabric without blending. It’s not a perfectly sustainable fabric, as although ramie plants are abundant, it does require the use of scouring chemicals to clean the plant’s sticky gum from the fibres needed for fabric production.

Natural fibres of animal origin

Wool

Wool is a broad term which deals specifically with fibres created from animal fleece or hair. In the UK, most wool is produced from sheep, however it can be made from a variety of animals including camels, yak, llamas, alpacas, goats and angora rabbits. Wool is generally very warm and soft, though this depends on the animal it was harvested from – yak wool for instance is among the warmest in the world due to the dense fibres produced by yaks to keep them warm in the harsh environments they live in. As wool is harvested without killing the animal, it’s generally considered to be a sustainable fibre to use, though there’s some debate over how ecological it actually is due to the impact the animals themselves have on their environments. It also readily takes dyes, though some of the chemicals in synthetic dyes aren’t exactly great for people or the environment. If you can, try and find naturally dyed wools – especially those which use ethical and sustainable harvesting techniques for the dye materials, as these will be among the most ecologically friendly and sustainable wools you can purchase.

knitting with natural fibres
Wool is a good fibre to knit, crochet and weave with, though you can also sew knits too

Silk

A protein created from silk moths, silk has long been cherished as a luxury fabric. It is soft, smooth and lightweight, which has made it the ideal fibre to weave into a multitude of different fabrics over the years. Typically used for women’s wear, it is also popular for making men’s ties, pocket squares and handkerchiefs. It’s not exactly a kind fibre to harvest, as silk worms spin the fibre when creating their cocoons ready to pupate into silk moths, so the fibre is extracted by boiling the cocoons and killing the animals. However, there is a method of producing silk known as Ahimsa whereby the moth is not killed – this technique involves allowing the animal to escape the cocoon and waiting around a week before the cocoon is then boiled and spun. There’s some debate over how ethical this is though, as some claim the cocoons are punctured, meaning the moths emerge deformed and die. Others point out that it is literally not possible to feed all of the hatched caterpillars that would be created from the 20-30 eggs each female moth lays and so there’s a form of cruelty in either killing embryos or allowing them to die. Perhaps the least ethical point is that children typically gather the cocoons and so you have issues with child labour, particularly in silk industries from developing countries like India. However, you can occasionally find silk which has been recycled from old garments, so if you come across this option it’s perhaps the best one to go for ethically.

Choosing the most sustainable options

As with synthetic and artificial fibres, there are considerations to bear in mind when choosing natural fibres for your project. Generally speaking, if you’re looking for the most sustainable materials to use in your project you ought to consider the most sustainable variety of fibre, such as organic cotton, bio-linen, naturally dyed wool, etc. Ultimately, the decision to use a particular material should be weighed alongside your normal considerations for your project. Typically, sustainable materials tend to be more expensive than their regular counterparts and this is often due to increased costs incurred during production, so if you’re making something which requires a lot of fabric, you’ll also need to give some consideration to your budget!

In terms of practicality, it’s worth noting that cotton in particular seems to shed more fibres when being cut and sewn than some other materials, so you’ll need to ensure you open your window and keep your machine clean. The easiest way to do this is to give the machine a quick squirt of compressed air or to use a bit of photography equipment known as a rocket blower. I prefer rocket blowers as they only use the air around you, so there’s nothing to run out of, plus my cats hate the sound of air cans (which actually makes them a great deterrent if your kitties are being a bit naughty). If you clean your machine quickly every time you use it, it will help to prevent the build up of lint and so help with the maintenance of it too. I usually use the rocket blower around the presser foot, the feed dogs and inside the hook race and it only takes a minute or two to give it a decent clean.

Rocket blowers are good for cleaning natural fibres out of your machine
Rocket blowers are good for cleaning fibres from cotton and other materials out of your machine!