To me there’s nothing as inspiring and comforting as strolling by fabric stalls or through fabric shop for hours and touch and compare all the fabrics. As autodidact I’ve always experimented a lot with fabrics, and I started knitting at a young age, giving me ample experience with various textiles. As a result of this I know how different types of fabrics affect designs, and which fabric combinations work and which ones don’t. Each fabric has its own characteristics. These are determined by the raw material, the production process, and the type of binding.
Raw material and production process
Two types of raw material are available for the production of textiles: natural fibres and synthetic fibres. As the name already indicates, natural fibres, such as cotton, wool and silk, are made from either plants or animal products. Synthetic fibres, such as polyester and elastan, on the other hand, are made by humans through chemical processes using petrochemical products. These chemical processes can also be applied to natural fibres. To create viscose, for example, wood cellulose or cotton cellulose is treated with different chemicals, after which the obtained solution is pressed and spun. The type of material resulting from this type of process is often called natural artificial fibre. Furthermore there are fabrics that combine both natural and synthetic fibres.
Both natural and synthetic (types of) fibres have advantages as well as disadvantages. As not all synthetic fibres nor all natural fibres are the same when it comes to, for example, characteristics like comfort, price and the impact on the environment, I have specified these characteristics for each individual fabric (see side menu). Of course, whether something is a pro or a con can also be a question of personal opinion.
Type of binding
Another aspect that helps determine the characteristics of a fabric is the type of binding. This refers to the way in which the threads are joined. Simply put, we can differentiate two techniques: weaving and knitting.
There are many different weaving techniques, and each one has its own attributes. In general, each weaving technique brings along with it a specific thickness, sturdiness, structure and pattern (in colour as well as relief). While some techniques allow for simple geometric patterns, others can be used to create the most extraordinary scenes. The one constant is that woven fabric is non-stretch, unless some elastic material is incorporated.
Knitted fabrics, which are always stretch, can be found under the names ‘jersey’ or ‘tricot’ (‘tricoter’ = ‘to knit’ in French), and are also sometimes called ‘t-shirt fabric’. If you look closely at knitted fabrics you can see the same kind of stitches as you would make yourself when knitting, for example, a scarf. The stitches in such knitted fabrics are just made with very thin yarn, so they aren’t very visible close-up.
Both woven and knitted fabrics can be made from natural, synthetic as well as natural artificial fibres. The combination of a specific raw material, production process and type of binding determines the characteristics of the resulting fabric.
Impact on man and environment
The production of textiles consists of many steps and, all throughout this process, choices concerning environment, safety, and health are made. Unfortunately, the fashion industry still often ignores its impact on all of these aspects. For example, a lot of water and pesticides are used for the cultivation of cotton, while the production of synthetic materials requires the use of oil, with the obvious issues it entails. In addition, the process of dyeing fabrics can cause serious damage to man and nature, since a lot of chemicals and dangerous products are used in the process, and workers often handle these products without any protection.
Fortunately, the market for textiles that are produced in a more responsible and durable manner is growing, and there are multiple quality labels and certificates, which help you easily identify these fabrics. Oeko-Tex®, one of the organisations providing such labels and certificates, pays attention to aspects like the absence of harmful products, but also the emission output of factories, and the safety and working environment of workers. In addition, the organisation GOTS® provides a label which indicates that a fabric is biologically manufactured.
To limit the damage to man and environment, it is important to be conscious about the kind of textiles you buy. But this is not the only way to be responsible when it comes to buying clothing. The last couple of years, fashion has increasingly become a disposable product. The ever-plunging prices have seduced us to keep on consuming, while a significant part of our clothes remain in our closets without ever being worn, finally ending up in the trash. A percentage of the clothes that are manufactured, won’t even be sold and will end up being burned. Processing this substantial amount of trash is not particularly beneficial to the environment. And let’s not forget the emission output of all the container ships and trucks that are needed to get all those clothes to our shops, or the terrible conditions in which factory workers have to work and live on a daily basis.
Its extensive use of water, pesticides, oil, chemicals and dangerous products, as well as the factory emission output, waste of unused clothing and container ship and truck emissions it is responsible for, together make the fashion industry one of the most polluting industries in the world. Luckily, it is not difficult to be part of the solution, instead of the problem. Informing yourself about the effects of the fashion industry on man and environment, for example by reading articles like this one, is already a good first step. Once you are aware of the facts, small efforts are easy to make. If you pay attention to the type and amount of textile you buy, you don’t need a hundred pieces of clothing. Consider buying garments that can be combined easily and in many different ways. Buying clothes that are timeless instead of fashion-dependent will allow you to wear them for much longer as well. In addition, correctly maintaining your clothes, including being mindful about how and how often you wash and dry them, can also result in a longer lifespan. And once you are done with a piece of clothing, giving it to a second-hand shop, selling it yourself or turning it into something new prevents it from ending up on a landfill prematurely!
Although it is important to have all the facts, so that we can make informed and conscious decisions, we unfortunately don’t all have the (financial) means to put all of these suggestions into practice. Still, doing what you can, even if it isn’t as much as you’d like, goes a long way. If you don’t have the budget to buy a biological fabric, but decide to have your garment made locally, you are still lending a hand. I therefore do not use biological fabrics as a standard, but instead provide the option to choose your own, for example biological, fabric.