I recently realized that in past blog and social media posts, I‘ve emphasized some of the eco-friendly fibers we used in our premier collection - without going into detail on the various fibers out there. Let’s take a step back from the craziness that is the world at the moment, and step into an intro on Basic Fibers 101.
First things first: what is the actual difference between fibers and fabrics? Glad you asked. Basically, fibers are the material that’s used to make the final end product of fabric. Fibers can derive from animals or plants (natural fibers) and natural polymers or synthetics (man-made fibers). Think silk, wool, and cotton, versus polyester, spandex, and rayon.
Get ready, you’re about to learn about some of the most common fibers used in the fashion industry. Starting with this Part 1 post of our 2-part guide, let’s cover the world of synthetic, man-made fibers.
We’re looking at the root of fast fashion here, folks. Polyester is found in approximately 60 percent of garments on retail shelves today, which equates to approximately 21.3 million tons of polyester — a 157 percent increase between 2000 and 2015.² When it takes up to 200 years to break down in a landfill and consistently sheds micro-plastics into our waterways when washed, it’s going to be a no from us.
Recently, with plastic pollution awareness on the rise (goodbye plastic straws), some of these fibers are being recycled into new fibers. It’s great that recycled polyester reuses materials thus preventing dumpage into a landfill, however it can still shed micro-plastics and can only be recycled a certain number of times before the quality starts to deteriorate.
Pro Tip: Next time you’re out shopping, keep your eyes peeled for GRS-certified (Global Recycled Standard certified) recycled polyesters. This certification guarantees that the polyester is post-consumer recycled and produced under traceable conditions (peep our pocket linings in The Natalie Jumpsuit and The Emma Pants for this!).
The OG of synthetics, nylon was actually the first fabric completely made in a laboratory. Derived from crude oil (plastic), you’ll mostly see nylon used in stretchier fabrics like hosiery and swimwear.³
In short: The dang thing is very unsustainable. Nylon creates nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas that is 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Large amounts of water are used for cooling the fibers and it takes an extraordinary amount of energy to create, contributing to environmental degradation and global warming.³
Like polyester, nylon can be recycled when it’s not blended with natural fibers. Whereas polyester is generally lower quality, nylon has properties that make it sturdy. Note that nylon is 70% more energy intensive to produce than polyester. If you’re looking for a recycled nylon fabric, we recommend looking for Econyl, a regenerated nylon made from ocean and landfill waste, by the company, Aquafil.
You guessed it: Also very unsustainable. Like the other synthetics, acrylic is made from fossil fuels, produces micro-plastics when washed, releases toxic fumes in landfills, and takes 20 to 200 years to completely biodegrade. It’s also highly flammable, cannot be recycled, and doesn’t hold its quality well. Goodness gracious.
Rayon vs. Viscose vs. Lyocell
As we all know, three is a party. Welcome to the “cellulosic fibers” party where the natural material that makes up the fiber is cellulose, a component of all plants.
According to the Ettitude Journal, rayon is the first generation of these fibers and the one that further enhancements were built upon, even though it’s a manufactured fiber which is neither natural nor artificial. There are many different processes for manufacturing rayon that vary between the chemicals used and their subsequent impact on the environment.⁴
Hand in hand, viscose rayon is made from viscose, an organic liquid which is used as a material in producing rayon and cellophane. Viscose rayon feels like cotton and looks like silk, making it suitable for light clothing. It also drapes well and is used to make curtains, draperies, furniture covers, tablecloths, and napkins. It normally needs a lot of maintenance because it can easily wrinkle.⁵
One of the major “claims to fame” of lyocell is its ability to absorb excess liquid (perspiration) and quickly release it into the atmosphere. It does this while being resistant to developing odors. Lyocell prevents the growth of bacteria (which causes odors) naturally without the addition of chemical treatment, which may cause allergic reaction and is environmentally-unfriendly. Which brings us to…
Lyocell vs. TENCEL™ Lyocell
The first thing you should know is that TENCEL™ is actually a brand name - a brand name we’re particularly fond of. TENCEL™ Lyocell is the more eco-friendly version of lyocell and is made from eucalyptus wood that’s harvested from natural forests and sustainably-managed tree farms. Eucalyptus trees are fast growing, require no toxic pesticides, and very little water to thrive.⁷ TENCEL™’s sustainable qualities are NOT guaranteed with regular lyocell.
Modal vs. TENCEL™ Modal
Modal’s distinguishing characteristics are its high-wet strength and extra softness. It’s sometimes referred to “as soft as a feather” and “the softest fiber in the world.” In addition to its use in general apparel, its softness makes it especially ideal for body contact clothing such as lingerie and undergarments.⁴ However, keep in mind that TENCEL™ Modal is much more sustainably made and traceable.
TENCEL™ Modal is also made from wood pulp (sustainably managed beech) and shares a lot of similarities with TENCEL™ Lyocell when it comes to softness, comfort, breathability and moisture absorption. In terms of texture, the main difference is that Modal has a slightly more delicate touch and feel. It feels softer and it’s often made into lighter and thinner fabrics compared to TENCEL™ Lyocell.⁶
Psst... Catch us using TENCEL™ Modal-Micro fabric in The Stella Dress!
Ah, bamboo... the ultimate disguise for a sustainable fiber. Although bamboo is fast-growing and requires no pesticides, that doesn’t mean that it’s being grown sustainably. The majority of bamboo is grown in China, and there’s no easy way to trace back to how intensively the bamboo is being harvested, what chemicals are being used, or what sort of land clearing might be underway in order to make way for the bamboo.⁷ We recommend that you do your research when you see brands that claim sustainability with bamboo-made products.
This concludes Part 1 of our 2-Part Fiber Guide. Hope you enjoyed it!
P.S. - Can’t get enough? Stay tuned for Part 2 where we’ll discuss natural fibers like cotton, silk, and wool.
² Pruden, James. “Preference for Polyester May Make Fast Fashion Brands Vulnerable.” The Robin Report, 27 Nov. 2017, www.therobinreport.com/preference-for-polyester-may-make-fast-fashion-brands-vulnerable.
³ Uren, Ashlee. “Material Guide: How Sustainable Is Nylon?” Good On You, 31 Aug. 2020, goodonyou.eco/material-guide-nylon.
⁴ The Ettitude Team. “Rayon, Modal, Lyocell – Who’s the Fairest of Them All?” Ettitude Bedding | Sleep Better, Sleep Healthier, 20 Feb. 2020, ettitude.com/impact/whos-the-fairest-of-them-all.
⁵ “Difference Between Rayon and Viscose.” Difference Between, www.differencebetween.net/object/difference-between-rayon-and-viscose/.
⁶ “EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT TENCEL AND MODAL.” Fabric Romance, www.fabricromance.ie/blogs/journal/everything-you-need-to-know-about-tencel-and-modal. Accessed 8 Nov. 2020.
⁷ Hymann, Yvette. “Material Guide: Is Bamboo Fabric Sustainable?” Good On You, 23 Aug. 2020, www.goodonyou.eco/bamboo-fabric-sustainable.