Natural Plant Fibers
New to the fashion world? Welcome :) To help catch you up to speed, virtue + vice is offering free mini-courses. We will be releasing a new chapter bi-monthly. The courses will take you from the very first step in the fashion supply chain, textile fibers, all the way through to the finished product in stores. Our first crash course is TEXTILES 101. The second topic of TEXTILES 101 is Natural Plant Fibers.
Get ready to learn everything there is to know about fibers that come from plants.
WHY IS UNDERSTANDING PLANT FIBERS IMPORTANT?
Choosing the correct fibers is important to the longevity of the product. We will go over the pros and cons of virtually every fiber out there to help you determine what is best for your product designs and sustainability goals.
According to the Harvard Gazette, 34,000-year-old flax was found, and could be the oldest fiber in clothing made by humans! The History of Clothing speculates that textiles appeared in the Middle East during the Stone Age. And, that there could be evidence that we began wearing clothing as far back as 100,000 to 500,000 years ago.
Did you know that from hundreds of thousands of years ago, all the way up until 1930’s (when nylon was first made) the only fibers humans had access to came directly from nature? As a quick review, there are two different categories of natural fibers, those that come from plants, and the ones that come from animals. This chapter will cover all the different kinds of plant fibers, like flax, that come from plants.
MADE FROM SEEDS
Fibers from a cotton plant come from the seed. Cotton is the most popular fiber in the world. The cotton industry is worth $25 billion, and employs over 200,000 people, in the United States alone.
Globally cotton productions produce about 25.2 million tons of cotton fiber each year, from 77 million acres of land, covering more than eighty countries. The world produces
The top 10 producers of cotton (in order of market share are) China, India, United States, Pakistan, Brazil, Uzbekistan, Turkey, Australia, Turkmenistan, and Mexico. Egypt was once one of the world's leading suppliers of cotton but has recently slipped in the rankings.
What is Premium Cotton?
Cotton is classified by its species, fiber length, and color. These 3 characteristics determine the cotton's price. Think of it kind of like buying a diamond.
When buying cotton the fiber’s length is most important. The longer the fiber length, the better the quality of fabric it produces.
Egyptian Cotton (3.8-4.4 cm long)
Long fiber staple length is why Egyptian cotton is premium. Egyptian cotton has some of the longest fibers in the world. This leads to premium textiles, especially in bedding.
For Egyptian Cotton to be authentic, it must grow on the Nile River in Egypt. This is because the Nile River is said to have the most optimum conditions in the world for cotton to grow. And, real Egyptian Cotton is always hand-picked, it is never collected from a machine.
Today, thanks to DNA testing it is estimated that up to 90% of Egyptian Cotton is fake, and is being grown in countries like India and China.
If you are nervous about the authenticity of your Egyptian Cotton sheets before making such a pricey luxury purchase, check out the Cotton Egypt Association. This non-profit was set up in 2005 to help educate consumers and protect them against knock-off cotton. The website also lists manufacturers and brands that with accreditation so you can feel safe trusting their authenticity.
Indian and Chinese Cotton
With the current trade war between the USA and China, India is expected to see a fivefold increase in cotton exports from India to China.
Did you know that cotton was not popular until after the Industrial Revolution in the lat 1700’s. Before this wool, flax, and hemp were market dominators because of their longer fiber length. Cotton’s short fiber length makes carding and spinning yarns by hand very difficult. With the invention of new machines during the Industrial Revolution, it became easier to process cotton.
In the United States, cotton mostly grows in Texas, Mississippi, and California. Commercially (excluding small private farms) all cotton produced in the US is now GMO. The most common type of cotton grown in the United States is Upland Cotton (American Cotton), followed by Pima / Supima, and Sea Island.
Upland Cotton (2.1-3.2 cm long)
Upland Cotton, is also known as American Cotton. But, it actually originates from Mexico. 99% of cotton grown in the US is Upland Cotton. So, if your cotton comes from the USA, it is most likely Upland.
Pima vs. Supima Cotton (3.5-4.1 cm long)
Pima Cotton originated in Peru. And is comparable to Egyptian Cotton. Pima cotton grows in the southwest region of the United States.
Supima Cotton is a type of Pima Cotton. While Pima technically grows anywhere in the world, Supima only grows in America. Supima Cotton is basically extra long Pima. What makes Supima Cotton interesting is its regulation by a third-party organization to certify its authenticity. All Supima Cotton is verified by the Supima Association. Although Supima and Egyptian cotton are very similar, Supima is actually much more expensive, partially because of this certification system.
Sea Island Cotton (3.5-6.4 cm long)
Sea Island Cotton has the longest fiber staple length and is there for the most luxurious and, theoretically most expensive. But, its production is scarce, and no longer grown in the US. Today there is a version of West Indian Sea Island Cotton available.
The very southern saga of Sea Island Cotton -
“The silky and highly-prized Sea Island Cotton boasted extra-long fibers that made the variety particularly desirable. William Elliott first imported a subvariety of Gossypium Bardadense to grow at Myrtle Bank on Hilton Head Island in 1790. The results were a higher quality cotton than previously existed in the American market.
Grown on the sea islands of South Carolina and Georgia, this strain of cotton served as an important part of the Beaufort economy. Beaufort became the wealthiest and most cultured town of its size in America because of the Sea Island Cotton crop.
The invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney in 1793 at Mulberry Plantation near Savannah helped increase the profitability of this growing industry even further. Many island planters treasured their particular strain of cottonseed, jealously guarding it and handing it down through the generations.
Between boll weevil infestations and the devastation of the Civil War, the Sea Island Cotton industry in the Lowcountry became decimated. In almost a single season, the royal crop of the sea islands was gone to never return.”
Pros of Cotton
Cotton has good fiber strength and abrasion resistance. Because of its hydrophilic nature cotton fibers have good absorption, and are also quick to dry. This combination keeps the wearer feeling cool. Cotton fibers are even stronger when wet.
Cons of Cotton
Cotton tends to be dull and has bad elasticity and resilience when stretched out. Cotton also tends to wrinkle easily. Because of its high absorption rate, it is also prone to silverfish and mildew. Because cotton fibers tend to be short they easily form lint, and fabrics can appear fuzzy.
Almost anything from apparel to interior design, to industrial purposes.
Kapok is a cousin of cotton and grows on a tree that blooms once every 10 years. Each tree can grow up to 130 feet high and have leaves that are up to 2 feet long. Kapok also goes by the names of silk cotton and java cotton. The plants are native to China, India, and other parts of Southeast Asia.
Kapok is considered to be more sustainable than conventional cotton. Fashion United estimates that by substituting 1kg of 100% cotton with 30% kapok, it is possible to save about 3,000 liters of water. That is 15 bathtubs full of water!
Kapok has the same characteristics as cotton but is more eco-friendly because it needs less water to grow.
Kapok has even shorter staple length than cotton, which limits its end use.
Uses for Kapok
Kapok has a very, very short staple length. Even shorter than cotton. Because of this, it is hard to twist into yarns. Kapok is generally good as a sustainable and hypoallergenic alternative for pillow and comforter stuffing.
Some yarn manufacturers have recently been experimenting with Kapok and other longer fibers to create yarns that can be knit and woven for apparel use.
MADE FROM STALKS
FLAX aka Linen
Linen comes from a flax plant. And, flax fiber specifically comes from the stem of a flax plant. To harvest flax, you must pull the entire plant from the ground. As mentioned earlier it is currently the oldest apparel fiber, the wrapping on mummies is even made of linen.
Flax tends to grow well in cooler temperatures. And, is an agricultural double threat because flax produces fiber and seeds. Most of us know flax as a superfood packed with healthy fats and antioxidants, but did you know that flax seeds contain linseed oil? This oil is a key ingredient in making paints and varnishes.
Today the largest producer of flax and linen is Canada. The top 10 producers of flax (in order of market share are) Canada, Kazakhstan, China, Russia, United States, India, France, Ukraine, Argentina, and Italy.
Flax is also environmentally friendly. It is also great at absorbing carbon dioxide, which is the number one culprit in global warming and climate change. Flax also uses very little water or pesticides in its cultivation. Lastly, there is a use for the entire flax plant, so there is no waste.
Flax is super strong and even becomes about 10% stronger when wet. The fiber also has a nice luster. It is more hydrophilic than cotton which means it absorbs more water, and faster. It is also able to dry quickly.
Although flax is strong, it has a low abrasion resistance. Like cotton, flax has poor resilience and elasticity and is prone to silverfish and mildew. And, flax is terrible when it comes to wrinkling.
Flax is perfect for hot weather because it absorbs water efficiently and quickly dries. This is why you often see it in resort wear. Or, associate the fiber with a beach vacation. Because of flaxes high strength but low abrasion resistance it is good for casual clothes that you want to last a long time, but not workout or performance wear.
Hemp has been gaining more and more mainstream popularity in the sustainable fashion community. The hippie crowd has historically been the target customer for hemp fibers. Maybe this is because hemp comes from a cannabis plant, but, it won’t get you high.
“Hemp is completely different from marijuana in its function, cultivation, and application. But these differences didn’t stop our political leaders from confusing and accidentally grouping all Cannabis species as a Schedule I Drug and banning it in 1970 under the "Controlled Substances Act". Even after 45 years, the government still seems to have some confusion in distinguishing the two plants. Although legislation is happening, progress has been slow. In its application, hemp and marijuana serve completely different purposes. Marijuana, as it is widely known, is for medicinal or recreational purposes. Hemp is good for a variety of other applications that marijuana is not. These include healthy dietary supplements, skin products, clothing, and accessories. Overall, hemp is known to have over 25,000 possible applications.”
Hemp grows like a weed, literally ;) It requires very little water, and virtually no pesticides or fertilizers, and because of this is very sustainable.
Today the largest producer of hemp is France, they make about 70% of the world's supply. China is the second leading producer at about 25%.
Hemp is lightweight and strong. It is 3 times stronger than cotton. And, unlike cotton, hemp is UV and mold resistant. Hemp is also washing machine safe. Lastly, because hemp grows so easily it is cheaper than cotton.
Hemp can at first feel stiff and rough on the skin. But, as the fiber is worn more it breaks down and becomes incredibly drapeable and comfortable.
Because hemp is UV and mold resistance it is great for outdoor and performance wear clothing. Jeans, shirts, and more recently high fashion and designer pieces are made out of hemp. Check out our favorite hemp brand Stemp!
Ramie also goes by the name China Grass. Research shows that ramie fabrics originate from China.
Ramie, like flax, is one of the first fiber crops. When woven the fabric feels similar to tussah silk. In Yichun, China, handmade ramie fabric is said to be “light as cicada’s wings, thin as paper, flat as a mirror, slender as silk” And, as you wear the fabric it will break in and become softer and more luxurious.
Although Ramie looks like silk, the fiber is more rigid and not as stretchy. Because of its rigid nature ironing and pressing creases into the fabric can create tears in the fabric. Ramie is also very absorbent and breathes well which makes clothing made out of Ramie extremely comfortable in hot and humid climates. Ramie is actually one of the strongest natural plant fibers and will become even stronger when it is wet.
Just is more of a utilitarian fiber. The fiber is popular for creating burlap sacks to use as protective packaging during transportation. More recently, trendy reusable grocery bags are being made with jute. Jute has an extremely short staple length fiber, and because of this fibers tend to stick out of the yarns and fabrics creating an itchy and scratchy hand feel.
Carpet backing and cordage are made from jute. Just is not very popular in clothing. The fabric tends to be a bit too stiff and structure for popular styles. Tom’s is one fashion brand that utilizes jute fabric in their shoes. Jute is also common in home goods and outdoor furniture.
The largest producers of Jute today are India, Bangladesh, and China.
MADE FROM LEAVES
Sisal is a type of Agave plant. It is native to southern Mexico but is now also grows in many other countries. It yields a stiff fiber used in making various products specifically ropes, matting, and even cat scratching posts. Sisal is also the core for steel wire cables in elevators, and in fiberglass that makes up automobile components.
Sisal plant fibers are extremely durable and abrasion resistant. They are anti-static and do not attract dust or moisture easily.
From a sustainability standpoint, sisal requires little chemicals to grow, is biodegradable, and adding natural borax during finishing creates a fire resistant textile.
Abaca is a type of banana native to the Philippines. It also grows as a commercial crop in Ecuador, and Costa Rica.
The abaca plant is popular for creating paper products like teabags and even Japan's bank notes. It also makes Manila Hemp, a textile rope which is made by extracting fibers from the leaf-stems. Manila Hemp is not good for apparel, instead, its makes ropes and cording.
Helping to increase biodiversity is one benefit of introducing Abaca into monoculture farms and rainforest areas. Abaca plant introduction is seen specifically in coconut palm tree plantations to increase biodiversity and soil health on farms.
The roots of Abaca plants also help in the water holding capacity of the soil, which then helps in preventing future landslides and floods. Planting abaca can help save our oceans marine life by minimizing erosion and sedimentation problems in coastal areas. These areas are important breeding places for marine life and crucial to ocean ecosystems. Abaca waste materials also create organic fertilizer.
Did we forget a fiber?
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