So there you are, walking around the fashion store and trying on clothes in the dressing room. You select two similar pieces and starts comparing – do they look different, feel different and cost different? And most importantly, from a sustainability point of view, how much do each of them costs to our environment?
For the longest time, people have always associated the term “natural” with “eco-friendly”, “biodegradable”, “organic”, so on and so forth… But when it comes to fabric fibre, how do natural fibre compare with synthetic ones? Is there an argument to be made for a place in our wardrobes?
In this article, let’s grab our binoculars and delve deeper into the difference between our fabric fibres!
Understanding Natural Fibre and Synthetic Fibre
Back to basics – what exactly is fibre? In fashion, a fibre is a long & thin hair-like thread of material that can be knitted or woven into a fabric.
Natural fibres come from plants, animals or minerals, spun into threads & yarns. Some examples are silk, wool, cotton, linen and jute.
Synthetic fibres come from artificial & man-made materials – petrochemicals (e.g. natural gas, coal, crude oil etc) combined through polymerization. Some examples are polyester, nylon, rayon (semi-synthetic) and spandex.
Generally speaking, natural fibres are less harmful to the environment because producing them don’t use as many chemicals. In addition, it requires fewer screen printing chemicals to colour natural fibres.
They’re found in staple or filament form, while synthetic ones go through many complex steps in the polymerization process before turning into fibres.
Since natural fibres are easier to produce, why do people still create synthetic fibres?
Natural Fibre vs Synthetic Fibre: Which is stronger?
Answer: Synthetic Fibres
The benefits of synthetics is that they have properties that we cannot find in nature which makes them stronger, lighter, shinier, more durable and fuel-efficient.
Synthetic fibres are chemical compounds, made from combining raw materials together. They are essentially made to be more resilient, stronger & cheaper than natural ones. This also means more room to explore different variations of fibres for different benefits. Let me share some examples:
Nylon (thermoplastic derived from crude oil): Stretchy, sturdy, resistant to abrasion & also fire-retardant because it contains polyamides of high molecular weight. Originally made to be a durable & cheaper substitute to silk.
Polyester (thermoplastic derived from coal + petroleum): Lightweight, resistant to water, wrinkles & stains which makes it easy to clean. Dries very quickly & take dyes easily too.
Now bear in mind that natural fibres don’t go through the combining process at all. They aren’t made chemically to withstand high stress & they can be broken down by bacteria. This may have limited how futuristic it can be, but of course, every benefit is naturally occurring. Here are some common examples:
Silk (produced by silkworms): Known for its luster, softness and shine as it is mainly composed of Fibroin (the strongest natural protein fibre). Famous in high-end & luxury brands due to its high production costs and elegant appearance.
Cotton (plant fibres from the cotton plant): Soft, fluffy, breathable, absorbent & comfortable as it is composed of cellulose (an insoluble organic compound). Often used to make tee-shirts, undergarments, denim and canvas.
Read More: 10 Sustainable Brands To Know
Natural Fibre vs Synthetic Fibre: Which is more expensive to produce?
Answer: Natural Fibres
Well, that’s why synthetic fibres exist – to be a cheaper alternative!
In the textile industry, natural fabric has been regarded as “better quality. This makes them higher in demand. With that, many suppliers turn to mass-produce animals & plants to acquire natural fibres. For the benefit of time, let’s just talk about silk.
Only silkworms produce the lustrous & long fibre that makes the most elegant gowns. But did you know, it takes more than 5,000 silkworms to produce just 1 kilogram of silk? Not just that, silkworms are also super rare.
To meet the high demands, people turn to silk farming (also known as sericulture), which involves harvesting silkworms for the material. Let me bring you through the production process:
- Larvae are fed mulberry leaves five times a day.
- After 45 days of munching & growing, the worms are ready to mature.
- After they have molted several times, they secrete one long continuous filament – silk! The silkworms then spin this filament into a cocoon.
- The silk solidifies upon contact with air. This process takes 2-3 days.
- Once the cocoon is formed, it is steamed into a pot of boiling water to kill the pupae. This prevents the pupae from degrading & breaking the silk before they transform into moths.
- Half a mile of silk filament is then extracted by brushing the cocoon.
- Raw silk is woven or knitted into a fabric, or spun into a yarn.
Evidently, sericulture is a labour-intensive and resource-heavy process. All that farming, feeding, killing and harvesting cost space, time, manpower & money. Whereas for synthetic fabrics, they are inexpensive because they’re made from cheap raw materials & produced in large quantities efficiently.
While we are at it, do low production costs promises low environmental costs?
You’ll find out in the next series – Natural Fibre vs Synthetic Fibres #2: Environmental Costs 😊