A-Z GLOSSARY OF SUSTAINABLE FIBERS
The following list of fibers used for textiles and apparel is intended to provide definitions and descriptions for each. Some fibers have not been included because they are unsuitable for use in clothing manufacture. This list is a work in progress. We intend to provide updates as we learn more from experts in the global marketplace.
Alpaca wool is made from the fleece of the South American alpaca, although often softer than sheep's wool and also hypoallergenic. Alpaca require no pesticides or antibiotic treatment when raised for wool, making their lustrous and durable fleece naturally organic.
Angora wool is made from the coat of the Angora rabbit, and often recognized for its fluffy and silky texture. Producing angora wool is time intensive, as it involves plucking or collecting the molted fur off the rabbit during each of its four yearly molting times. Angora wool is very thin, and so often blended with more durable fibers like wool or silk to make a super soft and strong yarn or fabric.
Bamboo is a type of grass originating from eastern Asia that requires no fertilizers or pesticides and very little water for its rapid growth. The fabric made from bamboo fiber is silky in texture, has moisture wicking properties, and is very durable. Although current bamboo fabric manufacturing processes involve toxic chemicals, developments for harmless and environmentally sound processes are underway.
Banana Fiber (Abaca)
The stalks of the banana plant contain long fibers that can be spun into silky threads most often used in rugs and other interior textiles. Banana fiber has been used in Asian cultures for centuries, where hand extracted, processed and spun banana yarn and fabric can still be found today in the form of tablecloths, curtains and kimonos.
Also known as sea silk, byssus cloth is made from the long micro-filaments secreted by a certain type of mollusk that at one time was widespread in the Mediterranean sea. The mollusk can grow up to 3 feet long and excretes a very fine fiber from one end. Although the production of byssus silk has mostly vanished, artisans on the Italian island of Sardinia are keeping the age-old art alive.
Camel hair for the production of fabric is obtained from the Bactrian camel, which reside in the steppes of Central and Eastern Asia. Camel hair is harvested by hand, then graded according to the color and fineness of the fiber, with about 30% making up the finest, apparel grade fiber. Usually light tan in color, (explaining the term for shade we call 'camel') it is typically blended with other fibers for an extremely supple material with excellent drape and temperature regulating properties.
Cashmere is made from the soft hairs that grow on the belly of a Kashmir goat, which is native to the Himalayas. The scarcity and arduous harvesting process of this fiber makes it a luxury material, as do its extremely soft, well-insulating, lightweight and durable properties as a fabric.
Chitin fabrics are most often made of a blend of viscose and chitin, which is a substance found in the shells of crabs and other crustaceans. The use of chitin, which is biodegradable, creates an anti-bacterial and hypoallergenic fabric. Chitin for fabric production is most often obtained as a by-product of the food industry, meaning that the shellfish are not harmed solely for the purpose of fabric production.
Coir (Coconut Fiber)
Coir is obtained from the husk of a coconut, and is most often found in the form of floor mats, doormats, brushes, brooms and as furniture filling. The fiber is also used as a sturdy material for weaving baskets, bags and indoor or outdoor decorations.
Cork fiber is harvested from the cork oak tree and is currently made into a soft-shell activewear fabric that keeps the wearer warm and is extremely breathable and supple. Raw cork is harvested from FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified forests through a process that doesn't actually involve cutting down any trees. The thick and rugged bark grows back naturally after harvest, causing no harm to the tree.
Corn Fiber / Ingeo
A fiber processing company called Nature Works has developed corn fiber based plastics and textile materials under the product name Ingeo. The material is said to use 20-50% less petroleum based resources than polyester, is compostable and can be grown and processed annually to yield high amounts of fiber. However, nearly 85% of the corn fabric produced is made from GM corn, so looking for organic corn options is important.
Fish Skin Leather
Fish skin leather is produced from the waste of the food industry from the skins of non-endangered fish such as cod, salmon, carp, sturgeon, catfish, wolf fish and perch. Similar in strength to tough cowhide with the appearance of reptile skin, fish skin leather can be used for anything from handbags, belts, clothing, small accessories and shoes, to furniture and interior decoration.
Hemp fabric is made from the inner fibers of the stalk of the hemp plant, which belongs to the bast fiber group. Hemp does not require any pesticides or toxic chemicals when cultivated, produces 2-3 times more fiber per acre than cotton, and the plant even fixes nutrients back into the soil. Hemp fabric is breathable, warm, moisture-wicking, anti-bacterial and easily blended with other natural fibers such as cotton and wool for a soft, durable textile.
In-vitro or test tube leather is made by manipulating an animal hide cell through a bioreactor, then 3D bio-printing a cell formation, and placing it once again in a bioreactor to create finished leather. In-vitro leather has no hair or tough outer skin, decreasing the amount of time, chemicals, and water required for tanning. An inherent difference when compared to making conventional leather is the complete lack of animal slaughter.
Jute is a bast fiber plant native to India that contains coarse fibers most often used for products such as coffee sacks , rope, mats and on the soles of shoes like espadrilles. Finer jute fibers are often woven with cotton to create a strong material used in apparel and home textiles.
Kapok fiber is found inside the seedpods of the kapok tree in the form of silky fluff that surrounds the kapok seeds. Since kapok fibers are rather short and not very strong, they are difficult to spin on modern machines, but make a plush and light filling for home textiles, bedding, furniture and even flotation devices.
Kenaf is another bast fiber that was used by the Ancient Egyptian and Asians. Related to both hibiscus and cotton, kenaf can be grown in several places including the U.S., converting CO2, improving soil structure, fixing nutrients into the soil and requiring minimal amounts of water and no fertilizers. Kenaf is a superior option for garments, as its extremely long fibers make for very fine yarn when spun, after which it is often blended with cotton.
Linen (Flax Fiber)
Linen is made from flax, another plant in the bast fiber group, and has been used as a textile since Ancient Mesopotamian times. Growing linen requires far less water than growing cotton, no chemical fertilizers, and it is one of the strongest plant fibers. The material takes dyes well, is highly absorbent and keeps the wearer cool, making it ideal for a range of textile uses from apparel to home textiles and canvas bags.
Lotus Flower Fabric
Lotus flower fabric is a material created from the stems of the Asian lotus flower through arduous processing and weaving by hand. The finished fabric is a cross between silk and linen in texture, and was historically used to make robes for high-ranking Buddhist monks. The unique and soft material is breathable, wrinkle-free, naturally stain-resistant, and waterproof due to its aquatic origin.
Merino wool is made from the fleece of Merino sheep, which are originally from Spain but now mainly bred in New Zealand and Australia. Merino wool is very soft, lightweight and regulates body temperature well, explaining its popularity in sportswear and performance base layers.
Fabric made from milk protein fibers is extracted from commercial milk that doesn't meet hygiene standards. Produced entirely without chemicals, this fabric contains 18 beneficial amino acids are antibacterial, anti-aging and are able to regulate blood circulation and body temperature.
Modal is a fabric made from the cellulose found in beech tree fiber. The production process of Modal involves very few chemicals and recycles most of the water and solvents used. The fabric dyes well, resists shrinkage and fading and is extremely soft.
Mohair is made from the hair of the Angora goat, which has a lustrous and soft coat. Mohair goats are typically shorn twice a year, with no harm done to the animal. The finished material is very durable, takes dyes well, is very warm and has excellent insulating properties. Mohair is often blended with other fibers to add strength and warmth to a particular fabric.
Nettle fabric is made from the fibrous stem of stinging nettle plants, which produce a soft and lustrous fiber that was very popular in medieval times. Cultivating nettles for textiles is a much more sustainable alternative to cotton, as it is low-maintenance, requires minimal amounts of water and no pesticides, attracts copious amounts of wildlife and thrives even in the poorest of soil unsuitable for other crops, also fixing nutrients back into the soil it grows in.
Orange Fiber was created: cellulose, which is then spun, is extracted from all the fibres that are discarded from the pressing and processing of oranges. Thanks to nanotechnology and citrus fruit essential oil, it is encapsulated and fixed to the fabric: the material obtained is, therefore, also able to leave the skin soft, not greasy, in fact, just as if a body lotion has been used.
Organic cotton is obtained from cotton that is grown from non-GMO seed without the use of any harmful or synthetic chemicals, pesticides or herbicides. This method of growing cotton supports biodiversity, healthy ecosystems, improves the quality of soil and uses less water than the cultivation of conventional cotton. Growing organic cotton does require more time, knowledge and skill, and is currently more costly than growing conventional cotton.
Organic wool farming requires strict adherence to a set of rules and standards whereby farmers cannot use any chemical inputs on their fields or feed crops and must steer clear of chemical based insecticides and pesticides. The fiber bearing animals can only be fed 100% organic grains, graze on organic pastures, cannot be vaccinated with anything synthetic, and should be well cared for. Organic wool farms must also maintain stocking ratios so that the land can regenerate itself and sustain its environment and the animals grazing on it. Mills that process the wool must be free of synthetic chemicals and demonstrate water consciousness.
Peacock Feather Fabric
Peacock feather fabric is made from the side strands of the tail or 'eye' feathers, which only the male peacocks have. Rural villagers in Western India gather the tail feathers, hand pluck the side strands, which are then twisted and knotted by hand to form a continuous thread. This process is followed by weaving silk, rayon and the peacock feathers into an iridescent material, taking 1 month to complete a standard 9 yard roll of fabric. Time-consuming, laborious and requiring ample handcrafting skills, peacock feather fabric is rather costly and production is extremely limited.
Ananas Anam has developed an innovative, natural and sustainable non-woven textile called Piñatex™ made from pineapple leaves fibres. Piñatex has evolved from seven years of R&D to create a natural textile from waste plant fibres.
Piñatex harnesses advanced technologies to create a totally sustainable high performance natural textile. We carried out the original development leading to Piñatex™ in the Philippines. Its finishing, research and continuing development are now being undertaken in the UK and Spain.
Pineapple Silk (Pina)
Pineapple silk is made from the fibers of pineapple leaves, which are processed and woven entirely by hand. The resultant fabric is a glossy but slightly stiff, ivory-colored material that is diaphanous, breathable, softer than hemp, better in quality than raw silk and has excellent cooling properties. The fiber takes natural dyes very well, and the glossy surface of the material eliminates the need for toxic treating agents since it acts as a protective layer for the fabric.
PLA stands for polylactic acid fiber, which is derived from a plant sugar called dextrose obtained mostly from corn as well as sugar beets, wheat or sugar cane. Ingeo corn fibers are essentially PLA fibers, and so considered part of the plant-based synthetics fabric group.
Qiviut is the Inuit word for musk ox, whose warm and strong inner coat hairs are used to spin a silky and soft yarn. Qiviut is much warmer than wool and even softer than cashmere, but extremely rare since the oxen are never shorn, but rather their undercoat is gathered from objects the animals have brushed against each Spring.
Ramie is an age-old bast fiber plant used by the Ancient Egyptians to make cloth for wrapping mummies. Though very similar to linen, ramie produces a lustrous, silk-like material that is soft to the touch, eight times stronger than cotton, and even strengthens when wet. Industrially processed ramie is chemically intensive, but hand processed ramie is environmentally friendly.
Recycled polyester, or rPET, is made from post-consumer recycled plastic soda and water bottles, food containers, unusable second quality polyester fabrics and worn out polyester garments. The polyester in these items is broken down and re-spun into virgin quality polyester fiber. Using rPET reduces dependency on oil, utilizes waste, creates less air, soil and water contamination, and cuts out the need for a virgin polyester manufacturing industry.
Sisal is a type of agave plant that grows in the Caribbean, Africa and Asia. Sisal fiber is obtained from the leaves of the plant, and was traditionally spun and woven into ropes and twines. Finer sisal fibers are spun into yarn used mostly by the carpet industry, but also used for other home textiles.
Soy fabric is made from soybeans and by-products of soy foods (like tofu) that undergo chemical manipulation in order to be turned from plant into fabric. Soy fabric is soft in texture and comparable to silk in the way it drapes. It is also very durable and lends itself well to many different types of garments or home textiles like sheets. Although soy fabric is essentially a natural fiber, toxic chemicals such as formaldehyde are used in the production process.
Spider silk is made from the silk spun by golden orb spiders and only one piece of cloth made from this fiber exists in the world today. However, scientists are developing methods for replicating spider silk, which is lustrous in appearance, soft, extremely elastic and has incredible tensile strength.
Seacell is a cellulose-based material that is made up of the fiber from eucalyptus trees blended with sushi grade, USDA certified organic, 'knotted wrack' seaweed. With a fiber structure that facilitates active exchange of nutrients between the skin and fabric, Seacell releases nutrients such as calcium, magnesium, iron and vitamin E (which is extremely beneficial for repairing stretched or damaged skin) onto the wearer. The fabric is very soft, breathes well and is produced through mostly sustainable processes.
Wild / Peace Silk
Raw silk is different from conventional silk since the silkworm is allowed to live out its full life cycle. The moths are allowed to emerge from their cocoon before the cocoon is harvested for silk production, which requires gathering cocoons from the wild that moths have naturally left behind. The resulting fabric is not inferior to conventional silk, but the lives of the silkworms are spared.
Tencel / Lyocell
Tencell is a biosynthetic fiber made from the cellulose-rich pulp of rapidly growing eucalyptus trees. Lyocell was the original term for the fiber, but was coined Tencel by the company that currently manufactures the material. Tencel is produced through a closed-loop process where nearly 100% of the water and non-toic solvents used are re-used. The resulting fiber can be spun into high quality yarn that is used for anything from underwear to sheets, jersey fabrics and even denim. Tencel drapes well, is soft, breathable, moisture-wicking, wrinkle-resistant and entirely biodegradable.
Although many vegan leathers are petroleum based and chemically toxic, ethical and environmental options do exist. Paper, cork, waxed cotton, kelp and wood fiber are all used to create 'leather look' fabrics that omit the slaughter, toxic and energy intensive processes of the conventional leather industry, and are made from completely natural materials.
Vicuna wool is made from the fleece of the Peruvian vicuna, which belongs to the camelid family and is similar in appearance to a llama. Vicuna fleece is considered to produce the finest wool in the world, and is also as warm and durable as sheep's wool. Vicuna wool is extremely rare, as the animals roam wild and a single pound of fleece per animal is gathered only every 2 years.