Late last year I heard Dutch sustainable fashion consultant Roosmarie Ruigrok speak about fibre blends and textile recycling. The context: the talk was at Impact Hub Amsterdam and mostly about fabrics. It was geared towards a group of sustainable fashion entrepreneurs who were on a start-up course for social impact and sustainability based businesses. As alumni (I did the same course in 2019) I was invited to attend.
One interesting topic of conversation was fibre blends and the end of life / recycling challenges that they pose.
Fibre blend: fabric that is not 100% of any type of fibre. E.g. 95% organic cotton / 5% elastane – a fairly typical cotton jersey – is a blend. Or 50% linen / 50% cotton. Or polycotton (=polyester + cotton)
Recap: how are fabrics and clothes recycled?
First, a quick reminder. Recycling can be done in two ways: mechanical (i.e. shredding) or chemical (“dissolving”). The most common method is mechanical and has been going on for many many years. This is literally shredding clothes for things like car insulation or mattress stuffing. Other times fibres are respun into yarns and then rewoven into cloth. Recycled cotton is becoming more common; you might have seen this in some RTW jeans. I interviewed Annemieke of Enschede Textielstad about this, read that here.
The clothing that gets recycled is typically things that are unlikely to be resold second hand. Using the UK as an example, you can give your clothes to a charity store or put it in a textile bank. If it’s not good enough quality to sell in stores locally, and not good enough to be exported to other countries for resale in the second-hand market, then it gets recycled. My blog post here discussed the afterlife of textiles once you chuck them out.
What’s the problem with fibre blends?
The chances of clothes made from fibre blends having a second life as fabric/clothing are more limited than if the clothing is 100% of one fibre. From what I heard, if you shred fabric that is of unknown or variable composition, it’s hard to get the “settings” right when you spin and weave. On an industrial scale, this is not ok (I’m sure this is not the only issue by the way). There is a project called Fibresort which does what it says on the tin. It is a technology that sorts textile waste based on fibre – clothes are put on a conveyor belt, scanned, and sorted into different piles based on composition. More on that another day once I’ve done the reading.
What about chemical recycling?
Roosmarie didn’t seem too keen on chemical recycling, because it requires additional chemical processing to separate the fibres and dissolve them into a pulp. The industry news that I’ve read over the last few years is that chemical recycling is promising, but not widely used on a commercial scale. Because of this, at this moment, Roosmarie encouraged the businesses in the room to choose unblended fibres if at all possible.
But is all chemical really bad? Compared to the benefit of using recycled material? I don’t know enough about it to give an informed view. But Tencel™ for example is produced with chemicals but in a mostly closed-loop process – that’s generally accepted as a “good” fabric. And none of the fabric you buy goes from e.g. cotton on a plant to the fabric for your shirt without chemical help.
Does that mean I should stop buying fibre blends?
If you’re looking only from the perspective of the afterlife of clothing, fibre blends probably are not the best way to go for reasons outlined above.
But not using or wearing blends also sounds utterly impractical to me. I’m not a purist that wants to compost my clothes after I’ve worn them out and then used them as cleaning rags. I mean, I don’t know about you but I quite like cotton jersey (what you buy in fabric stores is typically 95% cotton and 5% elastane), especially in underwear and for kids clothes. And anything with stretch really. And what about sweatshirts?! And leggings!
But organic cotton jersey or french terry is sustainable, right?
Well, organic cotton jerseys are blends, typically with 5% elastane (synthetic). From a fibre / recycling perspective it’s probably not ideal. And in fact, you could say it seems counterintuitive to blend synthetics with something like organic cotton. There was some interesting debate about this at the talk. But I think ultimately: why bother creating fabric that no one wants to use or wear?!
The addition of synthetics is performance-related.
Synthetics can lend certain stability to fabric. Elastane in jersey is needed for recovery, so it doesn’t bag out after 1 wear and go saggy. As well as elastane, you’ll sometimes see polyester or rPET (recycled polyester from plastic bottles) in sweatshirting or interlock.
The sustainability “benefit” is the organic part, so there is a component that was ethically farmed and processed. The bad is the afterlife and the microfibre pollution during washing. It’s not just synthetic fibres that cause this, there are studies that show linen and cotton fibres in the oceans as well. Read my blog post here.
So once again I’m going to end by saying that choice you make is always going to have both pros and cons when it comes to sustainability (yup, I’ve said it before and I’ve said it again!) I like to think about these things purely from an intellectual viewpoint because I find it an interesting topic. But when it comes to buying choices, I buy what I think I will make a successful garment. And you decide what’s right for you!