We often go by fibre name when discussing fabric, e.g. cotton, wool, linen, polyester, viscose / rayon. But we don’t tend to go too much beyond that unless there is a particular type of fabric weave with a special name (e.g. jacquard or ponte roma). At that point we might talk about the properties of the fabric. How it feels, whether it stretches. So what is it besides fibre type and weave type that makes it fabrics feel different? What makes a cotton lawn feel so smooth compared to the graininess of a quilting cotton? The short answer is processing and chemicals.
Producing the fibre is just the first part of the process
You might have read my previous posts on viscose or lyocell production. But in writing them I stopped at the bit where the fibre is produced. What happens after that is spinning, weaving, cleaning, dyeing, finishings, which is necessary for all fabrics. As you would expect, all of these processes require energy and chemicals and of course produces waste.
Why do refer to fabrics by their fibre names?
I suspect that many of us think more about trees than about dye chemicals and fabric treatments when we refer to something like a “printed rayon”. Perhaps this is because all fabric has to undergo some sort of dyeing and finishing so we are accustomed to referring to the fibre name as the general means of differentiation.
In reality, does the method of dyeing or finishing really matter to the average consumer? For example you could have a fabric that is screen printed in a factory. Or a fabric with hand block printing where someone has carved a design in a wooden block and manually stamped the fabric like the one here. Whilst there is something romantic about the idea of block printing, I’m betting the priority for the average consumer (not into sustainable fashion) is whether it is aesthetically pleasing to them.
There is no such thing as chemical free fabric
Maybe I am being a bit daft here but when I think of “natural” or “organic” the images that come to my mind are only nice pure ones. I am reminded of a beer advertisement from my university days (Pure Blonde for Aussies reading this). It had pretty girls dressed up in white in this idyllic fantasy setting with butterflies and birds chirping…. OK I know “organic” was never going to be that nice but you get my drift.
What about organic?
When it comes to textiles the word “organic” is often associated with GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard). You can read my post with some organic fabric FAQs here. Now whilst growing the plants (e.g. cotton) is pesticide and herbicide free, processing the cotton still requires chemical input. What GOTS does is prohibit the use of a list of substances that are deemed harmful to the environment or humans. This does not mean that all synthetic substances are banned.
You may also have heard of the certification Oeko-tex 100. It is worth knowing that this is a less comprehensive certification than GOTS as it just tests the end product and does not account for the full production cycle. The tests for harmful substances are based on the respective purpose of the textiles and materials. The more intensive the skin contact of a product and the more sensitive the skin, the stricter the human-ecological requirements that need to be complied with. One of their other certifications is called Made in Green, but it looks like it is for end garments. I haven’t seen this on any RTW clothing in stores as yet.
There are many more certifications out there than I can list in this post. At a sustainable fabric trade show earlier this year I think I saw two A0 posters which listed out certifications and a short summary of each of them (one day I will revisit this and share it with you!). In the meantime, I have mentioned GOTS and Oeko-tex 100 as these are the ones that you often seen in fabric shops.
Are there harmful substances in my fabric if it has no certification?
Without being alarmist about it, there could well be. But in my opinion, unless you have super sensitive skin, you might not have noticed if chemical residues used during the production of your clothing are impacting your everyday life.
Greenpeace produced a report in 2014 scarily titled The little monsters in your closet which found residues of hazardous chemicals in clothing for children from a range of brands. This is despite the legislation that is already in place, which you would think is more stringent when it comes to do with anything child related. I must admit I was particularly disappointed with the findings from some of the well known brands. There were some that were greenwashing (including Adidas, Nike) and others that had not even agreed with Greenpeace to sign up to try and produce toxic free fashion (GAP).
I’m not sure what has happened since in the 4 years since the report was published – but Greenpeace was calling for a detox to happen by 2020. If I had to make a bet I would say that if the same tests were repeated at this very moment there would still be hazardous chemicals traces. Let me stress here though that there is a difference between finding traces compared to the actual impact on humans and the Greenpeace report isn’t particularly good at highlighting the second point (though I have no idea how you would test that anyway and isolate the chemical impact). However I do acknowledge the key point which is that there are rules around what is and isn’t hazardous and these are being ignored in many instances.
What fabric will you be buying next?
I am currently deciding who the enemy is – nasties in my fabric? (e.g. if buying overstock you probably wouldn’t have a clue whether it is from a reputable brand or not). Is it waste from having too much fabric? Personally I haven’t noticed anything bad happening to me or my family as a direct result of my clothes, so I am still fine with using the fabric I have, wearing the clothes I already have and continuing to buy second hand. But the Greenpeace report makes me uncomfortable somehow. So in future when I want to be buying new fabric or clothing, I will be looking for the organic options for sure. At least this time I won’t be fooled by the word “natural” as being all rainbows with butterflies and birds chirping.
What do you think? Are dyes and finishes something you have thought much about? Do residues in your clothing concern you?
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Very interesting post! I wrote my bachelor thesis about organic cotton so I did a lot of research in that area. Natural dyes will not last on fabrics so heavy metals are used to fix them more permanently, which is a lot more harmful than the synthetic dyes allowed by GOTS. GOTS is really the best certificate out there as it monitors the whole process. The label of organic cotton only refers to the way the cotton was farmed, any kind of harmful chemicals can be used in finishing later on. If you are concerned about the sustainability of textiles, I would recommend to buy only GOTS certified or even better second hand.
Hello, thanks for reading and the comment. It is bizarre how often I read the “natural only” vibes as if it synthetic is the total enemy! What a great subject for your thesis by the way – perhaps you would know the scalability of organic cotton? Something I have wondered for awhile. Although if we all bought second hand it would probably be far less of a problem.
Thanks for the post, Kate! Your suspicion is true – I for one haven’t paid much attention to the processes of fabric manufacture beyond fibre production. Even though I knew there are weaving bleaching dyeing finishing involved, I didn’t think of them from a sustainability perspective. Chemical waste and pollution and effects on people is scarily everywhere (and by every industry), and more difficult to quantify and measure!
Thanks for reading as always. Every morning I cycle to work I shake my head at the air pollution and wish I could move to the countryside. It is everywhere and what can we do about it?!
I almost always buy secondhand and pretty much natural fibres only. We also try to wash any new clothes we buy for kids so the finishing chemicals come off.but not always. I’ll now be more mindful.
On the other hand, buying fabrics is where all these chemicals come home with me. I prewash before I sew but I doubt if one wash would get them all out.