5 Eco-Friendly Fabrics

Using eco-friendly fabrics in your sewing.

Many of us are aware that the fabric industry is not the most eco-friendly industry. The chemicals and processes required to grow, process and dye natural fabrics or to produce and dye man-made fabrics can be less that healthy for our environment. So for Earth Day, I’m going to tell you about a few types of eco-friendly fabrics.

eco friendly fabrics

Here’s a disclaimer, though — no fabric is completely unproblematic. There’s always going to be some element that’s not great for the environment. Even so, using these fabrics should result in less damage to the environment than other fabrics that aren’t eco-conscious.

Organic Cotton. Due to the large demand for cotton for all sorts of uses, it’s grown in large crops, often using chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Organic cotton is grown more sustainably, using systems that replenish soil fertility and reduce the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. It’s also grown from non-genetically-modified seeds. As a bonus, it’s one of the easier eco-friendly fabrics to find. Also look for organic linen.

Soy Silk/Cashmere. This fabric is made from fiber that is extracted from food production waste — after tofu or other soy products are made, the remaining hull fibers are processed to make a fiber that can then be made into fabric. This is great for the environment because, instead of growing something specifically for the fabric it produces, something that would otherwise be discarded becomes something useful — and beautiful. Soy silk is soft, light and drapey, with moisture absorbing, anti-bacterial, and UV resistant properties. It also takes dye well. That said, the soy industry in and of itself isn’t very eco-friendly, and there are some problematic chemicals used in the production of soy silk.

Lyocell (Tencel). Lyocell is the generic name for the fiber; Tencel is a well-known brand name. This is a type of rayon, the production of which is designed to be as eco-friendly as possible. The fiber comes from sustainably grown trees, usually eucalyptus, and the extrusion process uses a closed loop of non-toxic chemicals that are recycled at a 99.5% recovery rate and then reused. The process that creates the fiber is quite clean, but the process of turning the fiber into fabric is less closely monitored and in some cases might involve more harmful chemicals.

Recycled polyester. I really love this concept, and have actually recently made a dress from a recycled polyester/reclaimed cotton blend. The idea is to collect the used PET plastic bottles that clutter our planet and process them into polyester fabric. This is great on many levels — diversion from landfill, recycling of materials and making polyester without having to further deplete the earth’s oil reserves. In addition, it uses significantly less energy than producing virgin polyester. It’s the only fabric on this list from a non-natural source.

Cork fabric. You might have noticed that cork is a huge trend right now (see the feature on sewing cork in the upcoming June/July issue of SewNews), for good reason. It’s beautiful, unique, durable and very eco-friendly. The material is the bark of the cork oak tree, which not only doesn’t die from having its bark harvested every 8-10 years, but actually benefits from it. Each tree is carefully marked after the harvest to make sure it won’t be harvested again until enough time has passed. The bark is then boiled and cut into thin sheets which are attached to a fabric backing to create the fabric. It may be colored or dyed at this point. Finally, a nontoxic sealant is placed over the cork. This is probably the most eco-friendly production process on this list, with only the impact of shipping the material from Portugal, where it’s made, as a consideration.

Are you interested in trying out any of these fabrics? I want to try out some soy silk myself!

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