Thought Clothing

What are Natural Fibers?

Here we are looking at natural fibers for textiles. There are 2 types of fibers that can be used in the manufacturing of textiles, natural fibers and man-made or synthetic fibers. To understand what are natural fibers, we need to look at the different sources.

Natural fibers are produced by animals, plants or geological (mineral) processes. Natural fibers are classified according to their origin and there are 3 categories:

  • Cellulose based fibers which are derived from plants (vegetable) like cotton, flax or linen, sisal, hemp and jute.
  • Protein based fibers which come from animals like wool, mohair and silk.
  • Mineral fibers come from geological processes like asbestos, ceramic (glass fiber) and metal (aluminium) fibers. These fibers are mainly used in the building and construction industry. They are not commonly used in textile manufacturing so we will not look at them in more detail here.

Many natural fibers for textiles can be spun into filaments, thread or rope which can be used to produce fabrics for clothing or home wares. It can also be matted to form products like paper and felt. Some fibers can be used as components in composite materials so different fibers can be mixed to add versatility to the fabric.

Organic Cotton Trousers   Organic Linen Dress      Natural Fibers

Plant or cellulose fibers

Plant or cellulose fibers come from different parts of the plant and there are different sources:

  1. Seed fibers are collected from the seeds or the seed cases of plants. The most common fibers here are cotton and kapok.
  2. Leaf fibers are collected from the leaves of plants. Sisal and agave are the most common leaf fibers.
  3. Skin or bast fibers come from the skin or bast surrounding the base of the plant. These fibers have a very high tensile strength and often have industrial applications. The most widely used skin fibers are linen (from the flax plant), jute, industrial hemp, rattan, ramie, kenaf and soybean. The latest skin fibers that have been added to this list are vine and banana.
  4. Fruit fibers are derived from the fruit of the plant with coconut and coir being the most common fruit fibers.
  5. Stalk fibers come from the actual stalk of the plant with bamboo and grass being the most well-known stalk fibers. Nowadays rice, wheat, barley and even tree wood are also used.

The natural plant fibers that are most commonly used in fabrics and textiles, are cotton, linen (flax), hemp and increasingly bamboo. Hemp is also often used for making ropes and sacks.

Animal or protein fibers

Animal or protein fibers are derived from different parts of the animal.

Cashmere goat

Animal hairs or wool can be taken from hairy animals and the most widely used hair would be the wool from sheep. Goat’s hair (cashmere or mohair) and hair from the alpaca are also used in luxury fabrics. Leather comes from the skin of animals.

Silk – here the fiber is collected from the dried saliva of insects or bugs that are making cocoons. The most commonly known silk is from the silkworm

Avian fibers come from the feathers of birds which are widely used in bedding and upholstery.

Synthetic or Man-made Fibers

Synthetic fibers are made by human beings through chemical processes. Production of synthetic fibers are the most prevalent in the world with it exceeding that of cotton. They are made from polymers through a process of polymerization. Synthetic fibers are manufactured in continuous filaments and has an infinite length.

Nylon fibers

Synthetic fibers are not normally affected by microorganisms and living organisms, although over a very long period, the ultraviolet rays of the sun will degrade them. The synthetic fibers that are commonly used in the textile industry are polyester, nylon, acrylic, spandex, Lycra, viscose and rayon, which are manufactured from oil, coal and petrochemicals.

Hazardous chemicals are used during the manufacturing of synthetic fibers. Textile dermatitis is a skin reaction causing redness, itchiness and inflammation after the skin has been in contact with synthetic fibers.

  • Two highly toxic chemicals namely dihydric alcohol and terephthalic acid are used for the manufacturing of polyester. Neither are completely removed from the fiber and can enter the body through wet skin. It can then cause dermatitis and respiratory diseases.
  • Carbon disulfide, sulfuric acid, acetone, ammonia and caustic soda are used when rayon is manufactured. These chemicals can cause muscle pain, nausea, headaches and insomnia.
  • Acrylontrile is used when acrylic fiber is made. It is toxic even in small doses and can be carcinogenic.
  • Nylon relies on petroleum for the manufacturing. It goes through many chemical treatments during the manufacturing using caustic soda, sulphuric acid and formaldehyde. Chloroform, pentane, limonene and terpineol are used during the bleaching and softening processes. Many of these toxins remain in the fabric.

Synthetic fibers that are produced from petroleum, like nylon and polyester, are not biodegradable. The synthetic fiber industry causes more than 20% of industrial water pollution. The contaminated water is pumped into rivers, seas and oceans, killing aquatic life. Hazardous chemicals used in the making of synthetic fibers pose a big risk to humans and the environment.

Benefits of Natural Fibers for textiles

Natural fibers for textiles come from a renewable and sustainable source and have several advantages associated with them.

  • The majority of natural fibers are bio-degradable and fully recyclable.
  • They have natural anti-bacterial properties, resist mildew and block UV radiation.
  • Textiles such as linen, silk and cotton are naturally hypoallergenic, making them ideal for sensitive skin or those prone to allergies. Newborn and baby skin benefit greatly from using these fabrics.
  • Natural fibers are breathable and heat responsive while also great insulators. Fabrics like wool, cashmere, silk and bamboo traps air between the micro-holes of the fabrics. This trapped air is then used as an insulator to generate warmth in the winter and coolness in the summer.
  • Some fibers can be organically grown and although it might be more expensive to produce and purchase, it ensures that no harmful pesticides and chemicals are used in it’s production.
  • The high absorption qualities in natural fibers are a very big plus. The moisture wicking abilities allow ventilation through the fabric, which draws dampness away from the skin, leaving you feeling dry. This is particulary important during the hot months when fabrics such as cotton and linen will help keep you cool and comfortable.

Time to declutter your wardrobe

Do your skin and the environment a favour and get rid of all the synthetic fabrics in your wardrobe. Those with sensitive skin will benefit even more from updating their wardrobe with natural fabrics. With the stylish and trendy natural fabrics that are available, you are sure to find inspiration in some of these.

   Organic Linen Natural Fiber  Leather Bag

7 thoughts on “What are Natural Fibers?

  1. Really interesting article as I’ve lived most of my adult life with allergies related to clothes made from Animal or protein fibers. 

    That brings me to my question really…Are there any types of Plant or cellulose fibers that I should also be careful of, seeing as though I have problems with the animal fibers? Or are the plant and cellulose options safe?

    1. The allergies might be more from chemical used in the treatment of the fiber, so look for organic options. You should be ok with plant fibers, but once again look for organic

    2. Hi Chris, I agree with Line about checking that you wear ‘chemical free’ plant fibres, like organic cotton. Look out for oeko-tex certification or something similar. I also suffer skin allergies, and last year had severe skin problems. Following this experience, I’ve noticed that hemp fibers also irritate my skin (when it is already inflamed). I suspect this is due to the long slightly rougher fibres of the hemp, so I avoid that against my skin.
      Personally, I find the best fibers to wear when my skin is extra sensitive is organic cotton/modal/tencel blends, as well as organic silk.
      Is your sensitivity with both wool and silk? or only wool?

  2. I am actually blown away by some of the information you have in this article, firstly with asbestos being a natural fibre! I also had no idea that linen was derived from flax, and I certainly had no idea of the percentage of pollution being caused by the synthetic industry, or how bad synthetic fibres actually are for us. I’ve always (obviously) preferred natural fibres, but now I have so much more understanding why. Thank you so much for enlightening me! Great post!

  3. Thanks for the detailed explanation of what natural fibers are and where they come from. The synthetic fibers you write about are ones that I see in many of the clothes that are sold today, and it seems like the synthetic fibers are used more today than 20 or 30 years ago.

    These synthetics were available, but not that much and even back then I did not like the feel of them. I have always preferred 100% natural fibers that are used for my clothing, and I am sure it is a matter of money as to why they are used at all, knowing the environmental impact synthetics can have.

    I am so totally with you that people need to stop buying the synthetics and that will force the designers to go back to the safer and less impactful natural fibers that used to dominate the markets.  I also preach this to my grandchildren, and they already know they do not like synthetics. 

  4. Thanks for writing this article on Natural fibers and it importance. I must commend you for a job well done for taking your time to write this article.this is my first time of reading such an informative and educative article that have impact of what I wear on my body. This article is an eye opener to me on the reason I need to be wearing natural fabrics.but I will like to ask. Is natural fabrics cheap to buy in the market? 

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