Between synthetic and natural: wood fibre fabrics

Between synthetic and natural: wood fibre fabrics

Whaaaat? There are fabrics made from wood fibres? And there are five different words for these fabrics? I know, I was confused too. They each have slightly different properties because they are made differently and here's a quick snapshot of the differences. Everyone's heard of viscose, right? And you've seen it in varying percentages on the information label on your clothes? But what is it and how is it different from the four other fabrics that are made from trees?

I didn't know what viscose was until researching for this blog, and suddenly I find out that there are 5 products, all similar, with slightly different manufacturing processes but very similar properties. The fabrics can be super soft, rigid, slinky, silky, almost anything the manufacturer wants them to be. They're also moisture absorbing, unlike polyester, which repels water. Here's my attempt at explaining them:

Viscose

A fabric made from the cellulose extracted by processing the bleached fibres of trees. That blew me away and I thought it could actually be a sustainable product. But, of course, it tends to use virgin forests that are not replanted, and also harmful chemical processes are used to turn wood into soft fabric. Viscose is not a synthetic product, more natural than polyester, but the chemicals used make it a close second. The vast majority of viscose is produced in very few factories only in Indonesia, India and China. The pollution the workers and local people live with from the factories is known to be pretty toxic.

Rayon

The American word for viscose.

Modal

Very similar to viscose in that it is made from the same plant fibres (usually trees, can also be from bamboo, cotton etc) but is processed and then treated slightly differently to make the fibres in clothes softer and stronger. As a declutterer, a lot of clothes pass through my hands and I'm often mistaking silk for modal, although modal is usually not as slinky as silk. The chemicals used and power required are not dissimilar to viscose.

Lyocell

Uses a different chemical than that in viscose production, and even though the name is scary and doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, it is kinder to the environment. Sodium hydroxide (caustic soda) for viscose, is replaced by a non-toxic organic compound with the catchy name N-Methylmorpholine N-oxide (NMMO for short). This organic solvent is easier to filter and re-use in a closed loop, which is better for the environment. I understand the trees can still come from virgin forests.

Tencel

Essentially lyocell but is a trademark name coined by the Austrian company Lenzing. They use fast-growing eucalyptus trees in a sustainable environment for the raw material. It's a tricky one this, as eucalyptus is notorious for drinking up all the water and nutrients in the soil around it making it difficult for other crops to grow, but in using a sustainable tree source, they are going a step in the right direction. NMMO is also used to process the fibres, hence making it slightly kinder to the environment.

Viscose, or its alternatives, are present in so many clothes that we buy today. Viscose has been around for 100 years or so but has been developed over the years to make it more versatile, and usually softer for the clothes we wear on our skin.

So, in conclusion, I've had a think about how this will affect how I buy clothing and whether it'll change my habits. I think, in honesty, I will be more aware, and check the labels when buying and actually, in general, I like the feel of viscose, but as always, I'll buy second hand, and advocate buying second hand. And, I'll use each item for as long as I can, and then put it in the charity clothes recycling banks in the hope that it'll be reused before it gets stuck in landfill not biodegrading as nothing really biodegrades in landfill. And what does biodegradable mean anyway? More of that another day.

What can you do today?

  • Check the label

    Use the hashtag #whomademyclothes and lobby your favourite clothing brand to be more transparent about where the clothes come from and how they are being produced.

  • Choose Tencel over other wood fibre fabrics where possible

For more information on all sorts of fibres and fabrics, check out this blog and this article. There are lots of articles on the history of each fabric and how they're made. These are my favourites.

Leather and the alternatives

Leather and the alternatives

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