On The Radar

Fabric Revolution

Originally published in SIX magazine issue 4 – SPRUNG!

Fabric Revolution

Written by Tara Sugar

Milk, salmon, and coffee will soon be a part of your wardrobe. This glossary will help keep you up to date with these tasty new fabrics.

It might sound like a list of breakfast items, but milk, sugar, bananas and crab shells are, in fact, the future of our wardrobes. A number of seemingly bizarre new textiles made from pre- and post-consumer waste are being rescued from the rubbish heap, revolutionising the fashion market. These fabrics are surprisingly soft, comfortable, fashionable, and easy to work with: many boast wonderful properties, such as anti-microbial and breathability features.

Natural fabrics are generally made from either vegetable or animal sources, such as the hairs of animals, which, like our own, are protein-based and in most cases obtained without harming the animal. Fibres like wool, alpaca, and peace silk are gathered, cleaned, combed and spun into yarns, which can then be woven or knitted into cloth.

Vegetable-based fabrics are made from cellulose, the chief constituent of most plant tissues. Cotton is derived from the flowers of the plant, however many other plant fibres are derived from the stems and are known as bast fibres. Examples include nettle, linen and hemp. These are harvested, softened (either by chemical or manual/ mechanical processes) and then spun, woven or knitted into cloth.

Cellulose-based fibres require varying amounts of water to grow and process. Cotton is particularly needy when it comes to soil nutrients and water for processing. Rayon and bamboo are made from a sort of wood pulp, and these sometimes also rely on chemicals and high water usage. Although new and old methods are all being explored to reduce impact.

It’s important to check the labels and swing tags when clothes shopping as these will explain the fabric’s eco-credentials in full, if any exist. The next generation of fashion fabrics explores all kinds of unusual new raw fibre sources; here’s our pick of the most innovative.

Basho (basho-fu) fabric is made from the spent banana plant, after harvesting the fruit. It has long been favoured for summer kimonos in Japan because of its airiness and smooth, crisp surface. Like linen, hemp, ramie, and other bast fibres, basho-fu does not stick to the skin in hot weather. Traditionally worn to combat the summer heat, basho-fu is now a luxury cloth that is made in the village of Kijoka, on the island of Okinawa. New types of banana fibre cloth are currently being produced by Swicofil in Switzerland.

Crabyon™ and Tencel C™ are new fibres made from the chitin in crab shells blended with Rayon. Despite being an animal source, the crab shells are processed in a similar way to Rayon, resulting in a soft fabric made from waste. It is said to be beneficial to sensitive skin due to its anti-bacterial and anti-microbial properties. It’s currently commercially available as socks, undergarments and baby wear, but the possibilities are endless. 

Ingeo has been dubbed a “natural synthetic”, often made from corn, but can also be made from almost any naturally occurring sugar, i.e. sugar beets, sugar cane and wheat. In the future, there are hopes to produce Ingeo from agricultural waste and non-food plants. Ingeo is biodegradable, so you can dispose of it in the compost pile. When exposed to high heat and moisture, however, it has been known to break down prematurely.

Lenpuris another Rayon type fabric made from white fir (pine tree) cellulose. Firs are a soft wood that is quicker to grow than most, and can be farmed fairly densely. The resulting fabric is exceptionally soft to the touch, and said to have thermoregulatory properties.

Milkofil is a soft new fibre and fabric made from casein in milk protein. It’s relatively expensive, but feels wonderful, is highly durable with other benefits: it has moisture-retaining properties which keep skin nourished, it is said to improve circulation and is naturally sterile.

Rayon, Viscose and Modal, Tencel, Lyocell are all made from plant cellulose but, are considered by some to be man-made as the transformation from vegetable pulp to cloth is often a long one. Newer developments such as Tencel are now made in closed loop systems where the only liquid waste is clean water.

S. Café is made from post-consumer waste coffee grounds, which have been re-processed in the world’s first mill dedicated to converting leftover coffee grounds to performance fabric. Today S. Cafe’s fabrics are bought by brands across the fashion space, from North Face to Adidas and Victoria’s Secret.

Salmon skin from food waste are being treated and tanned to create leather like products by ES Salmon in Patagonia. 

Sasawashi is a linen type fabric made from Japanese paper and Kumazasa herb, and quite new to the fashion market. Despite being made from paper, it’s durable and washable.

Seacell is a relatively new product made from seaweed cellulose (mixed with Lyocell).

Soya jersey is made from the fibres in soy husks (the little fuzzy peapods better known as “edamame”). It’s a luxuriously soft, comfortable, breathable jersey with great drape. 

Stinging nettles produce surprisingly soft, cotton-like fabric, however, nettles grow like weeds (since they are!) without any need for pesticides and fertilisers, and on land which cannot be used for other crops. This is a very old textile, currently being re-explored for commercial use, either as a fine cotton like fabric, or blended with wools to strengthen, and reduce shrinkage.

Trims and buttons are also exploring new and old materials. One World Buttons are producing beautiful unique and fairly-traded options made from found wood, natural rubber, carved bone and more unusual items like recycled glass.

The resale of leftover textiles is becoming increasingly important, with minimum orders for fabrics being high and the economic necessity of selling overstock. Beautiful Soul in London have started their own database, where hobby sewers and designers can buy quality overstock of beautiful S&E fabrics. [Beautiful Soul have since closed down their website and are no longer trading -ed.]

Many alternative techniques are being explored in the production of cloth, such as using ultrasound for dyeing, thereby eliminating the use of water entirely; and drying fabrics using radio frequencies rather than ovens, saving energy.

Softeners and finishing are two of many stages of high water usage in manufacturing textiles, however in new processes fabrics are softened with combinations of beeswax, aloe vera and vitamin E.

It’s important to know there is no perfect solution yet, but much progress is being made, and exciting new textiles are entering the market every season.
By supporting these innovations, we ensure that more research and development will continue to offer better solutions, and exciting new fabrics in the process.

For further information and to buy some of the fabrics mentioned in this article:

Milk Jersey from Offset Warehouse

Corozo nut buttons from One World Buttons

Sasawashi towel from goop

B2B innovative textiles from Swicofil

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