Analysis: as more of us aim to be sustainable fashion consumers, knowing about the make-up of garments and fabrics is key

When it comes to fashion, the behaviour of many consumers has changed. Indeed, how we approach seasonality, price, quality and daily dressing may also have changed. For those looking to shop and dress more consciously, with sustainability and long term wear in mind, understanding the make-up of our garments with a particular focus on fabric is key. It is important to understand that fabrics are judged on length, width, strength, moisture regain, flammability, bend ability and elasticity of fibres. The end use of the product will dictate the kind of fibre attributes needed.

Very simply, natural fabrics are created from raw materials which are extracted from natural sources. People sometimes expect these raw materials are ready to use from nature, but this is not the case. They often need a lot of work to be transformed into fibres which are ready to be woven or knitted and these processes have a huge environmental footprint.

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From RTÉ's Dirty Laundry podcast, Tara Stewart talks to Síofra Caherty from Jump the Hedges about fabrics, clothes washing and the importance of buying Irish

Synthetic fabrics are man-made, don't originate from natural sources and are processed in a very chemical way. However, the term man-made can be confusing as the process of taking natural raw materials and creating fibres is also essentially a man-made process so understanding that synthetic fabrics are chemically based and created is perhaps clearer.

There are positives and negatives to both natural and synthetic fabrics. Because they come from nature, natural fabrics tend to be beautiful - think of beautiful wools, silks or cottons. However, they are not perfect. If you look at human skin, you will notice how it ages and is affected by heat and cold. Natural fabrics similarly wear and age, which can be seen as a positiveorand negative depending on the consumer. These fabrics tend to be quite expensive (as they should be) when extracted and sourced ethically.

From RTÉ 2fm's Dave Fanning Show, author Kassia St Clair onher new book The Golden Thread: How Fabric Changed History

With synthetic fabrics, you are essentially creating a fibre so you can decide everything from the look to the feel of that fibre. They can also be produced very cheaply, which is appealing for fast fashion and mass production. However, unlike natural fabrics, they do not compose easily when they come to the end of their product lifecycle. As we are now aware, it can take synthetic fabrics years (sometimes 30 years) to decompose in landfill.

The biggest challenge that exists within fabrication development for the fashion industry is mixed compositions. The vast majority of garments today are made of mixed compositions: cotton and polyester, silk and lyocell, wool and acrylic. While there are benefits to mixing compositions from a functionality and price perspective, mixed compositions are extremely difficult to separate from each other at the end of their lifespan. If consumers want to buy better and more environmentally, they must acknowledge the impact mixed compositions have on the planet.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime, Eoin Flynn from UCC's Environmental Research Institute on the environmental problems with some alternative fabrics.

A guide to natural fabrics

Cotton  

From the cotton plant, this fabric is not shiny or particularly drapey, and is on the stiffer side of fabrics. However, it is very good at absorbing water in the air and sweat so is a particularly comfortable fabric to wear. The absorbency increases over time as you wash it, but it does need to be looked after as it is not a very stable fabric and can shrink over time.

Linen 

Linen comes from the flax plant. It is more shiny, lustrous and resistant than cotton. The main issue with linen is crinkling: folds will stay in fabric, particular if washed, as the pressure of water on the fabric will create excessive wrinkling. You will then need to work on the garment after it has been washed to bring it back into shape, which means it needs a lot of maintenance. It's a great fabric for warm climates as it is extremely breathable and comfortable on the skin.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's News At One, Marie-Claire Whelan from the Irish Linen House on how they completely changed their business to begin making linen face masks

Wool 

Wool refers to sheep and lamb hairs. While angora, alpaca, mohair and camel are often considered wools,  they should actually be referred to as speciality hair not wool.

Wool's main function in nature is to provide warmth and that's its strongest asset as a fabric. Wool works even better if the air around you is wet, as it absorbs water and releases heat, which is why we love a great wholly jumper here in Ireland. Wool will shrink if it gets hot and wet and it is near impossible to recover wool if it has shrunk, though it will not wrinkle. It will also peal if the yarns are not good quality, which may mean they have not been processed properly, as in cleaned or spun.

It's extremely difficult for the consumer to tell if wool is good or bad quality on the shop floor. Price should be an indication, but it cannot always guarantee quality fibres.

Silk 

Silk is produced by worms and is very expensive because of the process of creating the fibres. There are different types of silks depending on the manufacturing process used. Woven raw silk means that the fibres can be uncleaned which gives it a waxy feel. Silk satin is where the satin side is the wrong side of the fabric, but it is the side used for the outside of the garment.

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From RTÉ News, Iseult McCormack's new locdown business of painting silk scarves began in lockdown after the restaurant she was working in closed

In terms of functionality, silk georgette has a nice texture, it is very drapey which means it is a good choice for eveningwear. It is though very hard to work with from a garment construction point of view, as is silk chiffon.

A guide to synthetic fabrics

Rayon

Rayon technically comes from wood pulp, but the whole process afterwards is chemical so it usually gets classified under artificial fibres. Rayon is often used as an alternative to silk as it is much cheaper than silk to produce and is often used in linings, particularly for silk garments. It is shiny like silk, iwrinkles a lot, needs dry cleaning usually and cannot be ironed.

Acetate 

Acetate is an extremely cheap fabric to produce. As it is possibly the cheapest fabric that can be produced, it tends to be used typically on evening gowns or prom dresses, those garments which are supposed to look shiny and have a lot of fabric, but where price is a factor and needs to be kept low.  It reacts to heat and therefore cannot be ironed. You will often find acetate mixed with silk, wool or cotton to make these fabrics stronger and more accessible from a price perspective.

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From The Discovery Channel's How It's Made, a guide to the process behind polyester

Polyester

Polyester became popular in the 1950s. A key characteristic is that it is hydrophobic. Generally, polyester does not retain water which means that it doesn't wrinkle. It's a very popular fabric as it's very strong and flexible so can be mixed with more fragile fabrics to give strength and flexibility. A problem with polyester is that it is oleophilic: it retains oil which means oil on the skin can stain the fabric.

Viscose 

Viscose is man-made, but it is extracted from natural raw materials such as pine, bamboo or eucalyptus so it is sometimes referred to as a natural fibre/fabric. The process of making viscose is very complex and the confusion of whether it is natural or synthetic stems from this.

Viscose looks like and drapes like silk so is often used as an alternative due to being considerably cheaper. Unlike silk, though, viscose absorbs water and actually does so better than cotton and feels great on the skin. However, its fibres are shorter and therefore it's not as strong as cotton.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ