All textiles are made up of fibres that are arranged in different ways to create the desired strength, durability, appearance and texture. The fibres can be of countless origins, but can be grouped into four main categories. Natural fibres, with the exception of silk, have a relatively short fibre length, measured in centimetres. Silk and man-made fibres have on the other hand very long fibre lengths (filaments) ranging from hundreds of metres to kilometres long.
Plant fibres consists of cellulosic material, normally derived from cotton, linen, hemp or bamboo, but more or less any plant with extractable cellulose can be used. Cotton is by far the most commonly used plant fibre and the cultivation of cotton is enormously resource-intensive, with high inputs of water, pesticides, insecticides and fertilisers leaving a large toxic footprint where grown, if not cultivated organically or under specific sustainable conditions.
pesticides, insecticides, fertilisers
Animal fibres consist of proteins. Wool and silk are the most commonly used fibres from this group, but the wool can come from a number of different animals. In order to make animals grow faster and produce higher yields of wool, pesticides and insecticides are used to prevent disease. Dipping is a common practice to control parasites in sheep farming, making use of both organic phosphates as well as synthetic pyrethroid. After the wool fibres have been sheared they are treated with chemicals during the scouring and washing process.
pesticides, insecticides, scouring chemicals
Man-made fibres such as viscose (rayon) or lyocell are based on cellulosic raw material, normally from wood pulp. They are heavily treated with chemicals before the new fibre is spun. The whole process of producing fibres from wood pulp is very resource-intensive, involving the use of several hazardous substances.
acids, bases, process chemicals
Synthetic fibres are made from monomers sourced from fossil oil feedstocks, which are subsequently polymerised into different fibres. Given all the possible monomers that can be made from a synthetic feedstock, the possible combinations are endless. However the most common synthetic fibre is polyester, followed by polyamide, polyacrylic and aramide. Depending on the monomer used to produce the fibre, an endless number of chemicals may be used in the process. For some of the synthetic fibres such as polyester, dyeing can be accomplished already when the fibre is manufactured.