Fabric Facts From Your Neighborhood Textile Nerds
Written by Aly Reinert, Edited by Aurora Hinz and Willa Tsokanis
The notion that fashion is something frivolous is outdated. Without our fabric shelters, not to be too dramatic, but we’d literally die. When it comes to the fabrics we live in, it can be easy to make surface level evaluations of the textile based on how it feels to the touch. If it feels soft, it must be a good fabric. Why does anything else matter if it’s comfortable to wear? There are things beneath this fluffy surface that we should know about our textiles in order to select ones that will last and that we also know are capable of recycling. Americans throw away 13 TRILLION TONS of clothing per year. That’s A LOT of recycled textiles gone to waste.
Here are 3 easy to remember facts that could help influence your choices next time you are shopping, or at least encourage you to be more aware of checking the fiber content label before you buy.
The first fact I want to share is that In order for companies to recycle textiles into one material for future use, they must know the fiber content. If something is made of 100% cotton, polyester, or wool, it can be ground up and recycled back into a lower-grade 100% cotton, polyester, or wool for another use. However, even fibers that are mixed can be ground up and recycled back into things like industrial rags, housing insulation, and moving carpets. In my book, clothing that is 100% of anything is better to buy because at least it is a pure fiber that can remain pure when recycled.
This brings me to my next fact. If something is made from polyester (even 100%) this is a fiber I always try to avoid. Why? Because polyester has small particles of plastic in it in the form of microfibers. Unfortunately, when we wash our clothing, these microfibers escape and end up in our water, which has been contributing a large amount of plastic into our oceans. It’s clear as day that other forms of plastic make their way into our oceans, such as water bottles or plastic cups and straws, but polyester does it in a more sneaky way. According to a study by the American Chemical Association in 2011, “Estimates vary, but it’s possible that a single load of laundry could release hundreds of thousands of fibers from our clothes into the water supply.” Since washing machine companies are not ready to act, we can help by avoiding polyester or purchasing a type of filter that will lower the amount of microfibers that escape into the water.
One type of filter is a bag made by Patagonia that you can put your clothes inside to wash them. The bag is supposed to catch the microfibers and trap them in it’s microfilaments. Another type of filter is called a Cora Ball that you can throw into the wash with your clothing, designed to catch the tiny pieces of plastic and keep them from entering our waterways and food chain. Regardless of the issue of polluting the ocean, is plastic really something you want rubbing up against your skin all day? We deserve better than plastic clothing!
Speaking of other fibers we should avoid when possible, we need talk about spandex. Spandex pretends to be our best friend, but I can assure you it is not! One of the most shocking things I discovered when learning about textile recycling is that anything containing spandex or elastane cannot be ground up to be recycled into a new fabric. For this reason, anything that contains even 1% of this fiber cannot be recycled and is doomed for landfill if it isn’t reused in some other way. Of course, having a little stretch in our clothing is necessary sometimes, especially when it comes to activewear. However, avoiding this when we can, or investing in high quality activewear that is well made and will last a long time is very worth it, for us and for mama earth!
With these three facts , I hope to leave you with a few types of fibers to avoid, and some small actions we can take to make improvements to our planet. As long as we are investing in more natural fibers than synthetics, and paying attention to the quality of the garment, we are doing good. It’s important to celebrate small victories like these when transitioning into a more sustainable lifestyle. The more we can make our clothing last so it doesn’t have to end up in a landfill, the better off we will all be. By selecting fibers that are better for our own well being and the planet, we can collectively push for less production of harmful fibers like polyester.
If you want to learn more about textile recycling and experience it first hand, volunteer for a session at Fabscrap. This company collects bags of unwanted textiles from fashion companies in the garment district and sorts them for proper recycling. If you volunteer to sort through these bags, they will teach you how to do so, and you also get to take home 5 lbs of free fabric at the end of it as a bonus! There’s nothing like learning, volunteering, and taking home something valuable all at once.