Cultures worldwide have been using natural fibers for centuries. Nowadays, the fashion industry, textile industry, and industrial sectors in general have expanded their range of natural materials to meet consumer demands.
But what exactly is the difference between natural and synthetic materials? We answer this question below, explore eight examples of natural fibers, and discuss the advantages of natural fibers.
What Are Natural Fibers?
The simplistic definition of natural fibers is any kind of fiber that is obtained from animals or plants.
Animal-based fibers include wool and silk. The list of plant fibers is extensive but some common ones include cotton, flax, and hemp.
One downside to the organic and natural fiber industry is the extensive production process.
Producers rear the animals or cultivate their crops until the fibers are ready to be harvested. Then there is a thorough cleaning and bleaching process after which the fibers go to mills to be crafted into different colored yarns. The natural yarns are added to the final product through knitting and weaving.
Natural Fibers vs Synthetic Fibers
On the opposite end of the spectrum, you get synthetic materials. You’re most likely aware that synthetic fabrics are man-made. They tend to be less comfortable to wear than their natural fiber composite materials and they’re difficult to color.
While synthetic fibers are usually more durable than natural animal or plant fibers, many synthetic materials irritate sensitive skin. Those who have pre-existing health or skin conditions should avoid synthetic fabrics.
Synthetic fibers, since they are man-made, can be designed with specific applications in mind. Their mechanical behavior, for example, can be chopped and changed depending on the desired result of the material.
However, synthetic fibers do not break down as easily as natural fibers and can take hundreds of years to decompose. They also shed microplastics, which are harmful to the environment.
Today, as sustainability becomes increasingly important, people are becoming more aware of the incredible environmental benefits that natural and organic fibers offer.
8 Examples of Natural Fibers
Let’s take a look at some of the most common natural fibers:
Cotton is one of the world’s most popular fibers used by fashion brands in the global textile industry. But why is it so popular?
Firstly, cotton is extremely affordable compared to any other type of natural fiber. Cotton fibers also produce soft, breathable materials that are extremely comfortable in hot and humid weather conditions. This is due to their brilliant ability to absorb most kinds of moisture, including sweat.
Cotton seed fibers are collected from the cotton plant to make the fabric, which is almost pure cellulose. The fibers are versatile enough to make curtains, upholstery, bedding, and clothing.
One downside of using the cotton plant to produce fabrics is that they tend to get easily soiled and creased. However, some manufacturers do use sodium hydroxide to treat cotton and make improvements in the areas it’s lacking. Producers also sometimes use sodium hydroxide to remove impurities in their cotton.
In addition, the traditional cotton industry uses an exorbitant amount of water and huge quantities of pesticides. That’s why it's better to choose organic cotton when purchasing cotton garments. It’s better for the environment as organic cotton is made with less water and no chemicals.
Hemp has the spectacular ability to absorb a considerable amount of CO2 from the air. This characteristic makes hemp fibers a popular choice with people who want to live an eco-friendly lifestyle.
Hemp plants are easy to grow in both indoor and outdoor environments, and they produce a high yield without any need for chemical interference.
The fibers are strong and durable and they conduct heat and dry well. Hemp also resists mildew, blocks UV light, and has natural anti-bacterial properties!
3. Flax Linen
Flax (or linen) is another one of Mother Nature’s strongest vegetable fibers. Flax fiber is known as the first natural plant-based fiber to be extracted, strung, and woven into textiles.
Flax fibers come from the stem of the flax plant, which (akin to hemp) doesn’t require any pesticides or fertilizers to grow big and strong. The result is a strong, easily washable dry-cleanable, hypoallergenic, anti-static, water-absorbent, and comfortable fiber!
Flax linen does fall a little short in the mechanical properties arena. This cellulose polymer from the flax plant can be crisp, stiff to handle, non-stretchy, and easily wrinkled.
The ramie plant is a nettle species that is widely used to create coarse natural plant fiber. Some of ramie fiber’s properties are highly positive, while others limit its potential slightly.
Ramie fibers are strong, absorbent, lightweight, and dense. In other words, it’s made for summer!
The ramie plant produces fabrics that have a beautiful silky white luster. And since it is a natural fiber, it can easily be dyed into whatever color consumers prefer.
However, two of the poor mechanical properties of ramie fibers are their coarseness and low elasticity.
You know those burlap sacks that are on-trend right now? These useful bags are made from jute fibers.
Much like hemp, flax, and ramie, jute falls under the heading of bast fibers. Each type of natural fiber in this category is defined as a soft, woody fiber that comes from the stems of dicotyledonous plants.
Jute fiber is one of the cheaper alternatives to cotton. The jute plant is less labor-intensive to grow and has the second-largest production quantity in the world (following cotton).
The jute plant produces one of nature’s strongest natural fibers. These long, soft, shiny jute fibers have brilliant thermal insulation and anti-static mechanical properties.
Jute also has low thermal conductivity, making jute clothing perfect for any weather conditions.
It may surprise you to read that coir is a natural fiber extracted from the outer shell (or husk) of coconuts!
This coarse, short coconut fiber has a very high concentration of lignin. Lignin is a compound found in plant material. The more lignin present, the stronger the fibers are.
However, a high lignin concentration results in a less flexible material, which is the case with the coir fiber. Less flexibility is another way of saying “low tensile strength”.
Coir fibers are found in myriad industrial applications, such as in automobile seats, packaging, and building materials. It is also used to make mattresses, brushes, fishing nets, ropes, and geotextiles, often due to its great resistance to abrasion and water damage.
Silk fibers are long, continuous threads derived from a silkworm’s secretions. They are woven into a shimmering, light-reflecting natural material with immense tensile strength.
Silk is one of a few animal-based fibers that are used to produce fabrics used in the furniture and fashion industry. Silk draperies, bedding, and clothing are highly absorbent, have low conductivity, and dye easily.
Regrettably, silk has poor resistance to moisture and sunlight. However, if you take good care of the pricey material, it’ll last you a lifetime!
Wool is another animal-based natural fiber that we know and love. Wool fabrics come from the coats of sheep, goats, alpacas, or llamas.
Sheep’s wool, among the wool of other animals, is easy to spin and weave into clothing, upholstery, cushion covers, rugs, etc.
Wool is resilient, elastic, durable, soft, warm, and resistant to tearing, and it provides fantastic insulation.
Some people with sensitive skin can find wool itchy and the animal-based natural fiber is very “welcoming” to mold and moths. That’s why wool is often blended with synthetic fibers such as acrylic. It helps to make the wool less prone to these undesirable traits.
An important side note: Ensure the fashion brand from which you purchase uses resources that aren’t mass-produced.
Animal-based natural materials can be produced in an unethical and unsustainable manner. The result of this is poor treatment of animals and the pollution of air, soil, and water.
Unethical mass production processes can be harmful to animal and human health, as well as to the environment due to excess greenhouse gas expulsion. Be mindful that you’re supporting sustainable wool production and processing.
The Numerous Advantages of Natural Fibers
Natural fiber clothing is becoming more and more popular and it’s no surprise why. There are many benefits to using natural fibers including the following:
Almost all natural fibers are exceptionally comfortable, especially compared to their synthetic counterparts.
If you’ve worn or used any of the above-mentioned natural fibers, you’ll know they’re softer and have a much more pleasant hand feel than synthetic fibers. Their smooth, lightweight nature makes them gentle on the skin.
At the end of the day, the fashion industry is about beauty. How does your outfit look?
Fashion brands are focusing on making clothing apparel made of natural materials that hang well, complement an individual’s figure, and are generally stunning.
Fibers like silk automatically symbolize luxury, extravagance, and preciousness. Silk drapes delicately over an individual’s shape with a gorgeous sheen, exuding elegance.
Temperature and Moisture Regulation
We’ve mentioned many natural fibers that are breathable and refreshing to wear (one of many wonderful natural fiber advantages). This is one way in which natural fibers impact human health positively.
Most natural fibers are fantastic body temperature regulators when worn close to your skin. They allow your body to remain cool in hot weather and they’ll keep you warm in the colder months with their insulation properties.
Natural fibers like flax fibers absorb and release moisture effortlessly. They keep your skin dry by wicking away your body’s sweat in hot and humid conditions. Synthetic fabrics, on the other hand, often trap moisture against your skin and promote sweat production.
There’s a long list of uses for natural fibers. Just consider the clothing apparel that can be designed and manufactured using natural fibers. Everyday wear, knitwear, sportswear, underwear, accessories, outerwear, pajamas, etc.
The versatility of natural fibers also extends to furniture, such as upholstery, drapes, bed sheets, curtains, carpets, towels, home decor, and so many more. Within each of these uses, you have the option of choosing from a variety of colors and sheens.
Natural fibers like cotton and coir are completely hypoallergenic. This means those with sensitive skin or individuals who are prone to allergic reactions can wear them comfortably.
As we’ve discussed, natural fibers are produced using very few or absolutely no toxic chemicals in the manufacturing process. Sometimes chemicals are added, but it’s far less than in the production of synthetic fibers. This non-toxic nature has a positive impact on human health, as well as the environment.
In addition, when organic cotton or coir, for example, is burnt, it doesn’t release toxic gas.
This is in opposition to many synthetic materials. For example, viscose fibers, which are used in textiles, are produced using the inorganic compound, carbon disulfide. Carbon disulfide is an extremely flammable solvent that, when burnt, is highly toxic.
Most plant-based and animal-based natural fibers are organically produced. Organic implies that the raw materials used are completely bio-based. Biodiversity and soil fertility are preserved when harsh chemicals are avoided in the manufacturing process.
To turn your closet into a sustainable wardrobe, look out for clothing made using organic cotton, wool, hemp, bamboo, banana fiber, pineapple leaf fiber, etc.
However, bear in mind that any item that is overproduced has the capability of becoming environmentally damaging. Ensure the brands you support use socially responsible, eco-friendly, and sustainable resources.
Natural fibers like cotton, flax, hemp, ramie, wool, and jute are strong and durable natural materials. The lengthy development process can increase their price, but the extra expense is worth it due to their longevity.
Most natural fabrics are flexible and resistant to wrinkling and pilling. But each natural material has its own unique characteristics that set it apart from the rest. So when making purchasing decisions, choose fabrics that will suit your lifestyle best.
Plant fibers have a much lower carbon footprint than synthetic fibers, and emit far fewer greenhouse gasses during production. Often, renewable resources are used in their cultivation, such as rainwater and solar power. This means they consume less energy from the beginning to the end product.
Natural fibers are also biodegradable! Therefore, any waste product leftover from the production of natural fibers isn’t harmful to environmental and human health. Fewer chemicals and hazardous substances leak into the soil and water, helping to lessen the impact the fashion industry has on the environment.
Natural resources are the way to go when we’re searching for what to draw on to produce sustainable, eco-friendly textiles, fabrics, and clothing.
Fashion should benefit everyone, not just the consumer. Natural plant-based and animal-based fibers are just as good as, maybe even better than, synthetic fabrics in the areas of comfort, longevity, and durability. But they have the bonus of being kind to our planet!
If you’re looking for high-quality, eco-friendly clothing, check out our range at Melomys. We are committed to sustainable fashion and making a positive impact on the world.