Are You a Natural Fiber Snob?

CoraRecently I’ve been logging the contents of my fabric stash into a new i-phone app called Cora.  It takes some time because you need to measure each piece and fill out a list of questions. I now know that of the 38 pieces in my main sewing closet (and there are other closets), 17 are cotton, 15 are silk, and 4 are linen. Only one cut, bought for exercise pants, is mainly polyester.

Yes, I am a natural fiber snob. Usually ashamed of my prejudices, I have worn this one like a badge of honor. What is behind it?  And does it make sense?

The main reason I avoid polyester is because it makes me sweat. Recently I made a knit top from a 50/50 cotton polyester blend. Wearing it was like having a sweat lodge on my back. Many women who sew praise the breathability of new synthetic blends, but I have not been inspired to carry out a systematic check.

I am also convinced that natural fibers are better for the environment. This might be up for discussion, though. Polyester isn’t biodegradable, but pretty much nothing decomposes in densely packed landfills. And while cotton feels wonderful against the skin, conventional cotton farming uses a heavy load of pesticides and lots of water. Unless you pay for the organic variety, you probably aren’t reducing your carbon footprint.

There are costs in maintenance as well.  I iron my woven shirts and pants, while many synthetics are wash and wear. Some people send their silk and linen to the cleaners, adding to their environmental load.

So what do you think?  Beyond simple preference, are there good reasons to be a natural fiber snob?

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10 Responses to Are You a Natural Fiber Snob?

  1. bellneice says:

    I used to belong to the Natural Fiber Fabrics Club. For a fee, they would send you fabric swatches in the mail – I forget if it was quarterly or twice a year. Along with a booklet, with spaces to glue each fabric, next to a description including fiber content and price per yard. Beautiful silks, linens, wools and cottons.

  2. eimear says:

    I am a phenomenal wool snob…..and it really showed the last day when I was with a friend who was shopping for throw, I chose on feel (ie wool) and he chose colour. He did get a lovely mustard one (but acrylic – yuk). I do prefer natural fibres – they wear and launder better, no synthetic could ever match the insulating qualities and breathability of silk and wool, or the coolness, and character of linen. I handwash silk, but will occasionally dry clean wool but will maintain it in-between times with steaming and brushing. (My wool duvet is hung on the line periodically). I don’t think my friend will ever go shopping with me for throws again though!

  3. I am an unabashed natural fiber snob. I’ve gotten to the point that I can usually pick out synthetics on looks alone, and definitely on hand feel. I dislike the sweating that goes along with synthetics (and I don’t think that the newer ones are any better, if workout wear is the example, but I need tight clothes to run in, so there it is) and the tendency to pill over time. I also don’t like the handfeel of synthetics. Polyester chiffon or gorgette feels horrible in my hands, and definitely weird against my skin. I just prefer how linen, cotton, silk, and wool feel. I’m also a big fan of rayon challis, which is kind of a fiber no-man’s land, being not quite natural or synthetic.

    As for environmental footprint, you make good points, but at the same time, there is never going to be a textile that has a zero carbon footprint. Everything we wash and wear has some impact on the environment and while I agree that we can try and source fabrics that are less bad, at a certain point, there is only so much you can do. Synthetics are hard to recycle (natural fibers recycle more easily), and don’t break down at all. Polyester is basically plastic in fabric form, so it’s no wonder it doesn’t go anywhere.

    I wash and dry my linen just like cotton, and after finishing a garment, I rarely press it. I tend to choose cottons and linens that need minimal pressing, or where fabric wrinkles are just part of the look. I hand wash woolens and silks (except for a few ready-to-wear wool skirts) and try to keep dry cleaning minimal.

  4. Carol in Denver says:

    Polyester is hot in summer and cold in winter, for me at least. I love wearing not only new clothes in natural fibers, but old, worn natural fiber clothes. They just get more comfortable and can keep a certain elegance even in their declining years; not so polyester and other synthetics. The synthetics just get ratty looking.

  5. Lizzie says:

    Probably 80% of my wardrobe is cotton, which I wear all year long. I have a few pieces with nylon or lycra added, and one poly blouse, and 2 poly performance tees. I just prefer the feel of cotton, and I hate poly/cotton wovens. They feel so cheap. I just read about another problem with synthetic fibers. It seems as though as they are washed, tiny fibers are washed away into the waterways, where they have tended to clump together and form strangling masses. It’s pretty horrifying to think about.

  6. I agree that 100% cotton is cooler in hot weather. My husband was much more comfortable when I persuaded him to buy cotton instead of poly-blend trousers. But: Back in 1978 I was on sabbatical, living out of a suitcase for several months, so I left my natural fiber clothes at home and packed drip-dry polyester slacks and blouses. On a train in France, I was envying the lovely wool skirt and pure silk blouse of the woman sitting next to me (we were chatting) when she gently touched my polyester sleeve and sadly said that “We can’t afford these materials, because we have no petroleum. They are very expensive here.” I was stunned. She seemed quite sincere. Ever since then, I’ve been very aware that polyester is a petroleum (maybe coal-tar) byproduct. Of course, one of the big changes I have seen since then is the Americanization of casual dress in Europe — no more road workers wearing old Harris tweed jackets!

    • Lynn says:

      Yes, it is all relative. My sister and I were once shopping for silk and the store manager couldn’t believe that we wouldn’t prefer the excellent polyester he had from Japan.

  7. Fabrickated says:

    I absolutely prefer natural fibres, mainly to wear but also to sew with. I think I am prejudiced against synthetics which are probably improving all the time. I like elastane in natural fibres to give them some of the appeal of stretch fabrics, and for tailoring at least 5% synthetic does make the wool more durable.

  8. Brenda Marks says:

    In general, I have a lot of sensitivities (food, scents, etc.). The first time I realized what polyester was and how it felt, I told Mom I was “allergic” to it. Now she jokes with me about it, but I think she’s still uncertain if it’s true or not!

    I’m not. I just dislike it a lot.

  9. Jann Gumbiner says:

    So many things to think about….how it feels to wear, how it feels to sew on, how it drapes on your body,appearance, cleaning and pressing, allergies, convenience, environmental impact of producing, making and shipping the product. Many criteria and no simple answers.

    If natural were best, we could all raise sheep, grow cotton, spin, weave, dye our own fabrics and use peddle machine instead of electricity. Given that shipping, eg trucks and planes are the greatest environmental hazards, the type of fabric may be secondary. Probably local is better.

    Once I thoroughly compared cloth diapers to paper. After comparing all the environmental costs of cloth diapers, it was a toss up. Cloth was no better than paper. And, trees can be replaced. Fossil fuels cannot.

    As a teen, I nearly always went for appearance. Later, I became more interested in comfort. Climate definitely matters. We really have little use for wool in SoCal. Cottons breathe and lightweight ones are nice for warm weather. They are also easy to sew on. Some synthetics drape beautifully and are very easy to care for. But, I recently I have discoved bamboo. Bamboo is newest favorite!

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