We are lucky enough, as humans, to have the skills and the knowhow to create products out of the things that our abundant planet has to offer. Over millions of years, man has learned to spin and weave and knit and sew in order to cover our bodies to keep them cool, warm, dry and safe. It is not until relatively recently that those fabrics have been made of anything but natural fibres. In the early part of the 20th century materials were developed using cellulose fibres extracted from trees, and in the 1950s fibres were produced using waste from the petrochemical industry.
Here, I am going to take a brief look at the benefits and drawbacks of both natural and man-made fabrics.
I will begin with wool, which is not only a wonderful insulator, but it also has inbuilt waterproofing properties. It is an exceptionally clever fibre, that actually absorbs water into the filament which then warms up when in contact with a body. Wool can absorb a huge amount of water before it even feels wet to the touch. Not only that but it has exothermic properties, meaning that it positively gives out heat when wet. The Scots used to soak their plaids in the burns , wring them out and wear them to keep warm. If you think about it, wool is made to keep sheep warm and dry out in the fields. And they wear theirs in all weathers!
Although wool is surely the king of natural fibres, it isn't always ideal because of its bulk and it's weight when it gets wet. I think my grandpa would agree that wool is not the ideal material for making swimsuits! He'd know!
Another incredible insulator, silk can help to keep you warm, but also to feel cool when the temperature rises. It’s breaths, it dries quickly and its lightness brings with it a luxury that is impossible to synthesize.
Cotton, a cool, clean and breathable fibre. It is strong, hypoallergenic, non-toxic, biodegradable, absorbent, and magically, stronger when wet.
Cotton is an abundant fabric and has been used for centuries for apparel and bag manufacture, as well as for sail making. Waxing cotton for its waterproof properties originated at sea, when sailors originally used to wax their sails with fish oils to keep the cotton from getting heavy when wet. The offcuts and leftovers from the sail making were worn as capes, and eventually the fabric was used to make proper coats. As well as using wax to waterproof cotton, it can also keep out moisture when it is woven very tightly. Cotton fibres swell and make the close weave even closer to form a waterproof barrier. Thomas Burberry’s gaberdine fabric, patented in 1888, used the extra tight weave of a wool and cotton mix, the fibres soaked in lanolin before weaving, to create a light weight and water-resistant cloth. This was a particular godsend for the troops in the trenches during the First World War.
Moving on from Thomas Burberry’s textile developments of the 19th century, others began looking for ways to create the very fibres that the cloth was made from.
Manmade fibres have been developed over many years, in many ways to try to replicate the fabulous properties of natural materials, and if possible try to improve on them.
Early attempts to create a man-made ‘silk’ were made by a Swiss chemist named Audemars, and slightly later by Joseph Swan, who extracted cellulose fibre from the bark of Mulberry trees. The first commercial artificial silk was created by Frenchman Hilaire de Chardonnet. He named it Rayon. It became commercially successful because it was as much as 50% cheaper to produce than real silk. It has many similar properties to silk, in that it is light and pliable, but it is also washable and hard wearing in a way that silk may not be.
In 1931 Wallace Curothers, working for Dupont, discovered a way to make fibres out of waste from the petrochemical industry, and Nylon was born. Commercial production of this took off in 1939. It was used significantly in the manufacture of tents, ponchos, ropes, tyres and, of course, stockings during the second world war. A miraculous fibre at the time, it made production of all theses things, as well as clothing, possible at a time when supplies of the natural alternatives were difficult to get hold of because of politics and war.
In the early 1950s Dupont began production of Polyester, which has superior properties to Nylon, in that it is fully hydrophobic and holds onto dye more readily. Polyester has become widely used in the outdoor industry because of its water resistant and hard wearing properties. Man-made fabrics have come to dominate the market, because of their relative cheapness and, when it comes to waterproof properties, superior functionality.
The major drawback to most man-made fabrics though, particularly polyester, is that they are un-biodegradable. This is a failing that we can no longer ignore. Some of the more eco friendly and forward thinking brands of this world, including Patagonia and Klattermusen, are looking at ways to recycle and repair old outdoor gear and create a more circular process using these fabrics that will always be around.
In conclusion to my little assessment of natural versus man-made fabrics, I can fairly say that man-made fabrics are better options when it comes to price, weight and waterproofness, but that nature still knows best. When handled properly, wool can be incredibly warm, breathable and water resistant. Silk can breath, regulate your temperature, and feel more delicate and luxurious than it’s closest rival. Cotton and bamboo are light, breathable and versatile.
It seems to me that man is incredibly adaptable, and also very clever. If they found ways to make cheap fibres out of petrochemicals in the 1930s, then it seems like we should be able to find more sustainable ways of keeping warm and dry today. It is time to find ways to harness the power of nature in a more modern and forward thinking way. Nature has all the answers, and it’s for us to acknowledge them and find ways to harness them that are sustainable, and kind to the animals that give us the wool or the silk, and to the diverse environments that produce the cottons, hemps, bamboos etc.
I am a nature lover, so perhaps I’m biased, but I will always choose a natural fibre over a man-made one. For me the quality will always override the cost.