Known to have existed for ages, natural fibres are biodegradable, cost-effective with high strength and are easily available. These fibres are still the main source of all textile articles and can be further classified into three categories- plant fibres, animal fibres and mineral fibres.
With the invention of synthetic fibres, the usage of natural fibres gradually declined in the 1900s. The primary reason for the decline was that synthetic fibres were a cheaper option and the manufacturing process was uncomplicated as compared to that of natural fibres. The industry of man-made fibres continued to develop polyester, elastane, polyamide, or viscose which eventually became indispensable in a closet. However, over the years the increasing environmental concerns and depletion of petroleum resources forced consumers to rethink the rampant usage of synthetic fibres. It also stimulated researchers and industries to use sustainable fibres instead of conventional synthetic fibres.
Why do synthetic fibres exist?
Natural fibres often have negative characteristics like cotton clothes tend to dry slowly, linen develops a lot of wrinkles, and wool is not a skin-friendly fibre as it results in rashes. Therefore, the textile innovators of the time decided to try and override the negative properties with the help of chemicals and available technologies. Synthetic fibres are produced by various processes but the end result is perfect- it does not shrink, wrinkle or scratch.
Undoubtedly, synthetic fibres were cheaper than natural fibres, but these natural fibres were much more sustainable. The production, cultivation and manufacturing stages of natural fibres are completely environment-friendly. Moreover, they are not hazardous to the health of the people who work with them.
Here are 5 natural fibres:
One of the widely-used fabrics across the world, cotton is a cool, soft and comfortable fibre to use in clothing. Cotton is grown in tropical and subtropical regions, and China is the largest producer of cotton followed by India. Although the major markets for cotton production and consumption are concentrated in South-East Asia, in the recent past, the consumption dramatically grew across Europe and US. It is considered the most widespread profitable non-food crop.
Among the various species of cotton, upland cotton and pima cotton are the most popular. The leaves of the cotton are removed and are collected and compressed into truckload-sized modules, which are transported to processing plants to convert them into yarn. The cotton plant requires litres of water, pesticides, and fertilizers to grow.
Cotton fabric is easy to clean, soft, durable, lightweight, breathable, and water absorbent. It's a natural material, bio-based, biodegradable, compostable, and recyclable. Cotton fabric is perfect for the summer season as it regulates body temperature well and keeps one cool and fresh.
Known for its tensile strength and durability, jute is an environment-friendly fibre which is commonly used for textile manufacturing and weaving. The fibres are primarily composed of cellulose (a major component of plant fibre) and lignin (a major component of wood fibre), making it a lignocellulosic fibre that is partially a textile fibre and partially wood. The industrial term for jute fibre is raw jute. The fibres are off-white to brown, and 1–4 meters long. It is considered one of the cheapest natural fibres and is widely used globally after cotton.
Jute fibre is not only used in clothing but is widely preferred in the packaging industry. In India, jute is also used in the handicraft industries, to make paper products, or to produce a wide variety of composites. For ages, long fibres of jute have been used to make mats, geotextiles, packaging material, moulded composites, and structural and nonstructural composites.
An animal-based fibre, obtained from sheep, goats, yaks, rabbits and camelids, Wool is a textile fibre made of animal proteins and lipids. For ages, wool has been used for apparel and textile. Traditionally, wool has been a significant contributor to various manufacturing economies. Woollen products like suits, sweaters, carpets, and blankets still have economic prominence in the market. There are several types of wool available including shearling, alpaca, cashmere, mohair, and angora. The fibre is one of the most utilized animal protein fibres as it has magnificent thermal insulation properties, it is breathable, warm and moisture-wicking.
In terms of sustainability, wool fibre production involves animal torture and it is one of the five most environmentally damaging fibres worldwide. The wool industry produces around 1,160 million kilograms of clean wool per year from a global herd of over a billion sheep. Australia is the biggest exporter of wool and China is the main importer.
One of the finest fibres worldwide, silk defines luxury and elegance. The silk fibre is a natural protein which is produced by insect larvae while building their cocoons. The larvae of the mulberry silkworm are the most popular silk producers. The mulberry silkworms are bred in captivity to produce the silk used for textiles. It is the most expensive silk and contributes around 90% of silk production.
In its fabric form, silk is soft, smooth and absorbs and releases moisture well. However, it does not have good elasticity and weakens if exposed to prolonged sunlight. The raw form of silk is also widely used in textiles. In this form the silk thread still contains sericin. It is a gelatinous protein substance that is produced by the silkworm during the natural production of the cocoon. The silk fabric demands extra care and if it is cleaned properly, it can last quite long time.
Flax is a popular natural fibre harvested from the flax plant and is used to manufacture linen. For centuries, linen has been used to make clothing and it is considered more ancient than cotton. In today's market, linen is more expensive than cotton because of its costly manufacturing process. Flax is cultivated across the world. The natural fibres are extracted from the plant, spun into yarn and then woven into linen fabric. Currently, Europe produces more than 85% of all flax fibres globally. It is a sustainable material that is breathable, soft, comfortable, and luxurious.