If someone were to ask you, “What’s your shirt made of? It’s so soft!” or “Wow, I love the way your dress has crisp pleats, what is it made of?”
Would you know how to respond? Aside from comfort, knowing what makes up our garments is incredibly practical. When we read the little tag notifying us of the percentages of different materials that have been interwoven in our shirts, we know how to care for the item and the seasonal weather that is best for this garment. We also begin to recognize red flags when a percentage of certain materials is too high or low.
Here’s how we are going to break it down:
1) Defining common materials (distinguishing between fiber and weave)
2) Matching materials to seasons
3) What materials to avoid (including what percentages we should look for in our garments).
1) Defining Materials
Cotton vs Organic Cotton: “The term cotton refers to the part of the cotton plant that grows in the boil, the encasing for the fluffy cotton fibers. Cotton is spun into yarn that is then woven to create a soft, durable fabric used for everyday garments, like t-shirts” (MasterClass). Organic cotton is noted for its purity meaning it is made without toxic substances and polluting pesticides, typically unbleached, as well as for the way it is often handpicked rather than harvested by machinery which tears up the fibers resulting in a weaker quality. (The Woolroom)
Linen: Linen is a strong, lightweight fabric made from the flax plant that is known for its breathability. (MasterClass)
Silk vs Synthetic Silk: “Silk is a natural fiber produced by the silk worm and is an incredibly durable and strong material with a beautiful drape and sheen.” (MasterClass) Silk is known to keep the body cold in summer and warm in winter. Synthetic silk differs in texture, gloss, and lacks the durability of genuine silk (read more on how to distinguish the two here: iloveslavichair).
Genuine Leather vs Vegan Leather: Genuine leather is known for its durability, unique markings and texture between each piece; but just because it is “genuine” does not mean it is the best kind of leather out there, “In many cases, genuine leather is actually split leather. That means that the lower (inner) layers of the hide are stripped off. The outer, higher-quality parts are “top grain”. The ability to take multiple layers from one hide depends on the thickness of the skin. Some skins, like cow, are often able to be split into various levels. Genuine leather can come from the intermediate layers – between top grain and suede…and even have other leather scraps and artificial materials mixed in.” (bestleather.org)
The durability is incomparable between the vegan and genuine leather. Sustainability is in question when it comes to the production of vegan leather products and does not seem to be much better than the production of genuine leather (read more here: Vice). Faux leathers are often “made from a plastic base and is then treated with wax, dye or polyurethane to create the color and texture.”(Yarwood Leather) When you do your research you will come across other terms like “full grain leather” which is known for its strength by the grain of the hide.
Wool: Often coming from sheep or bison, “Wool is manufactured from the raw fibre into yarn via either the woollen or worsted processing system. Yarn is then manufactured into knitted and woven wool textiles and products.” (Woolmark)
Polyester: Typically coming from petroleum, “It’s more common for polyester to be blended with cotton or another natural fiber. Use of polyester in apparel reduces production costs, but it also decreases the comfortability of apparel… When blended with cotton, polyester improves the shrinkage, durability, and wrinkling profile of this widely-produced natural fiber. Polyester fabric is highly resistant to environmental conditions, which makes it ideal for long-term use in outdoor applications.” (Sewport) Read more about the process on how polyester was invented and how it is created today here: What is Polyester Fabric: Properties, How its Made and Where
Acrylic: Woven plastic threads that attempt to resemble wool, “Acrylic fabric is an entirely synthetic material, meaning it is a man-made fabric that comes from petroleum or coal-based compounds, and it is well known for its ability to retain heat.” (Revolution Fabrics and Natural Clothing)
Fleece: “Fleece is a synthetic insulating fabric made from a type of polyester called polyethylene terephthalate (PET) or other synthetic fibres.” (Good on You)
Viscose/Rayon/Modal: Extracted from tree pulp to mimic silk. Lightweight materials. Often combined with spandex or a small percentage of cotton and polyester. (MasterClass)
2) What, Wear, When
Fall: Cotton (Corduroy or Denim), Leather/Suede, Silk
Transitioning out of summer into cooler weather means maintaining breathability but also warmth. These materials are good for balancing out those two end goals and layer well when you might need to remove an outer layer when it's warmer during the day.
Winter: Leather, Wool, Fleece, Cotton, Silk
Layering is essential (read more on what materials to use for which layers here: How to dress to stay warm when it’s super cold) and it is necessary to add materials that are weather resistant and durable against wind/rain/snow while retaining heat.
Spring: Cotton, Silk, any Gauze material
Best to choose airy, breathable materials that are easily accompanied by a lightweight sweater or jacket in these months.
Summer: Cotton, Linen, Silk
Linen is great because it airs out sweat quickly. Chambray is a combination of cotton and linen that is common in the hotter months. Lighter colors are preferred in order that they do not retain the heat, particularly when wearing silk.
3) What Materials to Avoid and Why Percentage Matters.
Wool was the material that stirred the pot in 1939 causing all manufacturers to notate on the tag the accurate percentage of wool in the garment. (FTC) When a garment is a melting pot of materials, its durability might not be the best. For instance, if the ornamentation and embroidery on a silk garment is acrylic or a synthetic material, it might tear away from the silk if not handled carefully. Polyester and cotton are a common combination which is helpful in that we can wash our clothes worry free of shrinkage. The quality might not feel as nice, but the garment will still have decent durability. Any mix of polyester and cotton in a garment should have a higher percentage of cotton over polyester, the most common being 65% cotton and 35% polyester.
When a sweater is mostly acrylic, the yarn will not live through the test of time and tends to pill easily. The warmth of acrylic sweaters cannot be compared with the authentic wool. In the end, an acrylic sweater will require heavier layering than a wool sweater.
When it comes to jeans, we all love when they fit us just right, but avoid buying a pair that has beyond 2% of elastane/spandex in the mix (Denimology). Any more than 2% causes the jeans to lose their shape and pill in the threading.
Quality over quantity, we have mentioned it before and we say it again for good reasons! The fashion industry often cuts corners and will invest in cheaper materials which leads to overproduction (lots of clothing ending up in landfills) and underpaid workers. This is common in tree-pulp materials, Rayon, Viscose, and sometimes Modal. There is more research being done to find sustainable ways to produce garments that use these materials. Most garments made up of tree-pulp materials will shrink in the washing machine, easily tear, and threads become loose after only a few wears. These materials were created to keep up with the high demands for new styles in the fashion industry while keeping customers happy with low prices. It creates disposable garments rather than lasting garments. Read more on the pros and cons of these materials and their production here: Mind Body Green and Kleiderly
4) Concluding Thoughts & Fun Fact
We hope this little guide benefits you in your sustainable and ethical clothing searches! Just a reminder, our clothing is meant to serve and fit us, not the other way around.
To end on a fun note—if you are looking for vintage finds when thrifting--check out this tag translation guide! It gives a few hints on how to decipher certain years on when a garment was made. 13 Tips for Identifying Vintage Clothing Labels & Tags