The Dirty Secret Behind Synthetic Fabrics

Click to see a fairly good, if fabric-advertisement-ridden, assessment of various fibers- how they're produced and their properties.

I’m no fan of synthetic fabrics.  They’re joyless textiles.  I hate the feeling of synthetic fabrics in my hands, and the scent of pressed polyester makes me ill.  Silk, cotton, linen, hemp, wool, cashmere and tencel all have particular pleasant scents but synthetics reek and ruin my sewing experience.  They don’t press reliably, and inhibit the sewing. (tried gathering on polyester wovens, anyone?  Ick.)  Besides, I find synthetics don’t look nice as long as naturals.  They pill and wear more quickly, and many synthetics become “plasticky” over time.

My ears pricked up when I heard about a study on the news that directly links synthetic fabrics to ocean pollution:

“A new study looking at plastic in the marine environment has made a surprising discovery… The scientists found that the water in washing machines…is full of tiny particles of plastic. They calculated that every time you wash a synthetic shirt… around 2,000 microparticles of plastic are released.” 

That’s not a lot per shirt, but it’s constant and unrelenting- I wonder how many shirts of synthetic fibers are washed every day?  The microparticles make their way to bodies of water and eventually the ocean, where they make their way into the food chain.  So what?  The news story doesn’t point out the main problem with (micro)plastic pollution: (quoted from the New York Times)

“PCBs, DDT and other toxic chemicals cannot dissolve in water, but the plastic absorbs them like a sponge. Fish that feed on plankton ingest the tiny plastic particles. Scientists from the Algalita Marine Research Foundation say that fish tissues contain some of the same chemicals as the plastic. The scientists speculate that toxic chemicals are leaching into fish tissue from the plastic they eat.

The researchers say that when a predator — a larger fish or a person — eats the fish that eats the plastic, that predator may be transferring toxins to its own tissues, and in greater concentrations since toxins from multiple food sources can accumulate in the body.”

Beach in Romania

So microparticles soaked in whatever toxins they wash through become absorbed into the bloodstreams of marine animals and potentially end up in our own bodies.   That’s the circle of life, folks…

Sometimes when I hear stories like this, I feel overwhelmed.  What can I do?  Why is every aspect of “modern” life excessively poisonous?  Is there any possible way we can reverse or heal the damage that has been done?  Will my daughter be able to eat fish when she’s my age, or will they be too toxic?

I keep my eyes and ears open for stories like these.  If nothing else, it justifies my dislike of synthetic textiles.  I suppose all I can do is continue to stay aware of the world around me, and pay attention to innovative ways of dealing with the toxic plastic pollution curse:

This is a new kind of housing being developed in Nigeria.  Builders pay young men to pick up plastic bottles and fill them with dirt- which keeps the young men out of trouble and cleans the streets.  The buildings are bullet proof, earthquake resistant and the dirt and plastic insulates the houses well and cheaply.  This is the flip side of plastic pollution- innovation, invention, making do with what’s to hand.

Difficult circumstances can bring out latent creativity in people.  How interesting, how curious, to think that in the future people may live in houses made of our parents’, grandparents’ and our own rubbish.  In fact, we may have no other choice.  Make Do and Mend.

At least I won’t be wearing polyester when that happens.

What good, interesting, big and small ways to re-use garbage have you run across lately?  What are your thoughts on the synthetic fabric issue?  It is just one more damaging thing we can’t help, or another reason to eschew synthetic fabrics?  Or both?

(I know I said I’d make a post on necklines, and I will!  I just wanted to share this, I thought it was interesting.)

(Thanks for all your kind words about the Sisters of Edwardia blouse. I’m at work on another one- see my header. I still need a tester in size 50 or 55- so if you’d like to play please email me.)


54 comments

  1. Interesting topic. But the long and the short of it is that, at least in my neck of the woods, synthetic fibers are cheaper….lots cheaper. And you don’t often need to iron synthetic fabric. Our culture is all about “cutting out as many mundane tasks as possible so you can fit the rest of life in.” We lost a lot of health do to pollution with technology but technology gave us some gains too. People don’t need to die young with diabetis for example.

      • Yeah, fully. For example, the pre-industrialized world had some murderous social Darwinism going on. And slavery. And child-workers…

        Wait, we still have that. Just not in our safe little countries…

        I guess the thing is, that mindset of “cut out all those horrid mundane tasks at any cost” and “consume consume consume” is literally destroying the only place we have to live, and that bothers me. I come from people who live well into their 80′s and 90′s, and I’m not yet 30. I also have a little child. I have to believe I can help make the world a better place in the time I have.

  2. I got my sewing start in historical reenactment. Back then, I only used linen, wool and silk. When my family left reenactment, I moved on to everyday garment sewing. I tried various synthetic fabrics because I thought modern sewing had opened a world of fabrics that I hadn’t been able to use as a reenactor. I had failure after failure. Either the garment was a sewn failure or wearing in D.C. humid summers was a sweating failure. I refuse to use synthetics now, unless it’s a tiny bit of lycra to add stretch to a natural fiber. However, I do use synthetic yarns for knitting. I’m allergic to wool (I can wear it with a lining but knitting with it causes raised welts on my hands) and other natural fibers don’t have the same properties as wool yarn. I tend to choose yarns that have only a bit of acrylic added so increase the cotton’s stability.

    • I don’t mind a whiff of lycra either… I tried, I tried to like synthetics but I just can’t. I do use them for muslins, someone gave me a big box of stash fabrics from the 70′s and 80′s… Not a cotton or linen in the lot. Which is fine.

      That hand thing sounds super painful! Can you use merino? I’ve heard that sometimes those with allergies to wool can work with merino… But that might be apocryphal.

        • It depends on the fabric and the musliN and the garment. I recycle crappy fabrics as muslins for as long as I can get away with it, then they become rags. Sometimes I finish them and wear them around the house constantly so I can correct any little uncomfortable twerks in the pattern. Sometimes they go into quilts. It really just depends on the musliN in question.

  3. Thank you for the information Stephanie. May I use this as stimulus for my Year 11 / 12 students when we do our semester of study based around sustainable textiles in the second half of this year? It is good to have a range of perspectives on the issue.

    • Yes of course, and what a cool teacher you are! If you have any questions or whatevs and I can fill in the blank let me know. :)

  4. Interesting. I’m already ambivalent about eating fish for over-fishing reasons…
    I don’t particularly *like* synthetics (although I do adore lycra) but my budget really strains at some of the prices, and it can be really hard to find pure wool or silk at my local stores. And I do like to pick up thrift store fabric when I can find something nice, which is completely hit or miss relative to the content. Usually miss.

    Incidentally, apparently the hormonal discharge from those of us who use hormonal contraceptives is affecting the sex ratio of fish in our local river system.

    I think you have to weigh the harm in these situations—which is worse, hormones in the water or human overpopulation? Toxic microplastic (which has lots of other sources, too) or increased runoff and pollution from the increased production of cotton or other natural fibres (not to mention the reduction in food supply)? There may be some third alternative, but odds are it’ll have its own drawbacks, too.

    Wait, that doesn’t help, does it? ;)

    • I know, seriously! It’s so confusing. And cotton, while natural, has its own evil history and serious environmental issues. And then there’s the environmental impact of cashmere: http://sozowhatdoyouknow.blogspot.com/2012/01/guest-post-planetary-cost-of-cashere.html … after reading that, I think I’ll try and stick to thrift-store cashmere only.

      How do you feel about rayon, by the way?

      I am also ambivalent about eating fish and giving fish to my daughter because of overfishing and mercury and PCBs… she has tons of food allergies and the nutritionist really wants her to eat fish, so my compromise is to only give her more sustainable low-mercury fish (a very short list) once a week. And I have a number of polyester and nylon and spandex-blend RTW garments I really like–I’m sure I’d like them MORE if they were natural, but I do like them just fine as is, too.

      • Oh dammit. No more cashmere for me, either. You know, I wouldn’t mind paying way way way more for cashmere (not that I wear a lot of it, but I have used it in the past) if I knew it was me paying the herder a fair wage for what he does. Why is it that economic systems are so tilted to screwing people out of the money they work hard for? It’s a problem.

        And cotton… Whew… That’s rife with all kinds of issues from pollution to slavery to the US screwing smaller countries (through tariffs and subsidies for US farmers) that produce cotton so they’re forced to sell it at a loss. It’s immoral. I buy organic/fair trade as much as possible but at the end of the day I have to wear *something*. Sigh.

    • Yes, I have heard about the sex ratio issues (Stephen specializes in fish)… It’s yet another example of how toxic modern life is.. I don’t know the answers, I sure wish I did. I keep thinking that one of these days I’ll be reading something along these lines, or making something, and the light bulb will go off and I’ll have a great idea. The third option, so to speak. But… Well… It hasn’t happened yet.

  5. Hated wearing plastic as a child, when my mother bought all my clothing and dressed me in it. Hated polyester doubleknit when it first came out in the 1970s, and its biggest virtues were “You don’t have to iron it!” “It never wears out!” Well, guess what? Those are also its biggest flaws: You CANNOT iron it. It
    DOESN’T wear out. Can justify natural fibers to my family now because my surgical menopause sweats are far more violent than natural menopause sweats would have been, and wearing plastic clothing could easily bring on heatstroke.

    • I never understood why ironing is such a big deal. I mean, sure it’s a chore, but I kind of like manual labor because it gives me time to think.

      I’m not sure that I know the difference between surgical and regular menopause, but at any rate that sounds really tough! Definitely look after yourself, and wear whatever makes you happy because it sounds like you’re already going through enough. :)

      • Oh, it was more than 20 years ago — have since learned to adapt. (Modern hormonal-replacement therapy is relatively cheap and extremely effective.) Ironing is one of those household chores that is easier for us than for our ancestors: my country grandmother had to heat her irons on a woodstove. She boiled her laundry in a cast-iron pot on a fire outside, until electricity came to our part of North Carolina in the 1940s. My city grandmother would send off for recorded books from the Library of Congress’s program for the blind — she was not blind, but she played the vinyl records on the victrola and listened to all sorts of literature while she ironed. My mother still has the little doohickey we plugged into a Coke bottle of water for sprinkling wrinkled clothes before we ironed them, before steam irons became affordable to the masses. I like the instant gratification of ironing, and I don’t mind a certain amount of wrinkles.

  6. I really do think it’s important to be aware of what’s happening on our little planet, if everyone can do something to help look after it, we can all benefit. Thank you for posting this, I have already moved onto natural yarns for knitting and think that using more natural fabrics for my sewing will be the next ‘move’. X

    • It’s all interesting… Maybe one day I’ll click on an article and have a “Eureka!” moment. Or not. I like to keep looking and learning anyway. Keeps the cobwebs at bay. ;)

  7. I enjoyed this refreshing take on poly-pollution. I, too, have an aversion to poly fabrics and avoid them as much as I can. I do love rayon (a semi-synthetic), though….my main exception. I have, however, given up on sewing synthetics…they are simply not cooperative or comfortable. The facts you point out in your post have given me more reasons to continue sewing natural fibers.

    • (Oh! “aversion” sounds so much more grown up than “I hate ‘em!” I’ll use that in the future. :))

      Synthetics ruin my sewing experience, too. Completely.

  8. Wow, leave it to you to keep informing me about things I never would have even guessed at! First silk, not synthetics. Like Tanit-Isis, I, too, am mostly a thrift-store fabric shopper, and lately that’s been a debate with myself, although not for environmental reasons. Would hand-washing my synthetic garments be better?

    • I don’t know. Probably the least harmful to our environment option is to just go naked, but we hardly live in Eden so I guess we have to figure out another way to go.

      I use a lot of thrift-store fabrics, too. Mostly for fabric-greedy 50′s dresses (OH BOY I found an awesome black and white stripe duvet cover the other day) and muslins… The other day I found some old silk hijabs, they’re big enough to make a little blouse from. Lovely things.

  9. I’m with you on the smell and feel. I am not a fan of anything but pure cotton bed linen. We are caught in a vicious circle of supply and demand, the cost of natural products means less people buy them and consequently less supply.
    Nigeria is an interesting case, they are a major oil producer but have frequent electricity cuts, so much so that the only way to ensure a constant supply is to have a generator. They dont invest or explore the sun as a resource as it isnt politically expedient and yet as your article shows they are very innovative.
    What strikes me the most when I think of the topic of recycling is just how much we are encouraged to consume in the first place.

    • I want to get some hemp bedsheets when our cotton ones wear out. (They’re not far off, we got the sheets when we were married and they’re pretty worn…) The hemp wears longer and tougher than cotton, and I understand that once you break them in, they’re absolutely divine to sleep on…

      I keep hearing more and more good things about the innovation of the Nigerian people. I do hope they can lean on their government so it will serve them better and they can continue to innovate. It seems to me like oil corruption is what’s standing in the way of them having a good government and that’s a shame.

      YES! You hit the nail on the head! I feel like I could write a post or ten on how much we’ve been conditioned to consume, and how unnecessary it is, and how it is the root of so much of our pollution problems. Seriously. Obviously, human beings have always consumed resources, but in the post-war period this was sent into hyper drive for the next 50 years and we’re reaping the harvest of that now.

      My husband and I try to look for household goods that we can buy once and replace never. Cast iron cookware, for example. High-quality furniture. Sensible, well made shoes. Minimum of appliances. Bedsheets that should last 30 years. We’re learning that if you invest in “good” stuff and take care of it, you throw out MUCH less waste…

      • I’m still using some kitchenware from my Grandparents and we have some of their furniture and tables from my parents.Daughter uses my old pine bedframe and has a painted chest of drawers that were from my Brothers room as a child.They obviously bought things to last too! My Mum still uses her Kenwood mixer – it’s older than I am, I think it was a wedding present! There is something very special about making pastry in the same bowl that my Grandmother did.

        I wonder if goods made today are shoddier or do we not care for them as we are encouraged to buy new. Then there is the whole ethos surrounding new is good.

        We have an excellent recycling service but I have been thinking of having 2 weeks were we have to re-use as much as we can from the recying bin. Aside from encouraging me to buy food with less packaging it will be a good exercise in innovation.I see plenty of new garden sculptures in our future!

  10. This is one of my favorite ways to see recycling being done, the Litre of Light project: http://envirothink.wordpress.com/2011/11/27/old-plastic-bottles-bring-light-to-the-darkness/ I’m also fond of recycling plastic shopping bags by cutting them into strips and crocheting those into re-usable bags.

    I tend toward natural fibers in my sewing and shopping. If I can find them, I go for the fair trade/ environmentally raised stuff. Everything is a trade-off, one way or another. I feel it’s important to be aware of what you’re buying, how it’s produced, and make your choices based on your information.

    • That’s so cool, Kathy! Thanks for sharing.

      I could not agree more. Is it called “Mindful consumption?” I’m not always mindful, but I do try. And some things are just so easy. For example, plastic water bottles contribute greatly to the sum total of plastic waste. So I carry an aluminum one. Simple and cheaper.

  11. I’m no fan of old-fashioned polyester, stinky acrylic, or that 50-50 stuff. However, I think that there is a bigger problem with our textile processing in general. For example, a lot of the “naturals” are grown with potent pesticides. Not only is it in our clothes then, but it goes into the ground water & soil as well. Quasi-natural fibers like tencel & viscose are processed with some nasty chems too. (I’m not sure about bamboo and modal, but I don’t have a good feeling about it). Quality control on organic cotton seems to be a problem, or so I have read. I’m not a scientist though, so I can’t really say what is worse–the pesticides or the petrochemicals that often are the base of synthetic fibers.

    On the other hand, some synthetics are not so bad on the point of wearability. Summers here are often really humid and those “coolmax” type fabrics are the best for exercise clothes–at least for those of us with sensitive skin. I used to exercise in cotton & I ended up with rashy skin issues (TMI probably).

    As for water, I’ve use a Sigg bottle for years. The plastic of regular water bottles apparently begins to corrode after one use, so re-use in that case is not so good. We used to live without little plastic bottles of water for sale everywhere; I think we should be able to do it again…

    ~Jen

    • Well- Tencel is a type of rayon that uses a “closed loop” production process. http://3hourspast.com/2012/01/03/tencel-lyocell-fabric-the-basics/ And linen is defacto organic in most cases, it’s still farmed in much the same way it has been for thousands of years, it’s not terribly destructive and is often grown on family run farms. Hemp is another great sustainable fiber- growing hemp on exhausted land actually puts nitrogen (if I’m remembering right) and other nutrients back into soil that is depleted by over farming of other crops.

      Bamboo that is rendered into rayon is actually pretty nasty in terms of the chemicals used for processing. I believe bamboo is supposed to be “sustainable” because bamboo itself grows so quickly, but it’s not ranked very high in my book. I should do a post on bamboo but it’ll probably piss off a lot of people.. The more I research and wear it, the less I like it.

      Yeah, regular plastic bottles for water suck. :) And their “lifespan” is usually ridiculously short given the time that goes into production and the fact that it takes them a while to completely break down. It irritates me to no end when I’m out and about and realize I left my water bottle at home!! I use something like a Sigg bottle, we have quite a few in rotation because my husband goes out in the field several days a week, I use them, and our daughter takes one to preschool so it’s easier for us to just have several.

      • Maybe I had some misinformation on Tencel…the perils of internet research. Hemp is a good one, but hard to find here (NY). I’ve only been able to buy it online. I made covers for Japanese style floor cushions out of hemp fabric & they are really soft and comfortable, summer or winter.

      • Keep asking for hemp anywhere you go to buy fabric.. Retailers are usually pretty keen to supply their customers’ clearly expressed demands. I got our butcher to carry free range chicken a little while back because I asked for it every single time I walked by the place. They rolled their eyes at me then, but apparently it’s a big seller. Small wins.

        Oh dear me… The perils of internet research indeed.. I’d like to go tour a factory or something, it’s on my list of things to do next time I’m out traveling. Then I can see it all for myself. But yeah… Apparently in order for something to be called “tencel” it is actually a rayon that goes through a very particular process and has to be certified. For what it’s worth.

      • Steph, I’d love you to do a post on bamboo fabric, because I’m rather confused and torn about it! I have heard that the processing is rather energy-and-chemical-hungry but I don’t know the specifics. I’d love some help weighing up the options if you already have a lot of the information to hand. I have been wanting to buy velour and there’s a vast range of coloured bamboo velours in one online shop. My local fabric store only sells synthetic velour… and it’s really pricey not to mention horribly sparkly in the sun. I bought some cotton velour (with a touch of spandex) online and it’s gorgeous but it’s imported from Germany… factoring in enviro costs of transport… and the cotton? Who knows? Agh… sometimes it seems like a bottomless pit of bad choices.
        Anyway thanks for putting this information out there. Every time I wash the poly/cotton school polo shirts now I’m going to picture micro-particles going into my soil with the grey water, heh.

  12. Growing up in Australia with no air conditioning, and now living in So Cal, there is no way on this planet you would get me to buy synthetic. Even modern rayons, which I’ve heard are supposed to be more breathable, can’t compare with natural fibers. Come summer time, everyone in my house is in cotton… and when I get some more sewing time, hemp.

  13. I use synthetics for my cycling and hiking gear, but I don’t sew them myself! If I could find wool knit cycling gear in my size, I’d save up and order some.

    This post does make me think that making some nice natural hemp hiking trousers would be a better idea than using a nylon DWR fabric. Especially for summer. And then I could always try washing them with a waterproofer, just to see what happens!

    The rayon I used for my blank canvas tee is toast already, and I’ve only washed it half a dozen times, so I’m looking for another locally available option for that, too!

    • I know there’s some new zealander hiking stores that sell merino clothes.. My husband has been researching hemp v wool v synthetics for me… He wears a lot of outdoorsy high performance gear and lets me test things on him. He likes the long sleeved linen shirts I made for him because they keep the bugs off and “let the wind in”, he likes the hemp t-shirts I’ve made for him, but he loves his ultra-light hiking pants… They’re made of a nylon-cotton blend and he likes how light they are.. I’m not sure if I could get him to switch to hemp, but I think a lightweight hemp would make excellent hiking pants. Just don’t ever put welts into them. Bad idea.

      I hate how rayon goes all ooofy like that after a few washes! It’s really the worst offender for pilling jerseys… I like organic cotton and I’m falling in love with linen jersey.. But it’s down to whats available…

      • I remember that post about the welt pockets! No worries there. I’m planning pockets with invisible zips, and a cargo pocket. No welts!

        Depending on the weather, and what sorts of pests one has to avoid, really really light trousers would be amazing. I usually hike in running shorts and a skirt, but I need trousers because I’ll be hiking outside my usual area this summer, and will need to avoid ticks. Yes, my usual area is amazingly pest free! The only thing I worry about are mosquitoes, and switching to sleeves and a high neckline, has solved most of my problems there.

      • There are quite a few stores that sell merino bike gear online. My favourite is Icebreaker – you can track their merino right to the source with a Baacode (yes, really), they work closely with their manufacturers in China to ensure the production is ethical, and they are just kind of all-round awesome people. A number of my students have done internships with them: http://icebreaker.com/

  14. I don’t like synthetics, wearing or sewing with them. That said, I have several in my stash, either given to me or purchased back when I would buy fabric at hand (pre-internet shopping knowledge) and on a limited budget. I’m torn about using them… I want to sew items I’ll wear, but I also think it’s important to make do with what I have, and not go out and replace one yardage for another, especially if the other is newly manufactured. And while I love the feel of things like bamboo, tencel, other rayons, the chemical processes used to make them are so horrible for the environment. These days, for me, it’s become simply about trying not to over-consume. Re-use, re-purpose and upcycle as much as possible, and make purchases of new textiles as thoughtful as possible. I try to think of it in terms of a car. Yes, a Prius is “green”, but I wouldn’t go out an buy a newly manufactured vehicle for that reason alone, when it’s better to keep an older vehicle running as efficiently as possible until it’s raw materials have truly exhausted their use. Sigh… it’s all so overwhelming….

  15. Well, I do hate synthetics because they do feel awful to work with and to wear. My parents never wore synthetics and, other than a little lycra, that’s my preference too. Fortunately I can get plenty of natural fibre fabrics at local/nearby stores so I am lucky in that respect.

    It is all very overwhelming how much our lives impact our planet.

  16. Amen Steph! My mother has been anti-synthetics for as long as I can remember, and it became really strongly ingrained in me, and what I wear, and the way I sew. I think my (extremely extensive) stash has three pieces of synthetic fabric in it – all inherited from other people. I just give away the pieces that aren’t natural.

    I’ve never read that about the amount of plastics washed away. It’s pretty scary. There are beaches in Hawaii where the sand isn’t made from broken down coral – it’s made from small particles of plastic. Dreadful.

    I wonder how well those houses in Nigeria will last? They look amazing, and it is a brilliant idea, but how robust are the bottles over time? Probably still longer-lasting than wood in a climate with termites!

    I’m a little surprised when people say that synthetics are more expensive than naturals. That’s never been my experience – not in New York, not in California, not in Hawaii, and certainly not in New Zealand. I mean, you won’t get a silk satin for the price of a synthetic, but there are many natural fiber weaves that have a similar enough hand that you can use them to great effect. And natural fibres are so much easier to work with, and handle so much better, that you’ll almost always get a better result.

    Yep, I’m a member of the natural fibres club!

  17. Pingback: Sourcing Eco-Knits Online « 3 Hours Past the Edge of the World


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