How often do you think about the fabrics that comprise your wardrobe? It probably depends on a number of things: how often you wear them, the temperature outside, the color, how they feel to the touch, and their care requirements...amongst a slew of other things. But when thinking about fabrics from the commercial point-of-view, it's important to know where it comes from, how it's made ready for manufacture, and what sorts of applications it's best suited towards.
For this peek into fabrics, we've analyzed more than 1.5M data points around fabrics to highlight just how prevalent these materials are in assortments and what the average price points look like. If you're interested in how this works, take a look here.
We also know that sustainability is increasingly front-of-mind, so we’ve also included, where it’s available, a sustainability ratings system called the Higg Material Sustainability Index, which takes into account what happens from ‘cradle-to-gate;' this includes everything that happens from source to leaving the manufacturer. For this, the lower the score, the lesser the impact.
Welcome to today’s class, Fabric 101.
‘The fabric of our lives’ is indeed omni-present in today’s wardrobes. In fact research indicates that 55% of textiles today are made from cotton (and 42% of all the SKUs we analyzed). There’s a world of reasons it’s so prevalent, including its versatility, breathability, ease of care, durability, and low cost to produce. You'll find cottons in knit or woven format. Not sure what the difference is? Take a look at the weave and if it looks like a long braid, that’s a knit. If it looks more like a basket, you’ve got yourself a woven. Knits have more stretch to them, while wovens tend to be more wrinkle-prone. And cotton fibers play well with other fibers, so you will very often see it mixed with synthetics to give it different finishes and fits.
While cotton is a natural material which makes it more sustainable than its synthetic counterparts, much of the production of cotton is done using major amounts of water and harmful pesticides. But there are major efforts underway to educate producers on more sustainable and organic means of cotton production with initiatives including ‘Better Cotton’ which is pushing towards year-over-year improvements in the amounts of water and pesticides used in production.
Care: Made for machine-washing
Higg MSI Score: 88, 54.9 of which is in the raw material sourcing
Biggest Producer: China, with India close behind
You can thank those silkworms for that luxe fabric that we all love so much (the average silk shirt costs $302). Specifically, the larvae that insulates the cocoons of the mulberry silkworm are used, in a labor-intensive (and not wholly pleasant to describe) process, to obtain silk fibers. Did you know that silk moths are no longer naturally occurring in the wild, and it takes between 2,000-3,000 cocoons to produce 1 pound of silk? No wonder it’s a material that isn’t cheap to come by.
Like cotton, this fabric is incredibly versatile and has applications extending beyond fashion, including medical and industrial usage. And while it doesn’t have nearly the share of the fashion assortment that other materials do (only 4% of all SKUs), its unique attributes make it an irreplaceable part of the modern closet.
Care: Hand wash or machine wash delicate usually is just fine; dry-clean if nervous
Higg MSI Score: 128, 96.1 of which is in the raw material sourcing
Biggest Producer: China has 80% of the world’s production
Linen, we love you, despite your tendency to wrinkle at the slightest touch. Did you know this summer staple is actually made from flax? Yep, that stuff you also sprinkle in your morning cereal has the same origins as those easy-breezy button-downs and pants. Linen also shares a lot of similarities with its natural cousin, cotton, including its ability to absorb moisture and the strength of its fibers. (Did you realize that paper money has historically had linen fibers in it to make it less likely to tear?) This premium fabric (the average shirt is $102) is cool to the touch (which is why it gets so much play during the warmer months), and gets softer with more handling and wear.
So while it makes up only 1% of the world’s apparel fiber market (and 2% of all SKUs), it’s one of the most sustainable fabrics around. Add to that its inherent strength, both wet and dry, and you have a real eco winner. Our tip is to stick with the non-dyed versions (this includes white), as that minimizes the amount of chemicals used in the bleaching and dying process. (And those natural shades look oh-so-luxe!)
Care: Hand or machine wash at cool temperatures
Biggest Producer: Canada, European countries are also major producers
‘What do you call a sheep without legs? A cloud.’ Bad jokes aside, this naturally occurring fiber is one of the most insulating you can find. But is it really soft as a cloud? Well, that actually depends on the size of the fiber. The larger fibers are less flexible and tend to have that ‘itchy’ quality to them that you might associate with one of those bulky fisherman sweaters, while the shorter fibers of the merino variety, for example, are associated with softness and better conformity to body shape. In either case, it’s a highly absorbent fiber which retains its shape well over time and wear. (It’s made of the same proteins as human hair, keratin!)
Similarly to other natural fibers, it is completely natural and biodegradable, and while there is certainly a carbon footprint in the cultivation of sheep for wool procurement, to keep it sustainable, look for wools that utilize less water and fewer dyes in its treatment.
Higg MSI Score: 81, 48 of which is in the raw material sourcing
Care: Hand or machine wash at cool temperatures (fewer washes are better!)
Biggest Producer: Australia
We hope you’ve found our natural fabric tutorial enlightening; in our next edition, we’ll be highlighting the ins and outs of synthetics.