Tuesday, November 16, 2010

What are your clothes made of?

The J Brands in question.

Whenever and wherever I shop (be it thrift, vintage, consignment, Zara, Barney's) I read labels. There are more and more 'fabric' contents being listed on clothing labels these days. But, it can be like reading the hard to pronounce ingredients on processed food packaging at a grocery store. Just what is all this synthetic stuff? What exactly is polyester, what is nylon? And- what are viscose, acetate, tri-acetate, rayon, modal, elastene, etc. - are they all man made, or are some natural?

I looked at some items in my closet.

I looked at a pair of my J brand skinny jeans and their fabric makeup is 72% cotton and 28% Elasterall. What is Elasterall? It's actually just another name/subcategory of polyester. Elasterall is a more flexible 'stretchy' elastic incarnation of poly fibers. Most jeans are now a blend of cotton and elasterall or lycra, or elastene, or spandex. My pair of Cheap Monday jeans are 98% cotton and 2% elastene. These poly fibers are what give denim stretch and shape, and what makes them a bit more easy to wear than their 100% cotton counterparts.

I have a top that is a cotton modal blend. I had always thought that modal was treated cotton, but it is not. I did some reading and it is made from the cellulose of the beechwood tree. Yet, it is not considered a natural fiber because it is so heavily treated. Instead, it is considered to be bio-based. But wait, isn't that natural? It can get pretty hairy looking up a lot of these fabrics, as so many factors are applied to defining them. And they are all used in many different ways - not just for clothing. Acetate, for example, is another heavily treated cellulose based fiber, and while it is mostly used in clothing, acetate fibers are also used in cigarette filters, and in adhesive compounds. And, it was used in film and photography. Acetate is a part of the rayon family of fibers that are cellulose based and not to be confused with nylon which is petroleum based.

Nylon, "was developed in the 1930s as an alternative to silk, Nylon, like many synthetics, was developed by Wallace Carothers at the Dupont company, which continues to manufacture it today.It is the second most used fiber in the United States, since it is so versatile and relatively easy to make. Like most petroleum products, it has a very slow decay rate, which unfortunately results in the accumulation of exhausted nylon products in landfills around the world."

Polyester and nylon do not biodegrade easily- which accounts for the many things polyester in thrift shops. Oh yes, your aunt's multi-colored double knit poly jumpsuit will live on and on.
It's practically indestructible.

The last item I looked at in my closet was an old Topshop coat that is acrylic with a nylon lining. Acrylic is pretty scary stuff. While it breaks down more easily than nylon, or poly, and can be said to be more environmentally friendly - it is chemically developed and can be toxic. It also doesn't help to know that Monsanto has a hand in acrylic fabric developments.

What's a girl who loves clothes to do? While I do prefer to buy cotton, and strive to buy organic cotton, the manufacturing of natural fabrics still has significant environmental impact. I maintain that it is best to know what you are buying, and to not be wasteful - and buying re-sale is always best.

Do you look at the fabric content of your clothes?


  1. I do check the fabric content of my clothes, but it really depends on the style and how it fits if I purchase it. Since I'm staying away from most fast fashion places, I don't come across as many of those artificial fibers as much. But even while thrifting, there's still a lot of non-natural materials.

    So currently, I'm trying to enjoy my closet, only buy what is necessary and be more aware of what I purchase. =)

  2. This is a really thought-provoking post! I am trying to buy more natural fibers these days, even with vintage, as I find that they breathe better. I tend to forget that manufacturing new fabrics has a significant carbon imprint, though - thanks for the reminder!

  3. I don't wear synthetic fibres much, but mainly because I don't like the feel of them on my skin and they make me sweat more. I'm not totally convinced that synthetics have more of an environment impact than cotton - mass produced (i.e. no fair trade, non-organic) cotton is pretty evil stuff, swallowing up massive amounts of water in areas where water is scarce, and the way it is grown in monoculture strips the soil of it's nutrients so that eventually nothing much will grow there, and it gets bombarded with insecticides and fertilisers.

  4. I pretty much always check the fiber content on my clothes... mostly to gauge if they're worth the money being charged, e.g. $50 for a polyester blouse?! Methinks not!

    I once discovered that a dress that I purchased from Forever 21 listed "Ammonia" as one of the fibers used. I tried to do some research online but couldn't find any examples of Ammonia being used to make clothing. After that, I was too freaked out to wear it, lol!


  5. Acrylic clothing pills so, so badly, and I get the worst sweat stains in it. I never buy acrylic. I wouldn't even wear something acrylic if it was free. I prefer cottons and wools, though I have the occasional polyester shirt. I rarely buy clothing from retail stores.

  6. If only organic material was less expensive! If only! I mostly wear cotton, as it breathes so much better, but my wardrobe isn't limited to it at all.

  7. This is so interesting!

    When I used to work retail at the Fornarina store, we looked at the labels a lot because their jeans always stretched quite a bit but also because they did use modal too and people were some times wary of buying it. We had to look it up and assure them it was cotton, but it also had a dry clean only label. I try to buy almost everything used now, I feel guilty buying cheap stuff from F21 or H&m that was made in China

  8. I am forever reading labels, and while the presence of things like to see can sway me to buy something i'm unsure of, the presence of things i don't like to see is (typically) unfortunately not a deterrent.

    I have to say that jeans with 2% spandex are the best invention ever. I remember my first pair, some time in middle school when my favorite pants at the time were these light wash 100% cotton carpenter jeans (with loops for holding my hammer of course). I found these dark wash stretchy flares, and I was sold. I swore I'd never buy jeans without spandex again.

  9. Thanks all for your comments. I just find it interesting that fabric contents are so varied. I do like that jeans are more comfy - and since I'm not buying leather or wool - I do turn to synthetics which can be bad for the environment, but like Franka mentioned, so can cotton. I think that the key here is that anything mass produced has an impact on the environment. And that being aware of what we are buying is a good thing, but it's so hard to know when there are so many different types of fabric contents.

  10. Thanks for doing some research! I don't think it's possible to make an absolutely good choice, only a relatively good choice. Like Franca, I prefer natural fabrics but worry about how they're produced.

  11. I ALWAYS look at the fabric content. I don't really like anything except cotton and wool, so I always check to make see what the content is. I am very picky about what I like to wear next to my skin.

  12. I use to work in the "fashion industry" (note quotes) and since then I've been interested. I find that I am comfortable in cotton too. I prefer woven cotton because they seem more airy and relaxed (and when the weather is hot, it's 1000x more comfortable than any other fabric including cotton knit). I have this aversion for polyester and acrylic. But like you, I'm most comfortable in cotton.

  13. I been trying to pay more attention to the fabric comp labels in the things im buying. I have a really bad tendancey to go for the crazy 70's & 80's polyester, but i never end up wearing any of it. Oh and i'm quite scared about Closet Confections 'ammonia' blouse above- Yikes! x

  14. Wow, fabulous and interesting post, Suzz!

    I do look at the fabric content of my clothes, but mostly to make sure that they're vegan (through honestly, I do sometimes wear silk). I prefer natural fibers, but only because they don't itch and they breathe nicely. I hate acrylic because it makes me sweat, but knowing that Monsanto develops acrylic makes me loathe it even more.

    Scary to know how slowly some of these break down! I agree with you about resale, but this will definitely make me more conscious of the fabric content of the things I buy new.