What’s in my sweater?
Most know some of the reasons behind what makes cheap clothing so inexpensive: cheap labour and cheap quality. While cheap labour often means the person making your clothes was underpaid, overworked and often subject to health and safety hazards ; what does cheap quality mean?
Often, we think bad quality means cheap fabrics that won't last long with slapdash construction. But, funnily enough, usually the cheapest fibres last the longest and the most expensive need extra care. Polyester is what most activewear is made of. Nylon is used to for camping and military gear. They are also made of plastic, are cheap to make and have a hefty environmental impact. A highly polluting process is used to create them and, when thrown away, don't disintegrate for up to 200 years. When weighing the pros and the cons, there are times when these synthetics are the superior choice, especially when it comes to durable, long lasting items that will go through a lot of wear. However, they take a toll on the environment when used in fast fashion and are thrown away within months of use. Natural fibres aren't without their impact though: growing non-organic cotton requires an unimaginable amount of water and pesticides, and wools mean sheep can be subject to violent shearings and inhumane living conditions. Silks and wools need to be washed with care lest they be irreparably shrunken, stretched, felted or destroyed.
When it comes to knitwear specifically, acrylic is the devil and I refuse to use it. Most cheap (and some expensive!) sweaters are made of 100% acrylic or a blend of it. If you are a knitter, you know that most cheap wool options are acrylic. Faux fur is usually made from acrylic. Acrylic is a plastic fibre known for its similarities to fur and hair and is often used to mimic it. Clothes made from it have recently been rebranded as "vegan", but just because no animals are used in its production does not mean that they aren't harmed. It wreaks havoc on the environment in its production, use and discard. Acrylic isn't even a material I would suggest buying secondhand unless it is washed in a washing bag designed to reduce microfibre shedding, because it sheds a lot. Microfibres get past water filtration systems and wind up poisoning oceans and freshwater, being ingested by marine life and, ultimately, by people. While acrylic may be easier to wash than wool, it also pills and will be altered or melt in high heat.
So, what do we do? While producing just about anything can be problematic, some options are far better than others. I prefer to use natural fibres or semi-synthetics (which are biodegradable cellulose - a.k.a. wood - transformed into fibres by a chemical process). I will use wool (mostly from sheep or alpaca) from well researched sources, organic cotton, linen, hemp and Tencel™. I like to use local mills as much as possible and research the working conditions of people creating yarns if they are spun elsewhere. These fibres are more expensive, which explains why my knitwear is pricier than fast fashion.
Keep in mind, expensive does not mean it is indestructible! Quite the opposite. Unless you are very savvy in the textile and fibre domain, the washing instructions need to be followed carefully. Even I've accidentally destroyed a few very expensive wool garments. In hot water, they will shrink and felt (which is when the fibres all get caught together, creating some kind of smooth knot that cannot be undone or stretched back out). Don't even think about putting them in the dryer. Plant based fibres and semi-synthetics aren't as fussy, but still need care. Read my wool care article here for more information. Follow your garment's care label instructions. Please.
In conclusion, fibres are complicated and interesting. If I may shamelessly plug in my side business, click here for Bienséance's fibre guide to learn more about what we use to make clothes. I do my best to make educated, ethical and sustainable choices with Caulis, but it's always best to question what you're buying, to be educated and to find out for yourself if it is something you feel right about wearing.