If you’ve ever seen old textiles in a museum, you might have noticed the coarseness of a lot of the fibers. Part of this is because of wear and age, yes, but it also has to do with the materials themselves. They were made by hand out of basic raw materials. In the modern day, however, technology and our ability to refine, create, and synthesize materials have improved by leaps and bounds. Nowadays, people are clad in all sorts of soft, or fluttery, or stretchy materials unknown to our ancestors. But what are all these textiles made of? Below we’ll be examining the origin of many common materials in our daily wear.
Denim: A long-lived classic and all-time favorite. This textile is made of cotton and dyed for color. The reason why denim fades overtime is because the dye doesn’t penetrate the whole thread. That means as the cloth is worn, the dye comes off the top, exposing the white thread underneath.
Wool: Warm and soft, wool is traditionally from sheep. Nowadays, there is an abundance of wool and fur substitutes on the market, often created from synthetic acrylic compounds.
Spandex: Now, where would sportswear and athleisure be without this wonderful material? Perhaps unsurprisingly, spandex is something this is synthesized rather than found in nature.
Rayon: Also known as “artificial silk”. Unlike silk, rayon is actually made of cellulose fibers originating from wood pulp (so, trees). Cellulose is what gives plant fibers their rigidity. To make rayon, cellulosic compounds are liquified, spun into filaments, and then chemically resolidified in order to be woven into cloth. Even though it’s created from natural compounds (plants), it doesn’t decompose very well.
Polyester (blends, microfibers, etc.): And finally, the ever-present polyester. The term “polyester” is actually very vague, and only really means that the chemical compound of a product is a chain of many esters (if chemistry isn’t your strong suit, just know that it’s a certain type of molecule). The compounds used to create polyesters could originate anywhere from naturally-occurring plant materials to byproducts of petroleum refinement.
It’s interesting to see how innovations in production and chemistry have shaped fashion as we know it today. On one hand, it’s given us beautiful clothing, products, and many options. On the other, it is also important to think about how we’re creating and refining materials (especially the synthetic ones), about how they’re disposed, and what that means for the future and our environment.
Cotton: Kimberly Vardeman
Sheep: Julia Gross on Flickr
Trees: Leonora Enking on Flickr
Spandex under electron microscope: BASF