INSPIRED BY NATURE – FROM FIBERS TO GREEN TREATMENTS
Back to Nature
After many years of inaction, everybody is jumping on the bandwagon in terms of sustainability and ecological responsibility. Our best choice is just around the corner: Sustainable fabrics, local production and gentle natural finishings are becoming increasingly important. As a result, people are turning to authentic natural materials, the simplest way to care about our environment: Garments made of natural fibers are predominantly biodegradable, while the brushed inside of a wool-, hemp- or Tencel sweater refrains from releasing hazardous micro-plastic into the sea. Natural materials boast positive performance effects such as good moisture management, thermoregulation, odor-control & antimicrobial properties. In contrast - to achieve such functional properties in synthetic fibers - chemical or natural agents have to be embedded or additional fabric treatment is required.
Fabric mills are developing a variety of creative fabrics in natural fibers & blends, light & comfortable, easy to wear & care, catering for a new demand for ease & comfort: garments for everyday wear, allowing for seamless movement from sporting activity to leisure and to work, all developed in the modern context of eco-design.
Materials with a healthy aspect, using natural fibers or embedding natural ingredients in the yarns, are gaining more and more importance, especially in the sport apparel market.
Consequently, the current Focus Topic is dedicated to products with functions provided by nature. The products highlighted here lend essential functions to performance fabrics and accessories, such as thermoregulation, moisture management, water repellency, anti-bacterial/odor control, UV-protection, performance enhancement while contributing to the body’s well-being.
With their performances derived from nature
Ecological Man-Made Fibers
Fibers that are based on natural components but technically modified
Natural ingredients embedded in fibers
Green treatments – Natural Finishings
Natural ingredients with surface application on the yarn or fabric
Wool / GOTS or RWS
Wool has become Mother Nature’s miracle fiber with multiple benefits. It is an excellent insulator and regulates the body’s temperature. A woolen sweater will keep you cozy and warm by trapping air between its fibers without overheating the wearer. Wool is hygroscopic and hydrophobic at the same time. This means wool can easily absorb and release moisture and can absorb vapor at up to 36% of its dry weight without feeling damp or clammy (which is twice as much as cotton and thirty times as much as polyester). It allows moisture (perspiration) from the body to evaporate (wick) through the fabric. This helps keep the skin dry and comfortable. At the same time wool is naturally water-repellent. The waxy cuticle of the fiber does not allow water molecules to pass. Wool’s capacity to absorb moisture and to wick away water prevents the build-up of bacteria and has therefore natural anti-odor properties. The fiber even has self-cleaning and dirt neutralization properties. Wool retains its shape, is durable and wrinkle resistant.1
Merino wool is finer than wool. The merino wool fibers are between 14.6-24.5 microns. A micron (μm) is one millionth of a meter; the finer the micron, the softer the fiber. The feeling of prickle and itch comes from fibers with coarse microns of any type of fiber. Therefore, merino wool is renowned for its next to skin softness and thus also suitable for underwear, t-shirts and long sleeves. Merino wool offers superior stretch properties than coarser types of wool, creating an elasticity that always returns to its original natural shape, making it ideal for movement and mobility. In addition to these benefits, merino wool protects from UVA and UVB rays without any additional fabric treatment.2
Alpacas are free-running animals living at 4,000 meters (13,000 ft.) altitude in the Andes. Here they are exposed to 40ºC (104ºF) temperature differences in the course of the same day. To survive, the South American Alpaca has evolved an adaptable semi-hollow fur, enabling it to remain cool in the scorching mornings and warm during the freezing nights. This insulating fiber also has wicking properties, transferring moisture outwards where it is spread over the surface of the fibers, accelerating evaporation. Alpaca yarns are exceptionally soft and cushioning, thus reducing friction on the skin. Due to extreme solar radiation in the Andes, the fiber has also acquired UV resistance, protecting the skin from sun damage.
The yak is a long-haired cow native to the Himalayas, Mongolia and Central Asia. Its wool is naturally soft and has evolved to protect them from the region’s frigid temperatures. As a clothing textile, it feels sumptuous, looks sublime and is 30% warmer than sheep’s wool. In addition to being 1.6 times more breathable than cashmere, this all-natural material also has plenty of other benefits woven into its fibers, including odor-resistant and anti-microbial properties. Additionally, the way it is sourced has a much lower impact on the planet.
Cashmere wool comes from the cashmere goat, which is native to Tibet and Northern India. It is sorted according to its natural colors: White, gray or brown. The raw fiber is de-haired to separate the fine soft cashmere from coarse and non-usable hair. The fineness of each strand of cashmere is typically between 7-19 microns, with an average of 14 microns defined as an industry standard. This fineness gives cashmere its trademark silky texture. Cashmere fibers are cylindrical, soft, silky, smooth, resilient, moisture-absorbing and particularly warm.
Peace silk is the non-violent process of silk breeding and harvesting. It allows the completion of the metamorphosis of the silkworm to butterfly so that no animal has to suffer or die. In order for the caterpillars to grow inside the cocoon and then hatch out of it, the production of peace silk takes about 2 weeks longer than conventional or organic silk. Since the caterpillars destroy the silk thread during hatching, the fibers must also be completely woven together by hand. This means that the threads are not continuous, resulting in a less delicate texture and a duller shine than conventional or organic silk. Because of this complex process, peace silk is about twice as expensive as conventional or organic silk.3 Peace silk has the same skin-friendly benefits as conventional silk: It has anti-aging properties by moisturizing the skin and accelerating the cell renewal process. Next to its antistatic & thermoregulation properties, silk is hypoallergenic; it does not attract dust mites and is a natural fungal repellent. By avoiding the accumulation of bacteria, silk has natural anti-odor properties.4
In contrast to the conventional silk industry, organic silk farms do not grow their mulberry trees in monocultures, but in mixed cultures. Furthermore, no pesticides or artificial fertilizers are used in the production of organic silk. Organic silk is also free of heavy metals and chemical treatments.5
Cotton clothing is soft and stretches easily, making it a comfortable fabric to wear. The high moisture absorbent effect of cotton generates a great cooling effect. However, since moisture is absorbed to the inside of the fiber, drying times are low, which can cause a chilling effect. Cotton is hypoallergenic, which is ideal for sensitive skin. It’s also easy to wash, and won’t produce static cling.
Kapok fiber is a natural and soft silky cellulosic fiber with a significantly homogeneous hollow tube shape, offering great thermal insulation. Eco-friendly brands use it as an alternative padding to down and synthetic fibers, referring to it as ‘plant-down’. Kapok is one of the few sustainable rainforest products due to the fact that it grows naturally in the rainforest and does not require tending to and upkeep by humans. It is also wild-harvested, and kapok does not need to be treated with chemicals, as it is naturally healthy and safe. Kapok fibers are strong and durable. The fiber is naturally hypoallergenic, anti-microbial, and dust mite-resistant. The kapok fiber naturally repels moisture, giving it great drying times and making it unsuitable for mold, mildew, and bacteria to thrive in.6
Apart from the environmental advantages of hemp, such as no necessity for irrigation & herbicides in cultivation, hemp is inherently antimicrobial - as little as 15% hemp combined with a neutral material such as polyester will kill 99.9% of present staph bacteria. In blends with cotton, it will fully inhibit further bacteria growth. Hemp is thermo-conductive and therefore feels very cool on the skin. It is a very light and strong natural fiber at the same time; it is resistant to degradation from sun and salt water and can protect the user from UV radiation. As a partially hydrophobic fiber, it naturally repels water.
The main benefit of wearing linen is the coolness it provides during hot weather. It has excellent heat conductivity properties, as linen quickly allows heat to escape. It is claimed that the heat conductivity of linen (which similar to hemp) is 5 times higher than wool and 18 times higher than silk. Alongside its cooling qualities, linen has excellent hygroscopic properties and can absorb up to 20% of its weight and yet still remain dry. Linen is renowned for its durability, being twice as durable as cotton. With its resistance to fungi and bacteria, it is naturally anti-odor and it is anti-allergenic.7
Abaca (Manila Hemp/paper-yarn)
Known as Manila Hemp, abaca is a leaf fiber belonging to the banana plant family. The plant has great economic importance, being harvested for its fiber extracted from the leaf-stems. Abaca is one of the strongest natural fibers. The abaca plant grows without the need for large amounts of water or pesticides. It helps stop erosion, and is now being used to replace fossil fuels in clothes. The fibers are pulped and then made into a thin but strong paper. The paper is then cut into thin strips and twisted into a fine yarn. The result is a soft and very lightweight, but also strong, resilient and long-lasting fabric, which has antibacterial, thermoregulation and moisture control properties. Furthermore, Abaca protects from UVA and UVB rays without additional fabric treatment.8
Ecological man-made fibers
Natural Polymers made of regenerated cellulose
Rayon is a manufactured fiber made from natural sources such as wood and agricultural products that are regenerated as cellulose fiber. It is therefore not considered to be synthetic. Rayon is made from purified cellulose, harvested primarily from wood pulp, which is chemically converted into a soluble compound. It is then dissolved and forced through a spinneret to produce filaments, which are chemically solidified, resulting in fibers of nearly pure cellulose. Specific types of rayon include viscose, modal and lyocell, each of which differs in the manufacturing process and the properties of the finished product.
Note: However, the production process is suspected of not being particularly eco-friendly due to the use of an indirect dissolution during the manufacturing process.
Lyocell is a form of rayon that consists of cellulose fiber made from dissolving pulp (bleached wood pulp). In contrast to viscose, it is produced from dissolving pulp, which contains cellulose in high purity. The amine oxide used to dissolve the cellulose and set the fiber after spinning is recycled. Typically, 98% of the amine oxide is recovered. Since there is little waste product, this process is considered eco-friendly. Lyocell is very soft, breathable, light and comfortable and therefore excellent for sensitive skin. It is easy to wear, because it has a high moisture absorbency, drying times and breathability compared to cotton. Its elasticity and strength make it perfect for the use in sportswear. Lyocell by Lenzing – TENCEL™ is made of sustainable sourced quick growing eucalyptus trees and their REFIBRA Technology – TENCEL™ Refibra – includes the recycling of pre-consumer cotton waste in the production process (cutting waste from garment making).
Polymers made of generated protein fibers
Milk protein fibers are synthetically produced from the milk »casein«. Milk fibers are 100% natural, soft and smooth, and possess temperature regulation properties. With a natural antibacterial effect and high hydrophilicity, they are especially skin friendly and ideal for wearers with sensitive skin. Originally, milk fibers were not manufactured in a particularly eco-friendly manner, nowadays the milk fiber QMILK® is developed from the casein of non-food milk (food waste) in a more eco-friendly and sustainable process by using the by-product of milk production, and refraining from the use of chemicals. To gain 1kg of QMILK® fiber, only 2 liters of water are required, whereas in contrast, 10,000-25,000 liters of water are needed in order to get 1 kg of cotton. As a 100% natural fiber, it is completely biodegradable. Q-Milk is an ideal combination for a wide variety of material mixes made of natural or synthetic fibers, and improves the product properties by up to 20%.10
Soy fabric is a fabric made from the hulls of soybean, essentially a by-product of the tofu manufacturing process -waste of tofu production. It is often referred to as »vegetable cashmere« or »soy silk« due to its properties. Soy protein is liquified and then extruded into long, thin filament that are then cut and processed. The process does involve the use of chemicals, but they are mostly recovered and can be reused. This biodegradable fabric is breathable, smooth as silk and has skin friendly properties thanks to its moisturizing amino acids.11
Artificial Spider Silk
Silk from spiders has pretty impressive properties. It is one of the sturdiest materials found in nature, stronger than steel and tougher than Kevlar. It can be stretched several times its length before it breaks. For these reasons, the replication of spider silk developed in labs has been of highest interest for material scientists for decades. Man-made spider silk is based on artificial spider proteins generated by bacteria and then spun to a high-performance yarn. This all comes with high skin-sensitive attributes, controlled moisture management and 100% biodegradability. The biotech company Spiber with their »Spiber Technologies AB« and the company AMSILK with their Biosteel® Fiber are developing artificial spider silk.12
Synthetic Polymers – bio-synthetics
Bio-based nylon yarns & nylon membranes made from castor oil are a totally renewable resource that does not require high amounts of water nor subtracts arable land for food uses. The biomass source is castor bean, Ricinus Communis. The monomers used in the polymerization are partially or completely sourced from castor oil. The Italian company Fulgar has developed a bio-based nylon EVO® – sourced from castor oil - which is ultra-light, super stretchy and ensures maximum comfort, while retaining an intense eco-awareness. KingWonder – a Chinese brand - developed a high performance elastic lightweight membrane named »PEBAX Rnew«, also based on castor oil: To close the recycling loop, you can create mono-component recyclable nylon 2-layer and 3-layer fabrics by bonding bio-based nylon membrane »PEBAX Rnew« on your nylon surface.
Nylon membranes can also be made partly out of coffee oil. The AIRMEM™ membrane from S.Café® replaces 25% of fossil fuels with coffee oil extracted from coffee grounds. As a sustainable alternative, the coffee membrane provides twice the amount of odor control compared to standard membranes.
In-Yarn technologies –
Yarns with added comfort for health & well-being
Embedded ingredients with added functions from nature
Most of the natural additives can be embedded in synthetic as well as in natural man-made fibers e.g. cellulose-based Viscose or Lyocell. The »In Yarn Naturals« have a more durable performance. You can find: Plant-based, organic- & mineral-based ingredients embedded in the fiber as well as for use in natural finishings.
Roasted coffee grounds (consumer waste of coffee)
The coffee bean swells while being roasted, which means that the space inside the bean expands. These micropores of roasted coffee grounds absorb odors and reflect UV-rays. In their S.Café® fabric technology, Singtex integrates coffee grounds into the surface of polyester yarn, changing the characteristics of the filament, offering up to 200% faster drying times compared to cotton.
Seaweed is pure and rich in essential substances such as vitamins, trace elements, amino acids and minerals. The substances found in seaweed hydrate the skin and help to activate cell regeneration, which in turn can help to relieve skin diseases, reduce inflammation and soothe itchiness. Its high level of antioxidants protects the skin against harmful free radicals, which damage our skin cells. Ingredients of Seaweed are for example embedded in SeaCell™LT and MT – a Lyocell-based wellness fiber using raw and organic algae from Iceland. The collect of seaweed is certified as sustainable harvesting. The natural moisture level of the skin enables an active exchange of those beneficial substances between the fiber and the skin, providing a noticeable sense of wellbeing.15
Caffeine can dehydrate fatty cells. This minimizes the appearance of cellulite. The antioxidants contained in caffeine can attack these free radicals and eliminate them.
The soothing and anti-microbial properties of aloe vera help to disinfect wounds and are popularly used in helping to heal sunburn. It is renowned for its hydrating properties and is a fantastic source of vitamins C and E, which are renowned for their ability to help protect the body against potential harm from free radical molecules. Aloe vera promotes the production of collagen to keep skin healthy, and has resultantly, anti-aging properties. The Aloe Vera provides the fabric a soft touch, with silky features.16 The functional fabric brand M.I.T.I spa has created, for example, a fabric collection with embedded natural ingredients such as aloe vera and caffeine by using the cosmetic fibers from NOVAREL. They combine the benefits of compression with the functions derived from the embedded natural extracts in the yarn, e.g. by combining the compression of a high stretch warp knit fabric with molecules of caffeine to help control the orange peel effect and cellulite.
Originating from the fruit of the argan spinosa tree from Morocco, argan oil contains vitamin E and fatty acids offering numerous benefits for skin protection, creating a feeling of comfort and hydration which helps fight against dry skin.17
Organic- & mineral based ingredients
Oyster-Shell (food waste)
The so-called »seawool« fabric is made from upcycled oyster shell, which is sustainably collected from oyster farms in Taiwan, and embedded in recycled polyester from PET bottles. Seawool naturally prevents odor caused by bacteria growing on the fabric, keeping the fabric and garment smelling fresher. Seawool is antistatic, soft to the touch and provides natural insulation, keeping the body warm in cold temperatures.
Ocean collagen peptide made of upcycled fish scale (food waste) has moisturizing, hypo-allergenic and natural deodorizing properties: The Taiwanese textile company UMORFIL has created a fiber out of recycled fish scale food waste and upcycled it into textile ingredients, creating at the same time a skin-friendly material suitable for hypoallergenic skin. The collagen peptide of the recycled fish scales can be embedded in polyester (Umorfil T), in nylon (Umorfil N6) and in viscose (Umorfil Beauty Fiber).18
Jade has very low thermal conductivity, meaning it absorbs heat very slowly and would take a long time to warm up even in hot conditions. Therefore, fabrics featuring jade can remain cool, relative to your body, for an extended period of time.19
Activated carbon with its billions of micropores, has a very huge »internal surface« with remarkable moisture absorption and odor control properties. It can be applied on the surface of the fabric by direct application and also by embedding the particles into the fiber.20 Activated carbon can be generated from various raw materials such as wood, coal, coconut or also rice husk. It is a natural renewable resource derived mostly from food waste. It keeps clothes comfortable, fresh and odor-free.21
Triporous is a porous carbon material with a unique microstructure made from rice husk, a by-product of food production. In addition to micropores (2 nm or less) found in conventional activated carbon, many mesopores (up to 50 nm) and macropores (50 nm or more) that are larger than the micropores are present in a complex form. This allows the material to deliver the property of easily adsorbing large molecular weight substances, which up to now was difficult with conventional materials. By combining tripourous powder and rayon, triporous can be made into a fiber for long lasting deodorizing.22
Green treatments – Natural finishings
Natural ingredients with surface application on the yarn or fabric. The advantage of surface treatments is the simple post-application on the finished product, in contrast to embedded technology in the yarns:
The Swiss company »Beyond Surface Technologies AG« offers for example, under the name of »miDori® bioWick«, a wicking finish based on plant seed and including bio-waste stream components for synthetics & blends.
Catalyzed silica captures and breaks down unpleasant odors – originating from the body, cigarette smoke, cooking fumes or other smelly environments. For instance, the Polygiene Odor Crunch© technology consists of silica, the main ingredient in sand, modified with a unique catalyst: It works in a 2-step odor eliminating process. The odor molecules will first stick to the modified silica particles in Odor Crunch. Once the odor molecules are adsorbed, they will be catalytically then cracked and broken down and the offensive odor is permanently eliminated. Polygiene Odor Crunch Technology is free of biocides.23
Organic Bee Wax is a natural water-repellent that does not contain substances harmful to the environment. In order to be certified as organic, chemicals cannot be used on land within 3 miles of the beehive, as this represents the bees' flying radius.
Alongside a sustainable fabric selection and transparent eco-friendly production process, many brands today consider it essential to reduce the use of chemicals in order to achieve specific performances in their garments.
Therefore, this overview highlights various natural fibers and extracts of either plant or animal origin with functional properties.
As many plants, mineral & organic extracts contain compounds responsible for antibacterial activity, thermo-regulation or moisturizing properties among others, there will remain in the future many new fascinating natural substances to discover for their useful properties in the apparel industry.
When these natural ingredients derive from the by-products of the food manufacturing process, it helps additionally in upgrading food waste for use in textile ingredients, while at the same time, going one step further towards a circular economy.