For most of human history, natural fabrics were the only ones we had available. Clothes, textiles like rugs and curtains, furniture, medical supplies, and every other household fabric need was fulfilled by the simple, plant-and-animal based materials nature provided.
Eventually, things changed. Most natural fabrics were replaced by industrial-made ones like polyester, rayon, nylon, and acrylics. While these materials are cost effective and able to be produced on a huge scale, they come with invisible price tags like health risks, environmental harm, and poor labor practices. Many modern consumers are questioning whether or not they’re worth the sacrifices demanded by their synthetic construction.
Natural fabrics like silk, cotton, hemp, wool, angora, linen, or even bamboo are becoming more and more attractive as we gain awareness about the downsides of synthetic options. The overall quality and make of natural fabrics tend to be superior to their artificial competitors, and they offer other benefits as well.
This guide will take you through some of the natural fabric options available today – including how they’re made, their pros and cons, and how much you can expect to pay for items made from them. By the end of this post you’ll be better informed and ready to at least consider switching over to natural fabrics the next time you need to purchase textiles.
Despite a sordid history in the American south and elsewhere, cotton has been a staple material for the creation of textiles for at least 4000 years. There’s a number of good reasons for this, as cotton is an extremely versatile material that’s far easier to work with than other plant fibers.
The benefits of cotton include its softness, breathability, sustainability, ease of care (such as machine-washing), durability, and ability to be grown and purchased in large quantities quickly, efficiently, and consistently. Clothes made from cotton have a reputation of lasting for many years if properly cared for, and they are naturally odor resistant.
On the other hand, cotton tends to shrink as soon as its washed for the first time, and it wrinkles more easily than most synthetic fabrics. The absorbability of the fabric makes it great for cleaning products like towels and rags, but it’s not ideal if you plan to work out in clothes made from this material. Sweat retention isn’t something you want in a shirt or sports bra!
Overall, cotton is probably our most versatile and readily available natural fabric, and it’s certainly cheaper to access than more exotic textiles such as silk or cashmere. It’s important that you check labels when choosing cotton textiles, as not all materials labeled “cotton” are 100% made from natural fibers – many are a combination of natural cotton and polyester and are known as “blended fabrics.”
Only textiles labeled “100% cotton” can be trusted on this front. Also be sure to double check the source of the cotton used by your brands of choice – labor violations are a serious problem in the cotton industry, just as they are in the production of synthetic fabrics. It’s always important to exercise due diligence!
Cost per Yard: Approx. $7-20, quality-dependent.
Linen is a textile crafted from the stems of the flax plant, which is somewhat similar to cotton but lacks the fluffy “bolls” you see on cotton plants. If you thought cotton had a long history, hold on to your hat – there’s evidence to suggest that humans were crafting linen textiles as early as 36,000 years ago!
Eventually wild flax became domesticated flax, which is hardier and easier to grow in large quantities. Linen textiles are breathable, sturdy, moisture-resistant and moisture-wicking, long-lasting, and sun-resistant. It’s the perfect fabric for use in hot climates, which is why countries like Egypt and Mesopotamia have historically favored its use.
Linen is harder to produce than cotton fabric, however, and for that reason it can be harder to find and more expensive than cotton. It also lacks flexibility – you wouldn’t want linen yoga pants – and can be scratchy or coarse if not treated properly. Linen fabrics also crease easily and therefore require non-folding storage methods, such as hanging. This means that items made from linen can take up more space in your home.
Despite its downsides, linen fabrics have become synonymous with many of the day-to-day items we use in our homes. The word “linens” refers to towels, underwear, and sheets, all of which were historically made from 100% linen. Be aware that the term itself has shifted in meaning – just because something is a linen doesn’t mean it’s made from the natural material. Always check the label carefully before purchasing.
Cost per Yard: Approx. $5-12.
Textiles are rarely thought of as a political issue in today’s landscape, but this hasn’t always been the case…especially when it comes to hemp. Thanks to its association with marijuana, hemp growers faced attacks throughout the 60s and 70s, mostly from conservative, anti-recreational-drug campaigners and rather shady corporate competitors (such as cotton and wood pulp producers).
Nowadays hemp is making a comeback. This durable, easy-to-grow material is made from a variation of the cannabis plant and can yield large harvests in a relatively short amount of time. It also happens to be a carbon sink, which is a considerable asset as we fight global warming.
Hemp has always been used to make work clothes and items such as rope or canvas, thanks to its unique strength and hardiness. It also uses less water to grow than cotton or flax, and the hemp plant is naturally pest-resistant. The textiles made from this material tend to be breathable and bacteria-resistant, as well as UV-blocking. It can be easily combined with other materials – even animal-based ones like silk – making hemp blends a great alternative to synthetic ones.
Still, hemp isn’t the most comfortable material for use in clothing or linens. It’s coarse, not particularly flexible, and prone to wrinkling. Due to low demand, it can also be harder to find and more costly to purchase than other, more common natural fabrics. It also doesn’t tend to hold colors as well as cotton or silk, and can fade out pretty quickly.
All in all, hemp is a rising star in the natural fabrics world, and it’s a good option for certain kinds of household products and clothing. As with the other choices, you’ll want to assess your own preferences to determine if hemp is the right one for your particular needs.
Cost per Yard: Approx. $13-40.
There’s a growing, rather enthusiastic market for bamboo textiles, with eco-activists touting it as the newest innovation in the natural clothing movement. While there are certainly plenty of advantages to bamboo fabrics, not everything is as it seems – I’m going to be very honest and cut through some of the “hype” that’s been attached to this material as of late, and hopefully you’ll get a balanced picture of the pros and cons.
Bamboo is a fast-growing, prolific member of the grass family. Thanks to its natural molecular structure, bamboo makes a very breathable fabric that dries quickly and is resistant to static. It can be soft or coarse depending on how the raw bamboo pulp is treated during the production process, and unlike some other natural fabrics, bamboo textiles are machine-washable.
It should be noted, however, that bamboo textile producers have been accused of misleading the public with their professions of making a truly “natural” and organic product. To turn bamboo pulp into fabric, it has to either be manually processed – a labor-intensive and costly method – or chemically treated in a manner that’s alarmingly similar to the way synthetic fabrics are produced. Most manufacturers chose the latter option. This has caused more and more criticism over the years and is a factor worth considering if you’re looking at this option.
Ultimately bamboo fabrics are promising, but it may be a while before we can easily find it in stores. It will also remain a controversial fabric until producers become more transparent and move away from using synthetic treatments to make it.
Cost per Yard: Approx. $11-24.
Along with their reputation for being cute and fluffy, sheep are our main producers of wool fabric. It makes sense that, long ago, someone looked at poofy-coated wild sheep and decided they would like to sport a similar look in the cold winter months.
Sheep aren’t the only wool-producers we know and love, however. Camels, goals, llamas, and alpacas also provide wool, and there are a few even more exotic types that can be found in various regions. Wool in general is a broad category – this section will specifically focus on basic, sheep-based wool of the sort you’re most likely to find lining shelves in the West.
Wool is a famously tough, warm natural fabric that’s ideal for the production of winter clothes and blankets. Naturally insulating and highly elastic, it can resist a huge amount of wear and tear without degrading. Wool is also water-resistant – but not waterproof – thanks to its unique natural properties and absorbent core. Just be aware that wool can feel dry even if its absorbed a large amount of liquid.
Textiles made from wool tend to be quite soft and versatile, which has helped secure the material’s place as our most-produced animal-fiber material. This comes with a caveat, however. Mass-production of wool means that many domestic sheep are raised in poor conditions and suffer various kinds of industry abuses as they are put through rigorous, production-focused processes aimed at maximizing their output without consideration for the animal’s wellbeing.
On a more basic note, wool can also become scratchy, “felted” or rubbed, and some people claim that it produces an unpleasant odor when wet. It requires more extensive care than plant-based fabrics and is generally dry-clean only. Wool is often expensive, and it may produce bad, itchy reactions in the allergy-prone.
Cost per Yard: Approx. $13-40, highly quality/source-dependent.
Long considered the most “exotic” of natural fabrics, silk has a long history and is made from the cocoons of the silkworm – a caterpillar that lives primarily in Asia and exclusively consumes mulberry leaves. It is this highly-specialized nature that makes silk an expensive, luxury fabric that is commonly associated with wealth and royalty.
If you’ve ever run your hands down a silk robe, or if you’ve sported a raw-silk dress, you’ll recall how soft and sleek the fabric was. When it’s smooth and shiny, silk is often referred to as satin – but be aware that many items labeled “satin” these days are actually made of synthetic materials. Only a “100% silk” label can assure you of a textile’s true make and quality.
Silk is smooth, strong, and reflective, which makes it very attractive for the making of formal wear. It also dyes beautifully and can be produced in an incredible array of colors and patterns. Silk textiles are highly wrinkle-resistant and surprisingly insulating, so the fabric is popular for use in linings or hats. You can find a huge variety of silks on the market – many are region-specific and hold particular prized qualities such as unique luster or strength.
While prized for all of the above qualities, silk’s luxurious nature also means that it’s notoriously high-maintenance. Silk fades when exposed to sunlight and often requires special storage. It is nearly impossible to wash without damaging the delicate weave – even hand-washing is risky, and most silks are dry-clean only. Pure silk is often prohibitively expensive and extremely delicate. It also requires the killing of silkworms to produce, as their cocoons are harvested before the unwitting caterpillars reach maturity.
Disadvantages aside, silk fabrics are considered the most elegant option available, and they are less harmful to the environment than synthetic options.
Cost per Yard: Approx. $50-100.
Is there anything more comfortable than a cashmere sweater? This natural fabric is derived specifically from the under-wool of cashmere or pashmina goats, which have a uniquely thick coat that sheds annually. They also happen to be adorable.
As far as animal-derived fabrics go, cashmere is often thought of as the most ethical option. This is because it is simply harvested via “combing” the goats, which they evidently find quite pleasurable – this process draws out the soft, naturally shedding undercoat of the goats and produces large quantities of raw wool.
Cashmere is luxuriously soft – hence its reputation as the “silk” of the wool industry – as well as highly insulating. It’s perfect for scarves, gloves, and cardigans, as well as household goods like blankets.
Much like silk, cashmere’s luxuriousness is also its downfall. The material is difficult to care for and has to be dry-cleaned or gently hand-washed. Cashmere also tends to absorb odors like cigarette smoke easily, it can stretch out under strain, and it’s very expensive.
Cost per Yard: Approx. $20-200, quality-dependent.
Choosing Natural Fabrics Is A Commitment That’s Worth The Cost
With a wide and growing variety of fabrics to choose from, natural textiles are a more eco-friendly, luxurious, and quality option when it comes to everything from clothes to home goods. Choosing natural fabrics is a commitment that requires some level of dedication – but the superior experience one has with these textiles makes them well worth the effort, in my opinion.
Whether you’re looking for an elegant linen sundress or a silk tapestry to hang on your bedroom wall, natural fabrics lend an air of class and taste to your lifestyle. Hopefully this guide has helped to arm you with all the information you need to make strong choices when it comes to buying natural fabrics – if you end up having further questions, feel free to let me know! You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For now, thanks for reading, and I can’t wait to see you at the next post! Stay classy, lovelies.