The concept of Eco Fibres is not new -- Henry Ford of The Ford Motor Car Company wore a suit made of Soya fabric in the 1940s. He even considered a car made of soy plastic.
The subsequent rise of man-made fabrics and plastics put the development of these fabrics on the back burner. As a result of this, not much has been heard of these natural fibres until recently. Recognition of the environmental damage caused by man-made fibres has resulted in the emergence of a large number of alternate yarns, and increasing numbers of producers and consumers are eager to explore these options.
What is an Eco Fibre?
An Eco-Fibre is simply a textile fibre that does not employ pesticides and/or chemicals in the process of growth. The core philosophy of its development is minimal ecological damage. Several new age fabrics have been developed from natural and renewable resources and many more are in the pipeline. But is the production of these fibres actually as benign as is made out?
Characteristics of Eco Fibres
Eco-Fibres are --
- Naturally disease-free, resistant to fungal infestations, moulds, mildews and other such infections.
- Often better insulators than man-made fibres.
- More absorbent than man-made fibres.
- Do not contain chemicals and are naturally less irritating than man-made fibres.
- Often hypo-allergenic.
- Made from renewable resources.
Classification of Eco Fibres
Eco-Fibres are of four broad types:-
- Natural Origin Eco Fibre -- Organic Cotton, Organic Silk, Ahimsa Silk, Organic Wool, Hemp, Bamboo, Kenaf, jute, Sasawashi, Nettle, Sisal, Coconut fibre or Coir, Banana fibre, Ramie and Mesta/ Roselle.
- Highly processed natural origin fibre -- Rayon type: Modal, Lyocell/ Tencel, Ingeo, Seacell.
- Fibres from Waste Products -- These are often from food waste products. For example, Crab shell fibre or Chitin from Crab shells and Soy fibre from soy kernels after tofu has been made. Recycled plastic bottles are also a source or fibre for 100% recycled clothing.
- Eco-Fibre Blends -- Creora, Lycra blends.
Natural Origin Eco-Fibre
- A lot has been written about Organic Cotton. Cotton is arguably the world’s most comfortable and versatile fabric. Its present production technique however is extremely environmentally damaging. The growing of cotton uses 25% of the world’s annual pesticides employed. It is not only ecologically damaging, but also puts the lives of farmers and livestock at risk.
- Pakucho or Colour Grown Cotton is amazing precoloured Organic cotton that comes from a traditional Andean source. The cotton plant produces precoloured cotton that grows in the natural shades of white, tan, green, yellow, red, and brown. This cotton was unsuited to modern cotton spinning and weaving machinery and was not used as a result. It is only in the 1990s that this was employed to provide low impact, exceptionally lovely fibre. The most amazing thing about this is that colour grown cotton is actually colour fast!
- Organic silk is silk that is cruelty, chemical and dye free.
- Silk Noil is silk fibre reconstituted from waste silk and broken silk yarn. This is un-bleached and un-dyed and is available is various natural shades ranging from off-white to deep gold.
- Ahimsa Silk -- Ahimsa Silk is also referred to as Vegetarian Peace Silk.
- Alpaca Wool is a highly prized woollen fibre because of its natural hollow core. This provides superior insulation and warmth. The produce of Alpaca herds reared only for their wool (not their meat), in areas that are close to weaving and spinning centres would classify as Eco-Fibres.
- Organic Wool, according to the USDA or the United States Department of Agriculture, is wool that is sheared off sheep raised without hormones, grazed on land that has not seen pesticide usage and has not been overgrazed. Additionally, the sheep feed is required to be organic, and the rearing must be “under continuous organic management from the last third of gestation forward.”
- Bamboo is one of those amazing plants that needs very little water, fertilizers, is naturally regenerative and grows very fast… up to one foot per day. It is also naturally pest resistant. It can produce one of the world’s most exquisite fibres, silky, with a linen-like drape. It is therefore not surprising that it is extremely popular with the producers of green fabrics and clothing. Designers like Los Angeles based Kate O’Connor use it as a green alternative to silk.
- Qoperfina Copper is either high quality certified Organic Cotton or sometimes organic cotton mixed with organic Alpaca wool. This is in turn blended with 2% Angelina Copper Metal Fibres”. The cotton has a SKAL or EKO certification as does the wool. Products with an EKO certification preclude chemical ingredients on either the land or in association with the animals raised thereon. The fabric is un-dyed, hypoallergenic and lightweight. The hollow fibre core affords great warmth and therapeutic qualities. Qoperfina is from a registered fair trade source 
- Hemp is one of the most versatile Eco-Fibres that there are. Uses of hemp range from fibres for textile products, animal bedding, plastics, paper pulp, clothing and building products. While the idea of hemp does evoke images of rope and dull home-spun clothes, nothing could be further from its modern day avatar! Hemp products include automotive accessories, cosmetics, animal bedding products, fabrics and textiles, papers, oil flavourings, lighter and stronger biodegradable polycomposites and many other products. Industrial Hemp is also very versatile. Almost all parts of the plant including the bast fibre, the hurd (inner stem fibres), the seed, the seed oil and other plant extracts are used in industry. 
- Kenaf/ Mesta/ Hibiscus/ Rosella is a hemp-like member of the hibiscus family. The cellulose of Kenaf which is extracted for the production of green fibres. It is known to be one of the greenest alternatives to paper making and has large commercial applicability. There is evidence that Kenaf was domesticated as far back as 5000 B.C. in Egypt.
- Sisal is a variety of hemp and is usually used to make floor coverings. It can be blended with cotton and wool and used in several applications including clothing.
- Jute is traditionally used to make rope and has a naturally coarse texture. The finer threads of jute are sometimes used to create imitation silk and it is being increasingly viewed as an alternative to wood-pulp paper.
- Sasawashi is a blend of Japanese paper and the Japanese kumazasa herb. It is a fabric that was introduced onto the fashion scene by the clothes designer Linda Loudermilk and is now made into many consumer products including towels. The drape of Sasawashi is very similar to Linen.
- Nettle fishing drag-nets were used in Britain up to post-medieval times. The fibre was used in the First World War as a substitute for cotton, to weave soldier’s uniforms. In recent times the nettle has made a come back and village communities in Nepal and India are weaving exquisite fashion accessories like bags and scarves for international markets.
- Ramie is a relative of Nettle and has been similarly used throughout history. A native of China, it is essentially a cloth fibre used as a substitute for cotton. It is also said to have anti-bacterial properties.
- Coconut Fibre or coirhas any number of uses. It is used to make rope and yarn, aquarium filters, car seat covers, flower pots, used as a soundproofing material, as mulch for plant growing, to provide heat insulation, to make brushes, bristles, mattresses, door mats, matting, rugs, hand knotted carpets.
- Banana Fibre is made from waste banana trees, and is a completely natural, extremely strong fibre. An Australian technology enabling this also ensures that the final product uses no chemicals, bleaches or glues. The product uses banana sap as glue. Since the product does not work on a pulping technique, it uses very little or no (compared to 55,000 litres of water for every tonne of pulp paper). In addition, the machinery uses very little horsepower so the production can easily utilise solar and wind energy. The product is primarily directed at creating a packaging product. It is grease-proof, water and fire resistant, and totally bio-degradable, meaning it can be fed to livestock or fish after use.
Highly Processed Natural Origin Fibres
This group of fabrics is bio-based rather than natural. They are most often types of rayon and use cellulose pulp of different kinds as raw materials. The differentiating factor between them and older synthetic fibres is that they are bio-based rather than petroleum-based and are therefore comparatively more environmentally friendly.The raw material for these products is usually grown in designated areas rather than plundering the environment. These products are also bio-degradable.
- Modal is a Beech tree based fibre that has a soft and smooth texture that is similar to cotton or silk.
- Lyocell/ Tencel is a cellulose based fabric from farmed trees. Tencel is the most recognised brand name of this fabric type and the trademark is held by Lenzing Fibres.
- Seacell is also a similar fibre made from seaweed and sea algae. It reputedly has therapeutic qualities.
Fibres from waste products
- Crab Shell Fibre -- Chitosan or Chitin as it is also known, is an amazing fibre made from discarded crab shells. This is most often made into medical bandages. This fibre helps the healing process and helps avoid the formation of scar tissue.
- Soy fibre is an extremely beautiful fibre that is hand or machine spun from leftover edible soy-bean protein. The fibre is soft and silky and can be bleached or dyed at will. Its natural colour is a lovely gold. Soy bean fibre has anti bacterial qualities and has proteins and minerals which apparently improve human health. It does not require chemical fertilizers and is therefore environmentally friendly as well. It is an ecologically friendly alternative to silk.
- Recycled Plastic Bottle Fibre -- Plastic waste is arguably the most visible environmental scourge of our time. So it with some relief that consumers have greeted the introduction of fibres made from recycled plastic bottles. Marks and Spencers, the well known British store launched its range of 100% recycled polyester garments made from plastic bottles in 2007. There is a whole range of children’s schoolwear and fleece wear in this range.
New products that offer blends of spandex and lycra like materials with eco-fibres like Modal, Lycell, Seacell and so on are also now available. Manufacturers are rethinking their production processes so as to minimise environmental risk and still provide consumers fashionable fits and fall. While these fabrics are not 100% environmentally safe, they are a step in the right direction.
International marketing of Eco Fibres
International Trade Fairs have started to showcase very many green fibres and there is an increasing interest in this segment.
Are Eco- Fibres really green?
- Since many Eco-fibres have remarkable environmental qualities, the processing of these fibres is often not something that is examined in much detail.
- Many of these fibres are processed using extremely harsh chemicals that leach into the soil and waterways and do a lot of damage to the environment.
- In addition to this, large areas are increasingly being cleared of food crops, forests and natural habitats to make way for the growing of these crops.
- Many of the processing methodologies are patented and there is not much known about them. They are compared to processes like those of the production of Rayon which is environmentally degrading. The process of Rayon production is known to use chemicals like sodium hydroxide and carbon disulfide. Both these are extremely corrosive and the latter causes disruptions in worker breathing and sleeping patterns. The former kills all aquatic life when it is released into water bodies and the aquifers.
- Inspite of all these issues, these fibres are far less damaging to people and the environment than conventional cotton and petroleum based synthetics.
- It therefore makes sense to continue to support these movement, insist on processes that are “closed-loop” in nature, and push for the increasing greening of technologies.
Consumer-end drawbacks to using Eco Fibre products
- Maintenance: The single largest issue with Eco-Fibres is maintenance. The downside to several novelty fabrics such as Qoperfina is that they contain copper that degenerates if exposed to acids, or chlorine bleaches. They must be hand washed with bio degradable detergents and no bleach.
- Reaction to heat: Certain eco-fibres don’t react well to heat application including ironing.
- Shape retention: Some fibres like bamboo tend to lose shape and stretch too much.
- Durability: Some reports state that eco-fibre products are not long lasting. The edges fray and the fabric ruches up after some sustained use. *Cost: Eco-fibres like bamboo and soy derivatives tend to be priced between 30% and 40% more than their cotton (non-organic) equivalents.
- Dyeing: Some eco-fibres do not take well to dyeing.
- Ecofibre Benefits
- Green Fibres and Textiles - from Denise Bird Woven Textiles
- Eco Fiber Clothing Making a meal of fashion: soybean fibre arrives.
- Organic Clothing Blogs
- Fibre Products - Overview
- Colour Grown Cotton, see Eco Fibres and Textiles and Colour Grown Cotton
- The complete story of silk Organic Raw Silk
- Silk noil Green Fibres and Textiles - from Denise Bird Woven Textiles.
- Alpaca wool Green Fibres and Textiles - from Denise Bird Woven Textiles.
- Organic wool Organic Wool Network.
- Designer clothes made of bamboo Designers Go Green With Sustainable Fabrics and How Green Are Bamboo Clothes?
- The history of Kenaf Kenaf. For more information about commercial Kenaf cultivation, see K.E.F.I..
- Jute, its uses and strengths What is Jute?
- Saswashi fabrics Designers Go Green With Sustainable Fabrics and Apartment Therapy.
- The history of nettle Fibres From The Earth.
- Making a meal of fashion: soybean fibre arrives.
- Greening of technology and 'closing the loop' How Green Are Bamboo Clothes?
- Dyeing of eco fibres How can I dye knit sheets made of 100% Modal fiber? and Knitter's Review.
- International Trade Fairs France - Buyers seek out sustainable fabrics.
- Marks and Spencers UK : M&S launches schoolwear range made from recycled plastic bottles.
- For more information on care instructions and descriptions tencel clothing see Tencel Clothing.
- Reaction to heat and shape maintenance of bamboo fibre clothes Eco Fibers on Blogspot.
- To know more about durability of some eco friendly fibres, see Bamboo Fiber Sheets.
- Maintainance of eco fibres Green Fibres and Textiles - from Denise Bird Woven Textiles.
- Crab shell fibres The Biodegradable Composite for Burn Wound Dressing.
- What is Modal?
- The Many Uses of the Coconut.
- Information on Ramie, see New Crops.