Back to nature: wool and bast fibre fabrics.
Before the advent of the man-made petro-chemical synthetic fibres from the 1930s onwards, natural fibre textiles dominated the textile scene. How times have changed. The worldwide market by fiber type and fabric composition is now driven by the oil-based synthetics, in particular polyester, amassing 32 million tons annual consumption in 2007 compared to just 1 million tonnes of natural wool (source: Chemical Fibers International Yearbook 2008). As we all know, the oil which provides the feedstock for polyester, nylon, polypropylene and other synthetics is not just a finite resource, but creates a finished textile which is non-degradable and its volume in landfill is incredibly high. Now, though, would it be too optimistic to believe that we are on the verge of a tipping point which is set to spark a return to natural textiles? Two "movements" suggest we might be.
First, the Campaign for Wool - launched last year with the ingenious PR stunt which saw sheep grazing on a grassed Savile Row in Central London - is helping to up the profile of wool on the high street and make it the sustainable fibre of choice. The Campaign has been set by HRH The Prince of Wales who has built support from all industry sectors and - crucially - has the backing of high profile high profile high street retailers and fashion designers. During Wool Week last month, Harrods, Harvey Nichols, Jigsaw and John Lewis all put on stunning in store displays to flag up this natural choice which in the UK at least is an integral part of our farming landscape and industrial heritage. Its high performance attributes include superior appearance retention, natural breathability and inherent flame retardancy.
Second, a move pioneered by Camira to use naturally occurring bast fibres from harvested plants which can make the perfect accompaniment for wool blends. In bast fibre plants the textile is found within the stem of the plant just inside the outer bark. Examples include flax, jute, ramie, hemp and even the common stinging nettle. As with wool, these natural materials have been used for thousands of years, long before the advent of synthetics, but competence in their cultivation and manufacture has largely been lost due to the incessant rise in cotton and polyester consumption. UK textile manufacturer Camira therefore worked with bast fiber research specialist De Montfort University on a ground breaking UK government funded project to design, develop and commercialise an innovative new sustainable fabric made from wool and nettles. Launched three years ago, using nettles grown commercially for the first time on UK farms, the resulting "Sting" fabric has not just fired the public imagination, but become the fore-runner to a new collection of wool-bast fibre fabrics. Next up is Hemp, a new fabric which is a blend of 60% wool and 40% hemp derived from crops grown on Huit Farm in Leicestershire. And Camira have also produced a wool-recycled jute fabric for Starbucks coffee shops, on behalf of New Zealand design consultancy The Formary, using jute from Starbucks' waste hessian coffee sacks which supply their stores worldwide. A key advantage of all these wool-bast fibre fabrics is that they meet the main UK contract flammability standard without requiring any chemical post-treatment.
At some point the oil for synthetics will run out, or it will become so precious for fuel and energy that it won't be wasted on manufacturing man-made fibre types. The good news is that there are already natural alternatives and in the future they are bound to hold their own once again.