Since developing my interest in slow and sustainable fashion, I’ve come to realize how important the quality of the garment is, not just in the way it’s manufactured, but also in the fabric or the material used.
I bought a couple of high-quality cotton t-shirts and my first cashmere sweater, and I was impressed by the difference, compared to my old $8 cotton tees from fast fashion brands and some $15 acrylic sweaters I bought during a big online shopping spree the winter before.
A little later, I got interested in making my own clothes and… have you ever been into a fabric store? Holy moly, it’s such an experience!
Learning a little bit more about the different fabrics and how to use them made me even more conscious about the importance of picking the right ones for a sustainable, long-lasting wardrobe.
Fabric vs. Fiber
First things first, if I ask you about your favorite fabric, what are you going to say? Probably silk, linen, or cashmere.
These are not fabric, though! They’re a type of fiber. Fiber plus construction gives you a fabric.
Think about cotton. Cotton is the fiber that can make a super soft jersey for a high-quality t-shirt and also thick and resistant jeans.
Silk is the fiber that makes your fancy chiffon blouse as well as the more rustic-looking and feeling raw silk, also known as silk noil.
What makes a fabric different from the other is the fiber content and its quality, the construction (can be felting, weaving or knitting, and there are many different kinds of weaving and knitting) and the weight — if you have ever bought some linen fabric or even a linen garment, you may have seen something like “midweight linen 7.08oz/yd” to help you understand how thick that kind of linen is — which changes based on the thickness of the yarn of fiber used and the density from the type of construction.
The distinction between fiber and fabric may not seem so important right now, but it’s going to help you read this article without having an author who messes up the words fabric and fiber every paragraph.
And now you will look like an expert when you say that your favorite fabric is Egyptian cotton jersey or wool tweed.
Natural vs. Man-Made Fiber
I think that this distinction is pretty clear, but it also doesn’t always mean that natural is good and man-made is bad, so let’s go into more detail.
Natural fibers can be either plant-based:
Leather is not a fiber, but we could put it here as a fabric.
Man-made fibers can derive from synthetic polymers:
Or from natural polymers:
The Best Fibers For Your Capsule Wardrobe
What am I looking for when planning my capsule? I want the garments in there to be made of high-quality and biodegradable fiber, and of a long-lasting fabric or material.
Cotton is like the base of my minimalist wardrobe, from denim to t-shirts. Cotton is biodegradable, but the problem is that conventional cotton uses large amounts of pesticides and water, and production may even use child or forced labor.
For this reason, I prefer buying tees and denim from brands that are doing something good for the environment; if you can, organic cotton is the most sustainable way.
If you’re mostly looking for a high-quality, long-lasting cotton, Egyptian, Pima and Supima cotton denote traditionally luxurious and fine-quality cotton. When you try them, you’ll never be able to go back.
Garments: t-shirts, flannel shirts, and denim
Linen makes very breathable garments and the different thickness levels can create a more or less-structured shape.
It wrinkles easily, but I honestly think it’s a magnificent fiber for summer capsules.
Again, pesticides may be used to grow the plant, so be careful about the origin of the garment. Luckily, there are a lot of small brands who work very mindfully with their linen.
Garments: dresses, pants, and tanks — summer clothing
Hemp is highly sustainable since it has low water requirements and doesn’t need pesticides to thrive. A drawback is that it’s less durable than other fibers.
I honestly think it’s a very good alternative to cotton for a few tees in a wardrobe. It’s not super common, but I saw a few brands working with it and the result is amazing.
First thing first: where does wool come from?
It can come from sheep (as the high-quality merino wool), goats (as cashmere), alpacas, and camels.
It’s generally a fiber with a very low carbon and water footprint since it can be farmed without the need for chemicals or pesticides. Even in the process to make wool is chemical, the substances used can be captured and recycled.
But still, there are some drawbacks. Sometimes the chemicals are not captured, and end up polluting the environment; in countries like Australia and China, merino sheep are commonly subject to the practice called mulesing, where excess skin is removed (without pain relief) to control pests.
Cashmere wool, on the other hand, can only be farmed in a few regions of China and Mongolia, where over-farming threatens these fragile ecosystems and increases desertification.
What can we do? Choosing organic wool, certified Predator-Friendly (if produced in North America), artisanal hand-spun wool varieties, and alpaca since these are the most eco-friendly options.
Still, conventional wool is still one of the lowest impact fibers in terms of water, energy, and chemical intensity, and it is biodegradable.
The best choice, though, is wool that’s produced and processed in North America, Europe, Australia, or New Zealand where environmental regulations ensure that chemical waste is properly treated.
While I myself own a cashmere sweater (unfortunately I only recently learnt about this), the farming of cashmere goats is causing serious environmental issues. It may be better to avoid it and buy alpaca, which is high-quality as well.
Garments: blazers, sweaters, coats, and hats
Silk is one of the most beautiful fibers out there. It generally has a low environmental impact, but usually, pesticides and fertilizers (although far less than the amount used on cotton) are used on the mulberry plants to feed the worms.
Also, the production itself can be pretty polluting too. Everlane recently started a new Clean Silk collection that stands for a less polluting garment production: otherwise, look for wild (peace or tussah) silk or organic silk for the lowest environmental impact.
And even if dry cleaning is recommended on the label but you want to be more sustainable, just wash your silk garments in cold water and let them air dry. I do the same for my cashmere sweaters and I have never had issues.
Garments: occasion dresses, blouses and camisoles
Not really a fiber or a fabric, but a material often involved in our minimalist wardrobes.
When I used to be vegan, I was, of course, ditching all the leather for some more “ethical” choices, but I later realized that plastic is not sustainable at all.
Still, not all leather is equal. Every time I’m looking for a new pair of shoes, a new bag or a leather jacket, my research starts with “vegetable tanned”. This is the traditional, most environment-friendly method to treat leather. It’s not that easy to find, especially because some brands don’t specify the term veg-tanned on their website, but it is possible to find.
I was even surprised when I discovered that a pretty famous shoe brand uses leather that comes from the food industry – basically, what would otherwise be wasted – for all of its products, packaging from 100% recycled materials and soy ink, and pays attention to the tanning process. Any idea? Dr. Martens!
Another, even better alternative, is to buy recycled leather. It can be from second-hand stores or from brands like Deadwood, which makes brand new leather jackets using recycled leather and recycled PET for the lining. Kinda amazing, right? And leather is such a durable material, way more durable than fake leather.
Garments: leather jackets, shoes, and bags
Tencel, Cupro, Modal and Lyocell
These are man-made fibers, but NOT synthetics. Synthetics are made from petroleum aka plastic. Ew.
In the case of these, cellulose fibers (can be wood, cotton, bamboo, etc.) are chemically treated to create a smooth, silky fabric. They are produced in a ‘closed loop’ which means the chemicals used can be extracted afterwards, and the water reused.
For this reason, they have a lower environmental impact of other similar products. Viscose and rayon, even if coming from the same kind of cellulose fiber, don’t have a closed loop production.
These kind of fibers are amazing because they’re often wrinkle-proof, very soft, and have a beautiful drape.
Garments: camisoles, dusters, dresses
As you can see, I prefer to stick with natural, biodegradable fibers for my clothes. Not only are they generally more sustainable, but they’re often the most durable. My fake leather jacket lasted two years, a few poly-acrylic blend sweaters I bought from a fast fashion brand a couple of years ago became horrible just in a few months, and I could go on and on.
As you may already know, Everlane started its battle against plastic — yay! — making new outwear clothing items made of recycled plastic.
It’s not the only one though — Girlfriend Collective makes leggings and tops using recycled bottles as well as Patagonia, Aday, Rothy’s and many other brands are trying to find a way to reuse the giant amount of plastic we produced in the last 50 years.
So what about this kind of fiber? Well, I’m very positive about using recycled polyester, since it’s a wonderful way to find a semi-solution to a severe problem we’re experiencing in our lives. I say “semi-” because it’s still plastic, and we still have to be careful with items we buy made of recycled polyester.
Using them as long as we can and taking them to a clothing recycling program — not donation — is the best thing we can do for our planet.
Garments: activewear, outwear
I decided to write this post after watching a video on YouTube of a friend who talks about slow fashion. She was showing her new (expensive) Sezane cardigan.
I thought, “I love that cardigan! I need to put it on my wish list!” until I realized that this cool jumper is made of 26% polyamide.
So don’t be fooled: slow fashion brands don’t always use sustainable contents in their garments. Always check the labels if you care about fiber content.
And if you really need a new coat and you can’t find one with perfect contents, don’t feel guilty if there’s some polyamide combined with that 75% wool. Hopefully, you will use that coat for a long time.
A minimalist wardrobe has to be a lot of things, but it doesn’t have to be stressful!