RetroGlam Winter Break Reading: Synthetic and Natural Fibers

I’ve been on the sidelines of many exchanges at forums and blog postings regarding the subject of which type of fabric is better: synthetic or natural.

It’s so easy to say that natural fibers are more eco-friendly because they are derived from natural sources. And it’s even easier to say all synthetic fibers are so bad because they create so much pollution during their manufacturing phase.

I will admit that natural fibers have a superiority in terms of beauty, drape and color. This was driven home to me two years ago when I made a blouse in polyester crepe back satin. I was enchanted by the sugar pink color that gleamed on one side and had a muted, crepey texture on the reverse side. And the price had me on Cloud 9. It was about $7.99 a yard. Everything went well until I photographed the almost finished blouse on my size 4 dress form. In the photos it was clear that the light bounced off the fabric in a most unflattering way. Natural silk has a lovely glow that flatters the complexion and adds such a feminine appeal when the garment has flowing lines. The poly crepe back satin had none of those qualities. The photos showed me how much the light glared off the fabric and how clumsily the gathered Bishops skeeves looked. The tucked in blouse was not soft and looked too full once it was tucked into the pencil skirt. The overall effect was that the Size 4 dress form looked dowdy and top heavy.

Natural fibers, though, have also revealed their drawbacks to me. I was Maid of Honor for one wedding party where I made my own dress out of Chinese jacquard silk. I underlined the dress in pink china silk and the effect was stunning. When I passed the gown on to an acquaintance of mine she gave the dress an entirely new look with accessories. She was slightly more shapely than I am and the dress looked even better on her. But we both shared the same feelings about natural silk: it wrinkles easily, perspiration stains do not come out unless the dry cleaner really knows how to do it carefully, and neither one of us wanted to wear underarm shields to preserve the delicate fibers from underarm staining.

For some people synthetics are nothing but trouble due to sensitive skin issues or allergies. I can understand their need for comfort and the need to avoid such contact at all cost. Except in my case it’s the reverse! Natural fibers like mohair and cashmere make me itch no end. When I was in design school, I broke out in a terrible rash during our tailored jacket project. The instructor had insisted we all buy Armo Hair Canvas so that our lapels and collars would have a supple and superior form of support. You can imagine, perhaps, how embarrassed I was during the cutting of the canvas when my hands and arms started getting red and I was scratching no end. It turns out that the canvas had goat hair in it which explained my reaction. I found a suitable canvas made with synthetics that worked out just as well.

One of the many beneficial experiences I had at the French Fashion Academy was the immersion in a classroom environment that mimicked a designer studio. Small groups of students worked on projects suited to their skills level and often each student made up their project in a completely different fabric from the other students. We had a chance to see synthetics and natural fiber fabrics at work in a wide variety of styles.

The teachers loved when we could use high quality natural fiber fabrics but there was never any denigration made of the student who used synthetics. The only time an instructor might discourage a student from using any kind of fabric was if it was cheaply made or inappropriate for the style. I used many poly crepes and rayons in addition to silks, cottons and wool blends. I think it was a very good experience to see all those types of fabrics and the results they created.

Sewing on a consistent basis brings all the knowledge into the foreground. There is a sensibility and eye that develops over time that enables the dressmaker to assess what will work and what won’t. I’ve lost that to a certain degree since I had such a long break in sewing for full-scale women’s clothing.

I plan to use more synthetics and blends as time goes by because they fit better into my budget. I do love cottons and silks but I have to be realistic about how much I can spend on each project, especially since I’m saving to move into a new apartment in the future.

I’ve begun reading some very interesting articles that give a balanced view on the pros and cons of natural and synthetic fibers. They also present how each type, both natural and synthetic, has a negative impact on the environment. For example, cotton requires the use of a large amount of pesticides while polyester type synthetics contribute to air pollution during their manufacture.

Innovative programs for the recycling of synthetic fibers are in progress in countries like Japan. The goal should be for such programs to become part of the recycling programs in other countries where they can join the current efforts to recycle paper, glass and plastic.

These articles can be downloaded and saved to file. I think they form a valuable contribution to the Dressmaker’s Library since knowledge of textiles is a background factor in the making of a successful garment.

The links are posted below each screen shot of the article.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Synthetics vs. Natural Fibers

Green Couture: Synthetic fibres are back in fashion after an ecological makeover.

Synthetic Fabric vs. Natural Fabric