Material for making clothes

How to Source Fabrics the Right Way

As a new designer and business owner, balancing creative direction, production and business procedures can be overwhelming, especially when it comes time to source fabrics for your line. That’s why we’ve created this guide to help you better understand the do’s and don’ts of sourcing fabrics.

Creating a clothing line is so much more than a hobby; it’s a business. Whether your line is a personal project or the next Balenciaga, attention to detail is paramount every step of the way. From tech packs to licensing and everything in between, there’s a lot that goes into a clothing line behind the scenes. Download the low/no minimum fabric & trim directory we use with all of our clients to help give them a head start.

As a new fashion designer, efficiency at ever turn can save you a lot of time and money. This is especially true of sourcing, which can be a complex process with multiple variables including vendors, shipping, timelines, and more; the materials you use can make or break your line, so as difficult as it might be, it’s important to find suppliers that meet your needs.

Source Fabrics the Right Way

The fabric you choose is an essential part of your collection. It influences the way your garment looks, feels, falls, and flows. While it’s easy to tell the difference between moleskin and wool, sourcing your materials isn’t always black and white. Here are a few important questions you should ask when finding suppliers and materials for your line:

Designer side

Sourcing starts with finding out your needs as a designer. Without an understanding of what you need, it’s nearly impossible to find the right materials and supplier for your line. Here are a few questions you should ask before you decide on a supplier:

What’s the material for?

At this point, you’ve probably completed your tech pack and have an idea of what materials you need for your clothing line. To source your materials efficiently, you’ll need to determine the exact components that are going to be used, starting with:

  • What season is your line designed for? Are you working on an F/W line or creating a lighter collection for spring/summer? This will help you decide on the fabrics and materials you’ll need.
  • What is the purpose of your collection? Whether it’s a small-scale collection for retail or a runway line for a fashion show, the purpose of your collection helps determine things like functionality, rigidity, and durability, which are essential to the proper execution of your design.
  • What type of garment are you creating? Consider what type of garment you’re making before determining the right fabric. Undergarments are often made with breathable fabrics like cotton or even modal which have high absorption. While Polyester fabrics don’t have great breathability, they are often wrinkle much less than natural fibers making them great for many contemporary items that lay loosely on the body. Understanding each fabric and it’s properties in relationship to the garment you’re making allows you to ensure you’re picking the right material for the job.

What’s the plan?

Once you’ve decided on the materials you need, you should establish a plan for the execution. Doing so will allow you to streamline your operation, resulting in a more efficient and affordable execution of your collection.

  • How are you going to use the materials? Whether you’re ordering 5 square feet for trim or 500 square feet for the bulk of your design, you should have a plan for how you’re going to use all of the material to avoid any waste.
  • Are you going to dye/treat the materials? Many suppliers offer pre-treated or dyed materials, but what if they don’t have the finish you’re looking for? It’s important to decide whether or not you’re going to alter your materials as some suppliers may be able to do it for you.
  • How much do you need? Determining how much material you’re going to need can help you narrow down your choices in the beginning and save you time and money in the long run. More fabric will bring down the price, but you risk extra inventory. It’s important to know how much you need so that you can confirm that a supplier is able to fulfill your order.

Here are the top 7 questions you should ask fabric vendors:

1. Lead Times or In stock fabrics available?

2. MOQ’s – Minimum order quantity (Per Color)

3. Price per yard (production and sample pricing)

4. Cuttable width (58″/60″is standard)

5. Weight (GSM)

6. Inventory available and frequency of purchasing

7. Payment terms (COD,Net 30 etc.)

Supplier side

Now that you’ve figured out what you need from a design perspective, it’s time to find a supplier that can meet your needs. This can be tough since many suppliers have very high minimum order quantities, which isn’t ideal if you’re working on a small collection. Here are a few questions you can ask to hone in on the perfect supplier.

Where are you looking?

Suppliers specialize in different fabrics and materials. If you’re looking for cotton, it’s common knowledge that Egypt and Peruvian suppliers are some of the best due to their long staple cotton, whereas New Zealand is home to some of the best merino wool in the world. It’s important to choose a supplier that stocks the materials you need and is able to deliver when it comes time to produce your line. You don’t want to order fabric for your samples only to be told that the supplier doesn’t have any more for production after you’ve already taken orders. The closer you get to the source, the more affordable your materials will be, But the higher your order quantity will have to be. If you’re just getting started Here are a few possible suppliers you may want to consider:

  • Agents/sales reps: Agents have access to networks of suppliers, and can help you source materials and producers for a fee. This is usually the most expensive option, and you may be required to place a large order.
  • Trade shows: Trade shows allow you to develop personal relationships with suppliers, and give you the opportunity to view their products up close.
  • Online: Shopping online for materials can be hit or miss, but it’s possible to find amazing materials without even leaving your couch. Just make sure that you know exactly what you are ordering.
  • Converter: A company that buys materials directly from fabric mills, then treats or alters them into a full line of finished fabrics. They are a great choice for trendy and “in” materials, and often have low minimum order sizes.
  • Jobber: Jobbers buy large quantities fabric from mills, converters, and design businesses, then resell them to smaller design companies and manufacturers at wholesale prices. This allows for lower minimums but a constantly rotating stock.
  • Mills: Most mills and larger suppliers don’t have website or customer-facing contact information since they usually deal with businesses. If you manage to touch base with a mill with the materials you need, be prepared to make a large order.
  • Full-Service Development Shop: Full-service development shops (like Indie Source) have established relationships with different suppliers and can cut down on the time needed to source the best fabrics for you. Their consultative approach won’t be as cheap as doing it yourself unless you factor in the time saved and stress avoided.

There’s a lot to sourcing fabrics, and it’s just one part of the development process. Download the low/no minimum fabric & trim directory we use with all of our clients to help give them a head start.

Cotton makes up a third of fibre consumption in the textile industry, according to a global apparel fibre consumption report (pdf) published in 2013. The cotton production industry is labour intensive and involves a lot of sweat, chemicals and fresh water.

Could a number of innovations from natural sources and raw materials compete with the unsustainable product of the cotton plant?

Banana stems

Photograph: Offset Warehouse

Around a billion tonnes of banana plant stems are wasted each year, despite research indicating that it would only take 37kg of stems to produce a kilogram of fibre. In 2012, the Philippine Textile Research Institute concluded that banana plantations in the Philippines alone can generate over 300,000 tonnes of fibre.

Eco-textile company Offset Warehouse recognises the banana’s potential and currently partners with an NGO in Nepal to ensure banana fabric production supports the artisan sector by relying on local skills, and that workers are paid fairly and operate in safe conditions.

The fabric is claimed to be nearly carbon neutral and its soft texture has been likened to hemp and bamboo. Offset Warehouse’s founder Charlie Ross says the material is perfect for jackets, skirts and trousers.

Pineapple leaves

Photograph: Ananas Anam

Frustrated by the heavy use of chemicals in the leather tanning process, Carmen Hijosa, founder of Ananas Anam, developed Piñatex as an alternative to it and petroleum-based textiles.

“The greatest thing about Piñatex is probably that it’s made of leaf fibres … a byproduct of the pineapple harvest,” says Jaume Granja, a member of the Ananas Anam team, referring to the fact leaves are usually left to rot in the ground. “Our leaves do not need any additional land, water or fertilisers to grow.”

Making the material also brings benefits to the farming communities. The industrial process used to create Piñatex produces biomass, which can be converted into a fertiliser that farmers can spread into their soil to grow the next pineapple harvest. The material, which has similar appearance to canvas, is also biodegradable; Hijosa and her colleagues are working on a way to ensure that the coating is sustainable and toxic-free.

It’s likely to be some time before the material (note: Piñatex is different from piña, where fibres are combined with silk or polyester) will be found in shops, but initial prototypes show that, just like leather, it can be used to manufacture goods including shoes and handbags. The wait might be worth it – at £18 per metre, it would be roughly 40% cheaper than good quality leather, which can be priced at around £30.

Coconut husks

Photograph: Mohammed Anwarul Kabir Choudhury/Alamy

The humble coconut palm is often referred to as the ‘tree of life’, but its value goes beyond its meat, milk and water. The fruit’s husks have fibrous qualities. A thousand coconuts can produce 10kg of fibre, and there’s usually a harvest every 30-45 days.

Outdoor clothing companies Tog 24 and North Face are two brands adopting cocona – a textile operating under the name 37.5 Technology that is produced from a combination of coconut shells and volcanic materials – and becoming less reliant on synthetic materials as a result. For instance, Tog 24 jacket, Siren, is 55% polyester and 45% cocona. A spokesperson for 37.5 Technology says that the material is a particularly good choice for sportswear as it’s designed to improve performance.

Fibres from husks can also be turned into biowaste-based charcoal to be used by farmers as an organic fertiliser, as has previously happened in the Maldives. This could help improve soil quality, reduce pesticides and ensure that any coconut inspired fashion supply chain is circular.

And one for a dystopian future – genetically modified strawberry plants

Strawberry lace Photograph: Carole Collet

Designer and researcher Carole Collet, who set up the MA Textile Futures course at Central Saint Martins, has taken a Wonkalian approach to the concept of biomimicry, where nature and technology work in harmony to provide ecologically beneficial solutions. Her Biolace project imagines a future where plants are mini factories responsible for both food and textile production.

The project focuses on the possibilities of developing systems where plants can be genetically modified. For instance, a strawberry plant could eventually grow lace from its roots, as well as fruit. The lace could then be used to weave a dress.

A system where clothes could be manufactured using only the water and sunlight a plant needs to grow, and generating zero waste, would have big environmental benefits. Are we set to see a world where everyone has an engineered plant on a windowsill at home ready to meet our needs?

Growing our own textiles may be a nice antidote to fast fashion, but those slightly disturbed by the thought of it can rest easy. “They are speculative propositions of what we could do with biotechnology, should we choose to,” explains Collet. “But we are at least 20 years away from being able to do so.”

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Fibre is the starting point of the textile chain. First of all, fibre is obtained from the source, which is then spun into yarn. Yarn is then woven or knitted into fabric. Fibres can be classified into 2 main categories: natural and synthetic. Natural fibres are obtained from natural sources such as animals and plants, while those which are not obtained from natural sources are called synthetic fibres. This article mainly aims at studying plant and animal fibres – the traditional sources as well as the recently developed ones.

The following are some of the popular fibres used in the textile industry:

1) Cotton: Cotton fibre is obtained from the cotton plant. It is one of the traditional fibres used in the textile industry. It is one of the most preferable fibres because the cloth made from it is durable, at the same time having a good drape. Moreover, it is moisture-absorbent and smooth to the touch. One of the other qualities of cotton fabric is that it takes time to dry. It also creases easily, requiring regular ironing.

2) Linen: Linen fabric is obtained from the flax plant. It is a fibre that has been used in the textile industry since ages. The properties of linen fabric are very much similar to cotton fabric. Like cotton, linen fabric is also highly moisture-absorbent and durable. It creases easily and requires ironing. However, it is stiffer as compared to cotton. Linen is usually used in the manufacture of summer clothes and home linen.

3) Jute: Jute is a natural fibre that has been used in the textile industry since centuries. It is obtained from the jute plant and is popularly known as Golden fibre on account of the golden sheen that it possesses. On account of its high strength, it is perfect for use in packaging material. Jute is sometimes blended with other fabrics or even used individually in the production of apparel. However, it does not have as good a drape as cotton and creases easily. Bangladesh in India is one of the major sources of jute in India.

4) Silk: Silk, again, is a natural fibre used in the textile industry since ages. It is obtained from silk worms. The most popular kind of silk is obtained from the mulberry silk worm. The silk that is obtained from other varieties of silk worms is called wild silk. China, India, Nepal and Europe have been traditional producers of good quality silk on a large scale. Silk fibre has a unique sheen. It is very smooth to the touch, at the same time being strong. These qualities made it the fabric of choice for sarees and dress materials. Apart from this, silk is also used for nightwear, bed linen, underwear as well as home furnishings.

5) Wool: Wool is a fibre that has traditionally been used in the textile industry, commonly obtained from sheep. Wool fabric is soft to the touch and provides warmth to the weather, due to which it is the preferred choice for winter apparel. Wool has other features such as elasticity and good drape. Moreover, it can be easily dyed in different colors, thus making it suitable for use in fashionable winter apparel.

The common type of wool used for the production of apparel is Merino wool, obtained from the Merino sheep. Merino wool is the softest wool in the world.

The wool industry in the world is largely spread out in Australia, China and New Zealand. Australia contributes nearly 25% of the world’s wool production.

6) Corn fibre: Corn fibre is a comparatively new innovation in the textile industry. Cargill Inc. and The Dow Chemicals joined together to form Cargill Dow Polymers LLC, which developed corn fibre.

The fabric made from corn fibre is easy to care for, cheap and very comfortable to wear. Moreover, it is stain-resistant and UV resistant. This fabric can be used for several applications such as readymade apparel, diapers, bedding, carpets and upholstery. Moreover, the production of this fabric requires the use of less fuel, and is hence environment-friendly as well.

7) Spider silk: Silk is commonly obtained from silkworms. However, in recent times, scientists have come up with an innovation wherein silk is produced from spiders. As opposed to silkworms, spiders produce silk at normal temperature, due to which the process is environment-friendly as well. Spider silk is useful for the production of light-weight apparel.

8) Coir fibre: Coir fibre is a natural fibre that is obtained from the coconut tree. Coir fibre is thick and strong and is hence ideal for use in rugs, sacks and brushes. If the coir is harvested while the coconuts are tender, the fibre is white in color; however, it is brown-colored if harvested on maturity. The coir industry in India is largely concentrated in Kerala. Apart from India, Sri Lanka is a major producer of coir fibre.

9) Yak fibre: The yak is an animal that is largely found in the Himalayas in India and Tibet. The hair of the yak is very useful in the production of warm clothes, mats and sacks. This is because of its qualities such as warmth and strength. Yak fibre is usually found in black and piebald. In rare cases, white yak hair is also obtained. This fibre has been used in the textile industry since long.

When a piece of clothing wears out or goes out of fashion, it often gets tossed in the trash; clothes made up 9 percent of all municipal solid waste produced in the U.S. in 2014, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

And the impact of what we wear goes well beyond clogged landfills. The European Commission (pdf) has also linked modern clothing industry practices—often described as “fast fashion,” due to the speed and volume at which garments are produced and marketed—to high energy and water use, significant greenhouse gas emissions and water pollution.

Now a small but growing group of innovators is turning to the genius of nature in an attempt to put wastefulness and pollution in the apparel industry out of fashion, right at the source: They are using live organisms to grow pieces of biodegradable textiles, creating environmentally friendly materials in the laboratory—and are even producing some near-complete items without the need for factory assembly.

Many of today’s garments are woven from plastic-based acrylic, nylon or polyester threads, and cut and sewn in factories. All such materials are chemically produced and nonbiodegradable. But these researchers think some of tomorrow’s apparel could potentially be bioengineered—that is, made from living bacteria, algae, yeast, animal cells or fungi—which would break down into nontoxic substances when eventually thrown away. Such methods could reduce waste and pollution, says Theanne Schiros, assistant professor in the math and science department at Fashion Institute of Technology (F.I.T.) in New York City. Besides being biodegradable, another major benefit, she says, is that many of the organisms involved can be grown to fit molds—producing the precise amount of textile needed to create an article of clothing without generating excess material to discard. “In materials science we are now finding more inspiration in nature,” she says. “You look to nature for rapidly generating organisms that are abundant.”

Drying organic silk dyed with bacteria. Credit: Laura Luchtman & Ilfa Siebenhaar

Schiros’s organism of choice is algae. With it, she and a team of F.I.T. students and faculty have created a yarnlike fiber that can be dyed with nonchemical pigments such as crushed insect shells and knitted into apparel. There are three steps in making alga-based yarn, Schiros says: First, a sugar called alginate is derived from kelp—a multicellular algal seaweed—and powdered. Next the alginate powder is turned into a water-based gel, to which plant-based color (such as carrot juice) is added. Finally, the gel is extruded into long strands of fiber that can be woven into a fabric.

Schiros says her experiments show alga-based fabric holds considerable promise as a marketable bioengineered clothing material because it is strong and flexible, two properties essential for mass-market apparel. Materials scientists in China have noted that alga-based fibers are naturally fire-resistant, potentially reducing the need for adding toxic flame retardants to clothing. Also, alga biodegrades faster than cotton—the most common natural clothing fiber—and growing it does not require pesticides or large areas of land. Schiros has used her fiber to knit items including a tank top she wore while delivering a TED Talk on sustainable fashion this year. After winning the 2016 BioDesign Challenge for her work with alga-based textiles with her F.I.T. colleague Asta Skocir, Schiros co-founded a company called Algiknit, which aims to one day produce alga-based apparel on a commercial scale.

Schiros has also explored using bacteria to grow clothing materials; in 2017 some of her students grew a baby-size pair of moccasins from a liquid bacteria culture, fungi and compostable waste. The bacteria grew into a fibrous mat of “bio-leather” that eventually filled a shoe-shaped mold to form a complete piece of footwear, which the students stitched together with fibers pulled from discarded pineapple tops obtained from a smoothie shop down the street. Later they made dyes from avocado seeds and indigo leaves to color the shoes, and embedded carrot seeds in them before drying them. According to Schiros, “This method eliminates waste right at the production phase.” It also reduces textile scraps, she notes, adding that because the shoes are biodegradable and contain seeds “you can plant them right in the ground when your baby outgrows them to start cultivating their next pair of shoes.” Her students (who called themselves “Team #GROWAPAIR”) debuted their creation at last year’s Biodesign Challenge Summit, a bioengineering competition for college students held at MoMA—The Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

Silk textile exposed to S. Coelicolor bacteria for 34 days. Credit: IMMATTERS Studio

Another fast fashion environmental problem that bioengineering could address is dyes, Schiros says. Commercial textile dying uses approximately 3,500 human-made chemicals, including lead- and petroleum-based substances, according to the Swedish Chemicals Agency (pdf). Of these, the agency was able to detect 2,400 in finished clothing products. Five percent of the chemicals found are potentially hazardous to the environment and 10 percent of the 2,400 chemicals found in finished clothes may harm human health, the agency says. Making these coloring agents adhere to fabric also often involves using poisonous solvents, fixing agents, salts and large quantities of water. Lab animals exposed to some of these dyes exhibit adverse health effects, including allergic reactions as well as reproductive and growth problems (pdf). The EPA has declared one commonly used clothing dye ingredient, benzidine, and its derivatives to be “reasonably anticipated to be human carcinogens.” Dyes that contain it, along with other so-called “azo” dyes, are banned from import by the European Union. Such chemicals may leach from clothing into skin and are also found in textile dye factories’ wastewater—which is often dumped directly into the environment without treatment.

Some researchers think bacteria might also help mitigate the dye problem. Innovators including Cecilia Raspanti, co-founder of TextileLab Amsterdam; Laura Luchtman, owner of textile and design studio Kukka; and Natsai Audrey Chieza, founder of biodesign lab and creative research agency Faber Futures are using naturally pigmented bacteria to dye natural and bioengineered textiles. Luchtman says her process involves autoclaving a textile to prevent contamination, then pouring a liquid medium filled with bacterial nutrients over the textile in a container. Next she exposes the soaked textile to bacteria and leaves it in a climate-controlled chamber for three days. Finally she sterilizes the textile again, rinses it with a gentle laundry detergent to wash out the smell of the bacterial medium, then lets it dry. Bacterial dyes can be applied in a variety of colors and patterns, are nontoxic and require at least 20 percent less water, Chieza says.

But significant challenges remain in using such techniques to replace both textiles woven with nonbiodgradable human-made fibers and dyes made from problematic chemicals. Producing bioengineered materials durable enough to stand up to normal wear and tear is a major hurdle, Schiros says. She has tried to overcome this by treating some of her textiles with indigenous preserving techniques—such as tanning with smoke instead of chemicals—which she says lend her bio-leather strength and water resistance.

These ecologically benign textiles are so far limited mostly to the realms of the laboratory, science competitions and high-fashion runways. But researchers who promote them say it is just a matter of time before such innovations are rolled out in some form for consumer markets. What needs to be tackled first, Chieza says, is making bioengineered apparel comparable in cost to conventional clothing. For example, Luchtman sells bacterial-dyed silk scarves for $139 whereas a similar silk scarf dyed conventionally can be purchased for as little as $10. “Similar to the debate around renewable energy, cost-competiveness will not only rely on solid science and a technology that works—it will need to be enabled through government subsidies and a mental switch towards investing in R&D,” Chieza says.

Melik Demirel, director of the Center for Research on Advanced Fiber Technologies (CRAFT) and a professor of engineering at The Pennsylvania State University, agrees that getting biodesigned clothing into consumer markets may take some time. But if the production processes can be scaled, he says, the benefits would outweigh the challenges. “Protein- or sugar-based fibers are naturally biodegradable, and nature knows how to recycle them,” he notes.

Also, textiles could be reused before being sent to a composting facility to biodegrade, designers who advocate this research say. Repairing or repurposing textiles and dyes over and over again, to delay making them into waste, is a primary principle guiding production of bio-based textiles and the nonchemical dyes used to color them.

Suzanne Lee—who founded the annual biodesign summit Biofabricate as well as a London-based bio-design consultancy firm called Biocouture—emphasizes the importance of this kind of cyclical thinking as a path toward scalability and success for these new materials. “If fast fashion is to persist, the materials that are used must begin to be able to be cycled back into the raw material textile streams that feed that segment of fashion,” Lee says. “They shouldn’t be destined to a landfill during the design process; it’s on all of us, especially designers, to strive for this change.”

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Cotton is a household staple. It makes up the majority of clothes in anyone’s closet, and for good reason. Cotton is cheap, widely available, and relatively comfortable. It can be made into a wide variety of products.

Manufacturers use cotton for its obvious benefits, but there is a “darker” side to this fabric. In fact, environmentalists are increasingly concerned about the role cotton is playing in the planet’s demise. As it turns out, growing cotton takes up quite a few resources.

But is there a practical alternative?

Hemp. Proponents of hemp claim that this plant could solve quite a few environmental problems. Sadly, the plant’s benefits and uses have gone largely unnoticed for generations. Now that the 2018 Farm Bill has legalized hemp throughout the United States, however, it could be time to rethink our fashion choices.

In today’s article, we look at the hemp vs. cotton debate to find out whether a full-on switch would indeed be beneficial – or even practical.

Hemp vs. Cotton: A Brief History

To understand the hemp vs cotton debate, you need to understand the contested history between these two textile crops. Both have a longstanding place in human history.

Hemp has been around for millennia. It grows all over the planet, and it didn’t take long for ancient civilizations to realize its bountiful uses. Hemp is a sturdy, hardy plant. Its stalks are fibrous and thick, allowing it to be used in construction. The seeds are also highly nutritious, which is why many modern people use hemp seeds as part of the paleo diet and other nutrition plans.

Experts estimate that hemp has been in usage since around 8,000 B.C. This is long before humans were cultivating plants themselves, and long before the invention of the technologies required to make clothes. Nevertheless, hemp stuck around with humanity, and we began to use it in different ways.

A truly age-old fabric…

In fact, the earliest plant used for textiles was probably hemp. Remnants of hemp fabric have been discovered at numerous archaeological sites. Archaeologists assume that hemp could have had several uses for ancient groups, and hemp clothing was likely one of them. Hemp is also useful for paper production, and was used in cultures like ancient Egypt to produce everything from hemp paper to rope material.

Hemp spread throughout Europe, and eventually followed the Europeans to North America. In the New World, hemp use quickly declined. Unfortunately, hemp is a species of cannabis and became outlawed in the 20th century with the criminalization of the marijuana plant. Despite not being psychoactive, hemp too suffered prohibition.

The criminalization of marijuana had several causes. It was supported by the cotton and logging industries, for quite obvious reasons. As hemp’s usage died out, cotton companies swooped in to “save the day” with cotton clothing.

But if both hemp and cotton can make clothing, is there any reason to opt for one over the other?

Pros & Cons of Hemp Clothing

As with everything in the world, there are pros and cons to hemp textiles. To make hemp clothing, manufacturers use the durable hemp fibers from the stalks and leaves of the plant. The qualities of these fibers dictate the characteristics of the final material, which can feel quite different from the cotton we are used to.

One of the significant differences between hemp cloth and cotton is that hemp clothes tend to be made from, well… just hemp. These days, cotton tends to be mixed with various synthetic fibers and plastics, which may contribute to microplastic pollution in the air we breathe. On the other hand, 100% hemp clothing is not hard to come by, meaning you know exactly what is in your outfit.

Let’s take a look at some of the other pros and cons of hemp clothing.

Hemp Clothing Pros

1. Highly durable: Hemp fabric is durable – more so than cotton. It is less likely to succumb to wear and tear over time, meaning less consumerism over the long term.

2. Becomes softer (and more comfortable) over time: With more use and washes, hemp actually grows softer and comfier without losing much of its integrity as a fabric. The same is true for cotton, but rather than maintaining its integrity, it tends to thin out and start falling apart.

3. Highly breathable: Hemp is said to be up to four times more absorbent than cotton. It wicks moisture away from the skin, keeping you from feeling sweaty and clammy. Also, the antibacterial properties might prevent body odor – a major benefit for obvious reasons!

4. Holds color: The absorbent qualities of hemp means that it holds color better than cotton. While cotton clothes fade over time, hemp will retain its original color for more or less the life of the fabric.

5. Environmentally friendly: Hemp grows densely, saving space in cultivation. One acre of hemp can produce 1500 pounds of fiber – three times the amount that cotton produces in the same area. Hemp can also reduce soil pollution as a bio-accumulator, and it uses drastically less water than cotton.

Hemp Clothing Cons

1. Expense: At the moment, the niche place hemp has in the market means it is more expensive than cotton clothing. It is often ‘organic,’ and sadly, this label bears a higher price tag.

2. Creasing: The organic nature of hemp clothing means that these clothes usually aren’t supplemented with polyester fabric reinforcement. As a result, they can crease a lot. Over time, creases can alter the shape of the garment.

Growing Hemp vs. Growing Cotton

Earlier, we mentioned that growing industrial hemp could be sustainable. Hemp has an absurd number of uses, including textiles, nutrition, and construction. As a result, a field of hemp can be harvested for a variety of purposes. Different parts of the hemp plant can be utilized in different industries, meaning virtually 100% of the plant is put to use. Very little is wasted.

Hemp also saves space. Hemp plants are tall and thin, and don’t take up much room. In many instances, they also don’t need pesticides or chemicals. After all, hemp is a hardy, natural plant. It grows well on its own without interference. Cotton, on the other hand, is believed to be responsible for 25% of the world’s pesticide use!

And as for water usage, hemp definitely wins out. To produce 1 kg (a little over 2 lbs) of cotton, growers may require more than 20,000 liters of water. For reference, this much cotton is the equivalent of a single t-shirt and a pair of jeans.

According to data from the Stockholm Environment Institute, 1 kg of dry hemp matter can be made using just 300-500 liters of water. Furthermore, 30% of this can be used for fiber production.

And of course, hemp crops can be mostly rain-fed. Without the need for irrigation systems (or at least a reduced need), the environment benefits tremendously.

Why Hemp is Better Than Cotton

Not sold on hemp fabric yet? Why on earth not?!

Hemp clearly has a number of advantages over cotton, especially when it comes to the environment. The list of pros also outweighs the cons, suggesting that hemp is by and large a more beneficial plant.

Before you jump the gun and decide that your entire closet needs to be hemp, however, pump your brakes just a bit. A lot of brands now sell cotton/hemp blends, which are far more economical in terms of price than 100% hemp clothing. Also, combining the benefits of both fabrics can amplify the advantages of each.

Final Thoughts on Hemp vs. Cotton

Hemp and cotton have a lot in common. Both have been used by humanity for thousands of years, and both can be used in textile production.

However, there are clear reasons why hemp is better than cotton. It is (or at least can be) more environmentally friendly to cultivate, and the fabric is generally more durable and gets softer over time. It can also retain color better.

For now, of course, cotton remains king of the textile industry. Hopefully, we will see more hemp garments in the future. As hemp use increases globally, however, you at least have the option to shop more sustainably. Will we all be decked out in hemp clothing 20 years from now? One can only hope!

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Grow your own clothes: three concepts for the fashion for the future

In an age of staggering advances and incredible scientific discoveries, fashion has made astoundingly very little progress over the last 100 years. While artificial organs are being printed and commercial rockets to space are successfully tested, even a basic T-shirt has to be grown, harvested, combed, made into yarn, then into fabric, and finally into clothes. Later, it must be packaged, dispatched, unpacked, and sold.

According to the numbers released in 2014 by D&B Hoovers, an American business research company, the fashion industry is worth more than $1.2 trillion worldwide. Still, compared to product design, which is more than eager to adopt new materials and processes, or art, which embraces and playfully exploits every new technology, fashion looks like a relic rather than a vital industry.

The just concluded fashion weeks in New York and London show that fashion is stuck in place, both trend- and innovation-wise. Obsolete ideas such as floral dresses, check coats, velvet and asymmetrical cuts have reigned the Fall/Winter 2017 runways so far, and there is little hope that Milan and Paris will bring anything new to the table just like in previous seasons.

There’s another strong argument for change in the fashion world: The clothing industry is the second largest polluter in the world – right after the oil sector. Every year, 7.75 trillion liters of water are consumed by the industry in total, and 70 million barrels of oil are used to produce polyester.

In this alarming context, some designers and researchers are developing cutting-edge strategies to reinstall fashion as a visionary pioneer.

Grow your own clothes

With the help of a biologist, British researcher Suzanne Lee has started developing a new method of material production called BioCouture that uses bacteria to grow a fabric.

The procedure is quite simple: she brews up to 30 liters of tea and adds a couple of kilos of sugar while it’s still hot. Then she pours in living organism with acetic acid. With proper thermoregulation, she gets a layer of a thick fabric in two or three weeks that has to be dried properly, since most of its mass is water.

A piece produced by Suzanne Lee’s BioCouture technique

The result is a light-weight, paper-like layer of what Lee describes as “flexible vegetable leather.” It leaves no waste, is completely renewable, and can be decomposed if necessary.

In 2010, Lee’s BioCouture made it into Time Magazine’s annual list of Top 50 innovations. She also aims to push her approach further: “What I’m looking for is a way to give the material the qualities that I need. So what I want to do is say to a future bug, ‘Spin me a thread. Align it in this direction. Make it hydrophobic. And while you’re at it, just form it around this 3D shape,'” she said during her TED talk.

Her research sparked a great interest in the industry and inspired others. Just last year, more than 10 designers who had built their products around the same idea showcased their work during Biofabricate, an annual summit on design, biology, and technology, founded by Lee, and backed by Adidas.

The invisible chain of agony

Fabrics are just the beginning of the whole chain which ends with clothes piled up in stores. It is invisible to most customers, and only becomes apparent when it hits hard – just like it did in 2013 when the Rana Plaza building collapsed in Bangladesh, killing 1,129 sweatshop workers manufacturing garments for fast fashion brands.

Rokusek’s prototype aims to offer an alternative to sweatshops

“There is a lot of pain in the industry,” says Petr Rokusek, a Czech entrepreneur, whose goal is to liberate fashion of human labor. Or to offer, at least, an alternative to the traditional structure in which labels produce clothing in factories abroad and later import the goods to distribute them.

His machine, which is still in the prototype phase, uses a personalized digital avatar that stores information about the user so that it can project and appropriate any preloaded design on the body of the future wearer. Once the customer confirms the order, the device itself can print and cut the fabric.

This approach is not really that new, but Rokusek’s gadget goes one step further: Thanks to robotic arms, it can weld the pieces together without a single use of a thread or needle. Because it creates garments upon customer’s request, it makes only the exact amount of clothes required.

“What we’re doing may completely disrupt and decentralize the fashion industry,” claims Rokusek.

Designer Monika Drapalova used Rokusek’s device for her collection presented during Prague Fashion Week last fall

Rokusek says the device is still far away from home use, but he is confident about its future: “Look at the car industry; the whole process is robotized. Imagine if it developed just like the fashion sector – we’d be still riding horses!”

Although most of the clothes intended for mass consumption are indeed produced in inhumane conditions, many fashion houses and luxury and premium labels strive to set things right.

When virtual becomes real

Martine Jarlgaard decided to establish her brand to change the reality of the industry after working for companies such as Vivienne Westwood or Diesel. “I believe that the escalation of pace in fashion, a highly saturated market, and slowing growth have all created a highly unstable construct. The creativity, originality, and diversity are suffering,” she says. “With pre-collections and an ever increasing number of fashion weeks, trade shows, and events, fashion is experiencing a kind of inflation.”

Besides the fact that she produces all her garments in Europe and from ethically sourced materials, Jarlgaard became known for questioning the fashion’s own institution. “I often ask myself: Where is the Tesla of fashion? With my work, I want to push technology and to encourage curiosity and exploration rather than passivity.”

A piece from Martine Jarlgaard’s collection, unveiled via augmented reality during the London Fashion Week

During the London Fashion Week last September, she did not unveil her latest offering on the runway, but by using augmented reality and 3D glasses (top picture): “Experiencing the collection three-dimensionally is optimal as you see pieces as complete sculptures; up close or from afar, as you please. It is also hugely advantageous as the collection can be shown repeatedly without being reliant on an extensive show production.”

The existence of fashion weeks has been challenged even by mainstream fashion magazines lately, pointing out that in the age of social media and instant access, the whole structure that has been around for more than 70 years is rather démodé. “Mixed reality fashion shows are a window of a more interactive, exploratory future, in which the consumers are drawn towards experiences, ethics, authenticity, and vision, which goes beyond mere aesthetics. I believe this is the future, and that more brands will give more importance to being increasingly autonomous of the fashion system,” explains Jarlgaard.

Which way towards the future’s fashion?

While all the inventions mentioned above seem exciting, there is a long way from an idea to implementation. Petr Rokusek explains why: “Imagine that you’ve pumped hundred of billions of dollars into an infrastructure. I guess you wouldn’t want to leave the system even if you knew that it was wrong and malfunctioning on so many levels. For the same reason, we are still driving petrol cars even though electro mobiles have been around since the 60s.”

One thing is for sure: It won’t be easy to abandon the old and accept the new. For Martine Jarlgaard says, stepping away from the profit and performance-only based culture might be the step in the right direction. “Unsuccessful experiments and mistakes are an essential part of the innovation and creativity, which is where we’ll find more much needed solutions.”

Lee, Rokusek and Jarlgaard represent a mere fragment of the fashion world’s innovations: They provide hope that the solutions may be just a microbe, a device, or a layer of reality away.

Learn to Grow Your Own Clothes

I have to admit, getting to this point has taken much determination and energy. On the upside, it has been a tremendous amount of fun. It has also taken patience, particularly while learning to spin and while calculating if I will have enough of my limited spun fiber to weave the project I have in mind. Of course, I had to learn to weave first, beginning on a very small table loom and moving up to a very large floor loom that I am the caretaker of. All of this takes time and effort, but it is worth it in the end.

If you would like to grow your own clothes, start acquiring skills. The growing and sewing, of course, but also learn to process your homegrown fiber, and to spin and weave (or maybe knit or crochet). Eventually you will be able to do it all. You could start learning through books and videos. Seek out classes in these skills through your local parks and recreation programs, college continuing education, and craft and yarn shops. Join fiber related groups in your area and attend fiber festivals in your region. Fiber festivals often offer classes, as well as a marketplace where you can find fiber and equipment.

To further gain inspiration to do this, read my Seed to Shirt article that was in the April/May 2018 issue of Mother Earth News. Definitely check out the opportunities in your area. Once you learn these things, you can be the one to share your knowledge with others. I will be sharing what I have learned on June 8, 2019 at my Grow Your Own Clothes Workshop at my place near Ashland, VA. There are many things to learn and skills to acquire and it may take years before you will actually be wearing something from your garden. However, it will be fun years and you will end up wearing something that came from both the earth and your own hands.

Cindy Conner is the author of Seed Libraries and Grow a Sustainable Diet and has produced DVDs about garden planning and managing cover crops with hand tools. Learn more about what she is up to at Homeplace Earth.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.


Grow Your Own Clothes: Learn About Clothing Materials Made From Plants

Can you grow your own clothes? People have been growing plants for making clothes practically since the beginning of time, making sturdy fabrics that provide essential protection from weather, thorns, and insects. Some plants used for clothing may be too difficult to grow in a home garden, while others need a warm, frost-free climate. Read on to learn more about the most common plants for making clothes.

Clothing Material Made from Plants

The most commonly used plants for making clothing comes from hemp, ramie, cotton and flax.


Plant fiber clothing made from hemp is tough and durable, but separating, spinning and weaving the tough fibers into fabric is a major project. Hemp grows in nearly any climate, with the exception of extreme heat or cold. It is relatively drought tolerant and can usually withstand frost.

Hemp is usually grown in large agricultural operations and may not be well-suited for a backyard garden. If you decide to give it a try, check the laws in your region. Hemp is still illegal in some areas, or growing hemp may require a license.


Plant fiber clothing made from ramie doesn’t shrink, and the strong, delicate-looking fibers hold up well, even when they’re wet. Processing the fibers is done by machines that peel the fiber and bark before spinning into yarn.

Also known as China grass, ramie is a broadleaf perennial plant related to nettle. Soil should be fertile loam or sand. Ramie performs well in warm, rainy climates but needs some protection in cold winters.


Cotton is grown in the southern United States, Asia, and other warm, frost-free climates. The strong, smooth fabric is valued for its comfort and durability.

If you want to try growing cotton, plant seeds in spring when temperatures are 60 F. (16 C.) or higher. The plants sprout in about a week, flower in about 70 days and form seed pods after an additional 60 days. Cotton needs a long growing season, but you can start seeds indoors if you live in a cooler climate.

Check with your local cooperative extensive before you plant cotton seeds; growing cotton in non-agricultural settings is illegal in some areas due to the risk of spreading boll weevil pests to agricultural crops.


Flax is used to make linen, which is stronger but more expensive than cotton. Although linen is popular, some people avoid linen clothing because it wrinkles so easily.

This ancient plant is planted in spring and harvested a month after flowering. At that point, it’s tied into bundles for drying before it’s processed into fibers. If you want to try growing flax, you’ll need a variety suitable for linen, as fibers from the tall, straight plants are easier to spin.

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