An attempt at a cradle-to-grave, un-biased evaluation of most of the fibres used in our clothing & crafting.
Firstly to repeat a couple of important things (for more, see parts 1 & 2):
1. When it comes to clothing - it isn't easy being green ...
2. A great deal of the environmental impact of our clothing lies with the end user - that's you & me. The person who buys, wears, washes, irons (?) mends, re-purposes, and ultimately decides when and how that garment is disposed of.
3. Listing is alphabetical and it'll go over several posts
4. I will update it as I discover more informationI'm Australian so the info is sometimes Ozzie-centric
5. I knit a lot (so I'll look at fibres often made into yarns but perhaps not so often found in commercial clothing)
6. I've tried to cover all aspects 'from cradle to grave'.
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Leather - Strong, flexible and long lasting - leather has many uses.
|Iconic - his gloves are probably leather too|
Growing it - Most leather is from cattle and there are environmental concerns about raising cattle. It is an animal product and some people avoid all such - but if you are an eater of meat then leather is a by-product of your food. Although most leather is from cattle, you can also find sheep leather (it is soft and slightly more fragile than cow) and pig leather, called pig skin (it has an interesting dimpled texture). Other speciality leathers you might find include Deer Skin, Ostrich & Emu (fabulous dimpled textures on those), Barramundi fish leather (almost looks like the scales are still there).
Processing it - Most of the environmental concerns with leather are from the pre-tanning and tanning processes. Tanning permanently alters the protein structure of the skin and is necessary to make the leather durable and prevent decomposition ... it'll probably also change the colour. Here is a bit of etymology for you - because it is from the tanning of leather that we get all those other uses of the word 'tan' - tan brown, tanning ourselves in the sun ... and 'tan' comes from 'tannin' which in turn comes from an old German word for oak or fir trees, early sources of tannin. Then there is the tannin in our cup of tea - and that is what will stain the crockery and makes tea a very useful dye. But I digress ...
Before the skin is tanned it has to be prepared and this all gets rather nasty if you think about it! First it is kept from 'going off' by being cured in salt or by freezing - then there are the 'Beamhouse Operations' to remove everything except the actual skin. These processes are noxious and smelly - usually done on the outskirts of a town, traditionally near a river - but waste-products can get into the water supply ...
I will run through some of the steps and try not to get too 'icky'!
Soaking - to remove the salt and increase moisture. To prevent bacteria etc, biocides and fungicides might be used. Until 1980 in the US they could use mercury-based biocides - let us hope these are not used anywhere nowadays.
Liming & various processes to change the pH and remove hair and other unwanted stuff. Various chemicals are used including sulfides and ammonia - in the past one of the processes involved animal dung !!!
Finally the skin is Pickled with common salt and then sulphuric acid ... to produce more changes to the pH - then it can be tanned ...
Tanning - Most modern tanning is done with Chromium (III) sulphate which sounds scary, chromium is a heavy metal in the non rock-music sense. Wikipedia assures me that "Chromium (III) compounds ... are less toxic than hexavalent chromium" but I'm not a chemist and anything Chromium sounds scary to me.
There is also Vegetable Tanning which uses the bark from trees as the source of tannin - those trees include chestnut, oak, tanoak (how did that tree get its name?) mangrove and wattle.
|Coat of Arms|
Unfortunately, vegetable tanned leather is not as flexible as that tanned with Chromium.
How should we look after it - and some of this depends on how the leather has been used. Leather can get stiff and it can get mildew or mould - so keep in a dry environment and use a good leather conditioning oil or 'wax' - keep your leather shoes & boots nicely polished. Think of polishing shoes not as a chore but as a lovely form of meditation.
What happens when it does go into land-fill? - not a nice thought for that expensive leather sofa but leather will biodegrade; it takes a while but it will happen.
Leather from Fungus or Slime Mould or Pineapple Leaves (Pinatex) - Lots of very clever people are working to create products that look and behave like leather - sometimes this is called 'victimless leather'. Early stages, but how wonderful if something as useful and adaptable as leather from a cow could be made (without massive environmental impact) from something as easy to grow as a slime mould. Looking forward to seeing progress and more information about this.
I do hope we can produce a good alternative leather but it needs to be environmentally friendly in every step of the process.
Leatherette - another name for PVC. This and other faux man-made leathers will be listed separately.
Linen - This fibre is less used now than in the past - cotton has taken the place of linen for many garments and for things such as sheets, tea towels, tablecloths ... all those things we refer to sometimes as 'household linen'.
|A flax crop in flower - in Belgium|
Humans have used flax fibre for at least 30,000 years. The Egyptian mummies were wrapped in very fine linen, the Romans used it for their sails & flax fibre can be used to make paper. Flax fibre is 2 to 3 times stronger than cotton fibre, it is also naturally smooth and straight, however, linen fabric is stiffer to handle and more easily wrinkled - linen garments need a lot of ironing though the 'naturally crumpled' look has a certain charm.
Producing / Growing it - Flax likes good soil, there aren't many pests that eat it but flax doesn't compete with weeds well. The crop is harvested after 80 to 100 days - after flowering but before the seeds have set for the best quality fibre, but the seeds are valuable too.
Processing it - There are a lot of similarities in the processing of hemp fibre and flax - both are retted & scutched to remove the unwanted harder and sticky parts of the stem. The exact processes vary from country to country and depending on the intensity of cropping. A lot of high quality flax / linen comes from northern France and Belgium where the process is quite mechanised but you can also find a lot of interesting clips on YouTube from re-enactors & historical places in Ireland and the US etc.
|Harvesting flax in Belgium|
Retting can also be done in water - but it will pollute that water and it smells.
When dry again, the retted stalks (sometimes called straw) undergoes breaking and scutching (similar processes) to remove the woody unwanted parts of the stem from the lovely flaxen fibre inside ... and yes, it does look like blonde 'flaxen' hair. In the US the terminology seems a little different e.g. they use a 'brake' to break up the hard part of the stem. All this can be done mechanically of course and I've found this wonderful YouTube of a old Scutch Mill in Ulster - fabulous Irish accent too.
Aren't the names of these processes rather wonderful? In the process of turning flax into linen we've retting, breaking, scutching and then heckling or hackling. Yes, 'heckling' as in - teasing and interrupting a speaker ... does originate with the heckling and teasing of fibre. Also, scutching and heckling are unpleasant hot & dusty jobs ... hecklers had "a reputation as the most radical and belligerent element in the workforce. In the heckling factory, one heckler would read out the day's news while the others worked, to the accompaniment of interruptions and furious debate." (Wikipedia here)
|an early American Hackle|
And now the Flax can be spun and woven into a linen fabric.
|Postcard from very early 1900s - the lady on the left is knitting a sock, the lady in the middle is spinning flax|
As can be seen from this French postcard - spinning flax has always been a bit different to spinning wool. The fibre is held on a distaff and often the wheel is turned with the hand ... rather than by foot pedals. Not apparent here but usually the fibre is kept slightly wet while it is spun - to keep it smooth and for strength (flax / linen is much stronger when wet than when dry) so the spinning wheels often had little wooden cups or at least a cup holder. Of course, modern flax / linen fabric is spun and woven by large machines and in the spinning mills the fibre is wet so those factories are quite humid.
Caring for Linen Clothing - Linen is strong and durable, very absorbent and stronger when wet than dry/ Linen makes great clothes for hot, humid weather partly because it doesn't cling to you as much as cotton does. Go with the naturally crumpled look rather than using lots of electricity (and your sanity) ironing it all the time.
Other Thoughts - This is more about the ethics of our clothing than the environmental impact but processing flax into linen is still very labour intensive - that lovely flaxen fibre is quite fragile. If you can, check that the linen is manufactured in a country where workers get a living wage and there are good industrial practices to protect the workers' health etc.
Another thought - because I'm trying to learn how to made lace by hand (bobbin lace). The regions where lace was made were often the same regions that made linen (and some still do) because the lace was made from very fine linen thread - often much finer than we can find nowadays (and we usually use cotton thread now).
Burning and Biodegrading - Linen / flax burns and biodegrades just like all the other plant based fibres.
Lycra - see Elastane in part 3.
Lyocell - see Rayon when I get to the Rs in this list.