People have been using natural fibres since before prehistoric times. Hemp, for example, is thought to be the oldest grown fibre, with cultivation of the crop recorded as early as 4,500 BC.
Cotton has also been grown to create textiles for thousands of years, and is the world's most commonly used natural fibre, cultivated in more than 80 countries.
A natural fibre, defined by the Encyclopaedia Britannica, is a raw material that is directly obtainable from an animal, a plant or a mineral source. Natural materials are, by default, biodegradable, although they can be subject to as many chemical processes as synthetic fibres. These days, designers and textile scientists are discovering new ways to use raw materials to produce textiles. Milk, soy, nettles, seaweed, mushrooms, orange peel, pineapple and banana leaves – the list goes on. Some of these have been used for millennia, yet have been all but forgotten in modern times, while others are recent inventions.
Pinatex is a one such newly developed fibre, produced by Carmen Hijosa and sold under the name Ananas Anam. It was developed as a sustainable alternative to mass-produced leather and polluting synthetic materials. The innovative textile is produced from the pineapple leaves, a by-product of the fruit industry, which are traditionally discarded and burnt. The harvesting of the pineapple leaf not only adds value to waste, but also has created a source of income for farming communities, which traditionally rely on a seasonal harvest. Produced in the Philippines, Pinatex supports local economies, is a natural, sustainably sourced and cruelty-free material, and has a small environmental footprint and a positive social impact.
Halfway across the world, Orange Fiber is an Italian company that creates sustainable fabrics from citrus by-products that would otherwise be thrown away. Creator and founding partner Adriana Santanocito proposed this sustainable fabric as part of her university thesis, and the company was founded in 2014 with angel investment.
The fabric is produced from hundreds of thousands of tonnes of citrus juice by-product, the so-called “pastazzo”. The fabric is formed into a silk-like cellulose yarn that can be blended with other materials. When used in its purest form, the result is a soft, silky, lightweight fabric that can be opaque or shiny depending on production needs, and is well suited to the Italian tradition of high-quality fashion fabrics.
The prototype of the textile was first presented at Vogue's Fashion's Night Out in Milan, while the first pilot plant for citrus pulp extraction opened in 2015. Ferragamo used it for its Orange Fiber Collection in 2017.
In Germany, Qmilk is a soft, velvety textile produced from dairy-industry waste. About two million tonnes of milk waste, not suitable for the food industry, is generated every year in Germany alone. Made entirely from natural ingredients, the fabric was developed by founder and microbiologist Anke Domaske after her stepfather struggled to find clothing that didn't aggravate his allergies.
Milk fibre was already being produced and, indeed, is still available from other suppliers such as Swicofil in Switzerland. What makes Domaske's milk fibre unique, however, is that it is entirely natural and produced without the use of any chemicals. The fibre also has some unique characteristics including being antibacterial, flame-retardant and temperature-regulating.
A common but contentious material, bamboo is perhaps the best known natural fibre, often referred to as the most renewable material. The plant itself is naturally pest-resistant, so does not require chemicals to flourish or to protect it. It grows extremely fast and does not require irrigation. It does not even need replanting after harvest, as the root system stays intact and it simply re-sprouts. As a natural fibre it is also biodegradable.
Bamboo is touted as a sustainable alternative to synthetics as it is soft and silky, making it popular with lingerie and T-shirt manufacturers where the textile is worn against the skin. Producers also claim that the fabric is naturally temperature controlling, antibacterial, UV-resistant and hypoallergenic – however, these are claims that not all agree with. The main point of contention, however, comes with the processing of the fibre, which is often chemical-laden.
One thing is clear: there is no fabric or fibre – yet – that is entirely sustainable in every aspect of its production. What all these fabrics have in common, however, is they are using commerce as a force for good and recontextualising waste as a resource.