List of Natural Resources Used in Textile Production
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Have you ever wondered where your favorite outfit came from? Sure, you might be able to name the store where you bought it, but which plants, animals and even plastics are responsible for your wardrobe? Here is a list of common natural resources used to make fabric.
The first natural resource on the list is the humble silkworm. The larva of Bombyx mori, the domestic silk moth, is the most common species people use for silk. Thousands of years of domestication have rendered it flightless and entirely dependent on humans to feed it mulberry leaves, its sole source of food.
Farmers usually raise silkworms indoors to keep the temperature steady. Sericulture — raising silkworms — is more science than art, with farmers working tirelessly to provide for their hungry insects.
The silkworms pupate after about a month of constant eating. Using the spinnerets on their heads, they spin a silk cocoon made of one long, continuous strand of silk that can be nearly 4,000 feet long.
Most sericulturists kill the larvae in their cocoons by drying or steaming them. If the moths are allowed to emerge, they will tear a hole in their cocoons and damage the silk. Many farmers cook and eat the larvae so nothing goes to waste.
Next, silk farmers soak the silk cocoons in hot water to make it easier to unwind them. They then spin the silk on a reel, dye it and weave it into clothes. That’s where your favorite silk scarf came from! Silk is more sustainable than most fabrics because it’s biodegradable, uses little water and is a renewable resource.
The first evidence of humans using sheep wool dates back 5,000 to 6,000 years in Mesopotamia. Wool fabric is durable, wrinkle resistant and a great insulator against the cold, making it perfect for winter clothes.
First, sheep shearers remove the animal’s fleece in one piece using power shears. They discard any inferior wool and then sort the remaining wool according to the quality of the fibers.
After workers clean the wool with detergents, the wool travels to the factory in a compressed bale. A machine with metal tooth rollers separates the fibers, and then strong air currents mix different grades of wool together. For blended fabrics — such as polyester blends — the air currents mix in additional fibers.
Next, an air pipe moves the blended fibers to another station where sprayers lubricate them with mineral oil. The wool passes through rollers with thin wire teeth to untangle the fibers, remove debris and line the fibers up next to each other. This step produces a flat sheet called a web.
A machine divides the web into flat strips and twirls them into strings called rovings. The rovings are wound onto a spool, then stretched on a spinning frame that spins them into yarn. Finally, a loom weaves the yarn into fabric.
Who knew producing a wool coat was so time consuming? However, the process is worth it, because wool is a very sustainable material. It’s renewable and biodegradable. And considering that the fashion industry is responsible for 10% of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, the more sustainable the fabric, the better.
From sowing to sewing, the cotton plant takes around five months to complete its growth. First, a cotton picker machine picks the cotton and empties it into a tractor-drawn buggy. Farmers pack it into a bale and send it to a processing plant.
Machinery removes some of the debris from the raw cotton. From there, the cotton travels on a conveyor belt into a hot air chamber. A wad buster breaks up clumps of cotton by tossing it against a screen.
Next, a bur machine removes heavier debris and circular saws separate the seeds from the lint — the fluffy white part destined to become your blue jeans. The cottonseed becomes livestock feed and cottonseed oil for human consumption.
A tramper and press turn cotton lint into bales. A gripper machine takes a sample from each bale to submit to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) for testing.
A spinning machine spins the cotton into yarn. The machine processes the yarn several times until the threads are as thin as hairs, then twists them to make them even stronger. Finally, tiny needles weave thousands of strands together into cloth.
It takes around 2,700 liters of water — just over 713 gallons — to produce one cotton shirt. Make sure to get the most out of it!
Few plants are as versatile as bamboo. People use it for food, architecture and paper, and it’s quickly gaining a reputation for making soft, supple clothing. How does a woody grass stem become yoga pants?
First, the bamboo is harvested and chopped into pulp. Next, textile workers dissolve the bamboo chips in sodium hydroxide and carbon disulfide. The latter chemical is highly toxic — workers exposed to the fumes can develop heart problems, reproductive issues and insanity, so making bamboo clothing is a dangerous business.
The chemical bath turns the bamboo into a liquid solution. After the liquid travels through a spinneret — a device much like a showerhead — the fibers come out through an acid bath that hardens them for spinning. The resulting fabric is called viscose or rayon.
In the future, there may be alternative methods for processing bamboo fiber, such as using bioenzymes to create bamboo fibers. For now, however, manufacturing rayon remains very dangerous.
- Crude Oil
Next on the list of natural resources is crude oil. Although not an environmentally friendly resource, oil is the basis for making petroleum-based polyesters. Most polyester clothing is made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET), the same type of plastic used to make water bottles.
Manufacturers love this non-renewable, non-recyclable resource because it’s cheaper and easier to obtain than natural fibers. Polyester is unique because it decouples textile production from land area, which previously limited things like cotton and wool production.
Most polyester clothing is made directly from polyester fabric. However, recycled polyester goes through a different process.
First, machines shred plastic bottles. The shredded bottles are often shipped internationally for processing. Workers then sort out the clear plastic bottles, since these are useful for making white fabric.
Water bottle caps are usually a different color than the bottle. Therefore, the bottles must enter a water bath that allows the caps to float to the surface, and a worker skims them off.
Next, the bottles go through a caustic soda bath to remove their labels. The resulting clear plastic shreds enter a spinning, overhead oven to dry. Workers catch the plastic in bins as it falls out.
Afterward, the plastic enters a rotating drum that melts it and forces it through a sieve, where it emerges as long strings. A machine combines and stretches the strings several times to bond the fibers. The resulting fluff is raw polyester.
Another machine bales it and workers transport it to a second factory. There, a carding machine brushes the fibers so they lie in the same direction. Another machine turns the fiber into thread and collects it on bobbins, where a loom can begin weaving it into fabric.
Linen comes from the flax plant. The fibers are in the plant’s stems and roots, so farmers uproot the entire plant with grubber machines. Next, they lay the harvested flax out flat for several weeks to expose it to moisture. The farmers turn the flax regularly to ensure all sides are exposed.
Finally, the farmers bale the flax and transport it to a factory. A machine separates the flax fibers from the stems and combs them into a fine fiber ready for spinning. A loom spins the fiber into yarn.
Organic linen is one of the most sustainable fabrics because it is biodegradable. Growing flax outdoors requires no additional water, fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides. Flax also grows well in poor soil.
Fighting Fast Fashion
This list of natural resources isn’t exhaustive, but it should give you an idea of where your clothes come from. The Industrial Revolution made it easier and cheaper to produce apparel, but that has led to a fast fashion industry more concerned with newness and appearance than quality, sustainability and humane working conditions.
Look for ethical and recyclable clothing next time you go shopping. And, above all, the best thing you can do is to simply shop less and appreciate what you have. That forgotten bridesmaid dress in the back of your closet is calling your name.
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About the author
Rachel serves as the Assistant Editor of Environment.co. A true foodie and activist at heart, she loves covering topics ranging from veganism to off grid living.