Wanted: Natural Fibers

I’m pretty picky about what I wear, especially in the case of things that are going to be directly against my skin. I can’t wear polyester because it makes my skin go all haywire[1. Rashes, bumps, extreme dryness leading to painful cracks, itchy.] and I’m not really a fan of other synthetic fibers because they’re often slippery and strange and feel wrong and don’t fall right, on me. I really prefer cotton, linen, silk, bamboo, and wools because they breathe and feel comfortable and I like the way they feel and the way they wash.

Your tastes may differ. Judging from what I can find on the racks of clothing stores these days, your tastes definitely differ, or maybe you’re one of the people like me, frantically fanning through hangers with a discouraged and angry expression. It is increasingly hard to find natural fibers. When I do find them, they are often in a blend with artificial fibers, which completely defeats the point for me. A cotton/poly blend is not a solution. It just means that I feel it and go ‘hrm, this might work,’ and then pull it off the rack and look more closely and go ‘damnit, again?!’

And really, there are only so many times I’m willing to buy something that I know will make my skin break out, or that I will only be able to wear with a full undershirt. It feels kind of ridiculous to have to take measures to protect myself from being attacked by my own clothing, you know? Or to think ‘well, I guess I could buy this and then just rip the liner out,’ because why would I want to pay for something I have to hack almost immediately? And seriously, high-end designers, you have no excuse for a natural fiber exterior and artificial liner in things like coats.

I get why natural fibers are getting harder to find. For one thing, they are more expensive to produce, handle, and use in garment manufacturing. People often want cheap clothes, unless you’re talking very high end stuff, and delivering clothing at the price point people want usually requires the use of artificial fibers. When you do find natural fibers in an affordable range, it should arouse your suspicions, as it’s very hard to make raw textiles at that price in an ethical way, which means that child labour, pollution, and other issues may be lurking in the seams of that sweet cotton blouse that would look ace with those slacks you found last week. For people who are trying to buy ethically on a budget, it can be really frustrating.

I buy most of my clothes gently used; If the Shoe Fits, a consignment store here in Fort Bragg, is my clotherie of choice, and Hilary, the owner, is used to me constantly bitching about the lack of natural fibers. She obviously has no control over what people bring in to sell on consignment, but it’s telling to note how many of the clothes she has for sale feature artificial fibers, and how quickly natural fibers are snapped up when they do appear. Cashmere sweaters don’t hang around there, even at prices much higher than those for the acrylic ones one hanger over. Clearly, people want natural fibers and some are even willing to pay for them.

I have to balance my demand for natural fibers with my need for affordable clothing, and it’s a hard one. I try to buy ethically, because I believe that as a consumer with some degree of freedom to buy what I want, rather than being limited to a very narrow range of options in terms of pricing, I have a responsibility to do as little harm as possible with my purchases. I can actively avoid brands known to have problematic approaches to labour, environmental issues, and other matters, but at other times, I can’t do the research, and I may need to make a snap decision about a purchase. Something suspiciously low priced, no matter how fabulous it is, is something I will struggle over. Because, on the one hand, cotton skirt for $15! On the other hand, cotton skirt for $15.

There’s clearly a demand for natural fibers, especially in the plus size market. It starts to get extremely hard to find anything in materials like cotton and silk once you creep up past around the 14-16 range, because apparently fat people don’t deserve cotton, or something. It gets to the point where you pretty much need to custom order clothes if you want natural fibers that will fit you, which is not an option for everyone. Custom clothes can be expensive, particularly if you want a seamstress to source ethical fibers and you want to pay a fair wage for the labour that goes into garment production.

All I want is some natural fibers, but at what cost? I can’t just say that manufacturers should rely more on natural fibers, specifically ethically sourced ones, because that could drive clothes up past affordability for some people, and polyester is better than going naked in a Chicago winter. On the other hand, I also don’t really feel comfortable saying that manufacturers should make affordable natural fibers so people of all incomes and sizes can buy cotton, or silk, or linen, because that means that someone, somewhere, is suffering to produce those garments.