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Natural materials have always carried a certain cachet, especially in luxury fashion, where pure wool, linen, cashemere, leather and silk stand for breathability, durability and extreme comfort. However, since the 1960s, the use of synthetic fibres has increased dramatically, causing the natural fibre industry to lose much of its market share. Today, more than 60% of all fibres produced are manmade. Especially in the furniture industry, many mixed materials are used, because they are cheap to produce and cheap to dye.
Three reasons to go for natural fabrics.
The most commonly used natural fabrics and their properties
How to choose what is best for you
Natural fibres excel in the disposal stage of their life cycle. Since they absorb water, natural fibres decay fast through the action of fungi and bacteria and also improve soil structure. Synthetics on the other hand release heavy metals and other additives into soil and groundwater. Recycling requires costly separation, while incineration produces pollutants. Left in the environment, synthetic fibres contribute, for example, to the estimated 640 000 tonnes of abandoned fishing nets and gear in the world’s oceans. In a world that worries more and more about where to put it’s waste, natural fabrics are a logical choice.
Natural fibres are a renewable resource, par excellence – they have been renewed by nature and human ingenuity for millennia. During processing, they generate mainly organic wastes and leave residues that can be used to generate electricity or make ecological housing material. And, at the end of their life cycle, they are 100% biodegradable. Chrome-free leather, if sourced responsibly from livestock already destined for food production, is also 100% biodegradable and without toxic residues.
Natural fibre textiles absorb perspiration and release it into the air, a process called “wicking” that creates natural ventilation. Because of their more compact molecular structure, synthetic fibres cannot capture air and “breathe” in the same way. That is why a cotton T-shirt is so comfortable to wear on a hot summer’s day, and why polyester and acrylic garments feel hot and clammy under the same conditions. The “breathability” of natural fibre textiles makes their wearers less prone to skin rashes, itching and allergies often caused by synthetics. Garments, sheets and pillowcases of organic cotton or silk are the best choice for children with sensitive skins or allergies.
Of the four cotton species cultivated for fibre, the most important are Gossypium hirsutum, which originated in Mexico and produces 90% of the world’s cotton, and Gossypium barbadense, of Peruvian origin, which accounts for 5%. Cotton is almost pure cellulose, with softness and breathability that have made it the world’s most popular natural fibre. It absorbs moisture readily, which makes cotton clothes comfortable in hot weather, while high tensile strength in soap solutions means they are easy to wash. The world produces currently 25 million tons of Cotton every year. Six countries – China, Brazil, India, Pakistan, the USA and Uzbekistan – account for more than 80% of total production.*
The flax fibres used to make linen are obtained from the stems of the plant Linum usitatissimum . The plant has been used for fibre production since prehistoric times. It grows best at northern temperate latitudes, where moderately moist summers yield fine, strong but silky flax. Like Cotton, Flax fibre is a cellulose polymer, but its structure is more crystalline, making it stronger, crisper and stiffer to handle, and more easily wrinkled. The fibres absorb and release water quickly, making linen comfortable to wear in hot weather. In 2007, the European Union produced 122 000 tons of Flax fibre, making it the world’s biggest producer, followed by China with about 25 000 tons.*
Silk is produced by the silkworm, Bombyx mori. Fed on mulberry leaves, it produces liquid Silk that hardens into filaments to form its cocoon. The larva is then killed, and heat is used to soften the hardened filaments so they can be unwound. Single filaments are combined with a slight twist into one strand, a process known as filature or “silk reeling”. In woven Silk, the fibre’s triangular structure acts as a prism that refracts light, giving Silk cloth its highly prized “natural shimmer”. It has good absorbency, low conductivity and dyes easily. Global Silk production rose from around 100 000 tons in 2000 to 165 000 tonnes in 2016, thanks mainly to growth of China’s output. China produces about 70% of the world’s Silk, followed by Brazil, India, Thailand and Viet Nam, with minor production in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. The unit price for raw Silk is around twenty times that of raw Cotton.*
Shiny: silk, cotton satin, cotton velvet, vegetal tanned leather, certain linens. Silk is the shiniest material, but also the most delicate. A similar effect to silk can be obtained by a Satin weave of pure Cotton which will also shimmer in the light. Pure cotton can also be woven into Velvet. It’s fluffy sheen is a perfect choice for a very luxury or vintage look. Many velvets combine two colours in the upper and lower threads, thus creating a multicolor effect.
Matte: cotton, linen, chrome-free mineral dyed leather, raw silk. Straight woven Cotton does not wrinkle easily, as such helping to maintain a clean look of the lines of the sofa. Linen creates a very fresh look, whereas leather changes it’s aspect with use over time, from matte to vintage shiny.
If you have a household with children or animals, Cotton and resistant leather are materials of choice. Cotton can be washed and cleaned over and over, whereas a thick chrome-free leather cover will only get more beautiful over time, as it acquires patina. Linen and silk can also be cleaned, but are much more delicate in the handling. Also, they tend to crease more, which means that for a clean look, the cushions of the sofa have to be plumped and maybe ironed regularly.
The best for a temperature neutral feeling are Cotton and Linen, as they readily absorb body moisture. For especially soft and cosy seats, and a warm surrounding feel, Velvet is the material of choice. Leather comes across as very cool in summer, but especially shiny variations may give you a feeling of stickiness in high summer. If you live in a warm place, matte variations will feel better to the skin.
*numbers source: FAO 2019