Natural fabrics respect centuries-old traditions, even though they are subject to techniques that continue to evolve over the years.
Natural fibres are divided into two large groups: natural fibres, obtained from various types of plants, and animal fibres, obtained from animal husbandry.
Advantages and disadvantages of natural fabrics
The manufacturing processes of this type of fabrics are usually environmentally friendly, in an attempt to minimise the use of toxins and hazardous chemical processes.
Garments made from natural fibres are biodegradable, breathable and generally ensure good body contact, but have higher production costs than synthetic fabrics.
Natural fibres of vegetal origin
When analysing fibres of vegetal origin, it is necessary to consider that there are many types of fibres, which can be grouped into certain categories.
Cotton is indubitably the most used fibre in the world, through a process that exploits the cellulose of the plant. The main physical characteristics of cotton are length, strength, fineness and elasticity.
Cotton has qualities that make it particularly comfortable, since it does not irritate the skin, allows for a high degree of moisture absorption andconduction, thus helping to keep one’s body warm. Moreover, its breathability favours the evaporation and dispersion of the absorbed humidity.
In this case, fibres are obtained by using the bark of various plants containing little lignified cellulose, through a process involving the maceration of the wood part.
This fibre is obtained from the conductive bundles that carry the water from the root to the leaves. The cultivation phase is followed by harvesting (before the seeds ripen to avoid lignification), maceration (when the fibre is separated from pectin) and drying (where fibres are separated from woody components).
Linen is generally yellowish in colour due to its natural pigment; however, if not macerated in an optimal way, its colour tends to green.
It is often bleached with bleach solutions, although the bleaching process make fibres suffer and become weaker.
Hemp is used to make garments, ropes and paper. Hemp’s main characteristic is its resistance, which is why it is increasingly used for building materials, even replacing plastic, with the advantage of being environmentally friendly.
The fact that the cultivation of hemp has a very low environmental impact and does not require the use of pesticides and chemical additives is particularly appreciated.
Jute is a fibre obtained from the processing of the stems of plants of the Corchorus capsularis and C. olitoriustype.
It is mainly used to make particularly resistant bags, providing livelihoods for millions of small farmers in various areas of the world.
Jute is a segment that could grow considerably thanks to investments in resources and skills, especially in developing countries.
In terms of agriculture and sustainability, jute plays an important role as an environmentally-friendly and cheap material.
Ramie is a native plant of East Asia, whose fibre is obtained from the bark of Boehmeria nivea, similar tonettle, which grows in China, where it is used to make twine, threads and the so-called Chinese flax.
It is a cellulose fibre similar to viscose, characterized by a very resistant white yarn with a silky appearance, with strong absorption capacity.
Ramie is treated with chemical processes, but some low-impact mechanical processes are now being developed.
The ramie fibre is used for the creation of cloths, as well as sheets, bags, ropes, sails and a certain type of particularly fine paper.
This fibre, however, is not very resistant and does not absorb colours sufficiently, therefore it is very often mixed with other natural fibres like cotton, linen and hemp.
Abaca (Musa textilis) is a medium-large shrub that can reach 3 metres in height. This is a native plant of the Philippines and belongs to the Musaceae family, the same as that of banana trees.
The abaca fibre is very resistant to breaks, therefore it is mainly used for the manufacturing of ropes for boats. It has also been recently taken into consideration by the food industry for tea and herbal tea bags, namelyto make wrappers.
Abaca is also used in the production of banknotes and cigarette paper, as well as to make fashionable carpets and bags.
Coconut fibres are the only vegetal fibres that are obtained from a fruit.
Coconut’s woody-cellulose fibre is obtained from the mesocarp, which is the middle part of the fruit.
The manufacturing process is based on maceration in water; the substance is subsequently machine-carded, washed, dried, combed and then transformed into bales.
The result is a fibre that is particularly hard due to the high content of lignin, a natural polymer.
On a comparative level, the fabric is very resistant (both to moisture and to mechanical wear), but much less elastic than cotton; it is therefore used to create cloths and accessories and upholstery for furniture and mattresses and brushes and geo-textiles & ropes.
For more detailed information on these issues, please see the article on Carnet’s natural fabrics, the Italian specialist in fabrics by the metre of the Ratti Group.