Cheap fashion’s oily secret
In just 60 years man-made fibres have deposed King Cotton. But behind the label of your cosy fleece lie some uncomfortable truths.
From the beginning of time until the 1950s all textiles and clothing produced anywhere in the world were made from natural fibres. There are two kinds of natural fibre, those that are grown on plants such as cotton and linen, and those that come from animals namely wool and silk. They are all produced by agriculture.
Due to the limited supply of these agricultural fibres, the textile products made from them had a certain value and were kept for years, however the invention in the UK and USA of factory made fibres between 1920 and 1960 dramatically changed the textile landscape. In the last 20 years alone man made fibres have far outstripped what we have been making by working with nature over thousands of years.
There are two types of man made fibre – firstly cellulosic fibres sometimes known as artificial silks. They become your shiny acetate linings, floppy flowery viscose dresses and smart Tencel suits and are made by chemically "melting" wood or other plants into liquid or dope. Secondly, Polyester, Nylon, Acrylic and Polypropylene are synthetic fibres, their raw material is OIL. The most familiar for clothing is polyester. Invented in the UK in 1941, Polyester is man made by melting and combining 2 types of oil derived plastic pellet. The hot mixture is the polymer polyethylene teraphlalate.
All cellulosic and synthetic fibres are made like spaghetti as the liquid is forced through holes, drawn out into a long fine thread, cooled and wound onto bobbins.
Man-made fibres would never have taken off if not for other inventions in chemistry at about the same time. Advances in chemical dyes were inextricably linked to the acceptance of synthetics as bright colourful textile fibres. They have to be dyed at 120 degrees which in turn needs pressurised vessels and so along with synthetics came the concentration of textile processing into large scale industrial processing units.
‘Polyester NEEDS factories’
Whereas cotton and wool CAN be made into textiles by hand skills and small scale units, polyester NEEDS factories with all the capital investment, machinery, concentration of power and chemicals that entails. The 1950’s also saw the advent of the colour printing technology that lies behind our favourite glossys – Cosmo,Elle, Vogue etc. put these two things together and something called MASS FASHION was created.
The inventors of polyester teamed up with the designers and created fashion shows that brought pictures to everyone, looks that everyone wanted – and thanks to the new abundant fibre and a handful of early big brands on the High Street – could afford.
The world population has grown and polyester use has grown with it. It is a long lasting, practical, and easy care fibre.But as you can see on the graph and pie charts there appears no end in sight to the dominance of this fibre which stamps its mark on everything that happens downstream.
Why are there so many sweatshops making so many clothes? Why has clothing become so cheap? Why do the styles change so often? How has the deal for cotton farmers got so bad? Why has wool almost disappeared from sight ? Where are the beautiful textiles made by crafts people?
The answer is the same each time and the figures speak for themselves. 10 new polyester plants have been built in China in the last few years. The price for polyester is ever dropping – so hello bargain fleece and puffer jacket…welcome to my wardrobe. Then again maybe not.
* Abigail Garner Petit is the Co founder of Gossypium, a
retailer of organic cotton clothing. She is a textile engineer by profession and has worked previously for various branches of the textile industry (natural and synthetic).
The article has first been published in the Gossypium magazine and reproduced here with kind permission.
© 2004 Gossypium