From scratch. About fibers, blends and why we choose Tencel™

Looking down at the dark blue sweater that is keeping me warm today I notice the amount of blonde hairs its carrying, how it is getting fuzzy after all my wearing and washing and how the right sleeve starts to fray in the palm of my hand. I see color, style, a woman’s favorite garment that is starting to show age. What are you wearing today? What do you see when you look at it?

Let me take you back to the day we made the second batch of masks. Our garment technologist Meike is teaching me the tricks of sewing while I am observing her doing what she does best; working the fabrics. When ironing a new piece of fabric, Scottish red, it melts. Alarming! Melting is bad! We thought we had rolls of all pure cotton. Meike steps in, takes the mask, cuts it open and starts to fidget out the three super thin different colored threads in there. Observing the red, yellow and black yarns, she takes her lighter, lights them up one by one aiming to find the synthetic one causing the melt. Watching her do this, a switch in me flicked. As this action quickly invited me to see the fabric the way she does. Not for the mask or piece of fabric I saw, but for the material it is. The individual threads its built out of, fibers spun to yarn. Of course, rationally I know that clothes are made of fabric and fabric is made of fiber. But that’s not something I realize every time putting on a t-shirt. Do you?

This new technical way of looking inspires and excites me so much. Breaking up with old habits leads to new ways, different values. With this blog, I, and with Ragnarøk in general, we want to get you here too. Because we really need to break up with our old ways of fashion. Literally. Built up from scratch a new. Not just the way we value clothes but most of all the way we produce them.

This blog is about..

How getting back to the basis; material, explains why the fashion industry of today is no longer maintainable.

How rebuilding the base of fashion can change everything and how we aim to do this using Tencel for our first production

and how you can change your habits and with that your influence in sustainabilizing (is that a word? Hahah) the industry with a wider knowledge on materials.

Clothes for the bin

The way fashion works right now we make clothes for the bin. Of course we wear them first, at least a little. But in the end they go into landfill. Also when you put them in the recycling bin. From all the clothes produced each year, 85% gets burned or dumped into landfill. That’s a garbage truck filled with textile waste every second going into landfill. 1 truck per second. In the previous blog I shared with you how fast fashion brands are promoting recycling campaigns that are very misleading. (Bit of a long-read, sorry for that, will keep it shorter this time) Most of the clothing handed in for recycling still gets burned somewhere overseas. And from the fabric that does get a new life, only 1% finds it in the form of a new garment.

Why? Because our clothes aren’t made with the aim to recycle them. And that is a huge loss. Because now we go back to the level of fiber; visualize how much time, energy, water, land, fertilizer, labor, food (in case of animal sourced fiber), pesticides and chemicals go into these little things. All that even before the whole journey from fiber to the garment in your closet.

© Liz Vermeulen

Mixed blends

When a piece of clothing is made out of more than one material, it is a blend. Big chance you are wearing one right now. Clothes made out of mixed materials are ‘the usual’. Since the invention of blending, it’s being done all the time. This mixing of fibers does the magic on our clothes. When you mix fibers and do it well, the good features of one material will complement the good features of the others in the mix. That way we make our clothes more comfortable, last longer, fit tighter, wear lighter, print prettier, shrink less, wrinkle barely, and what not more. We are in this luxury position that we can adjust everything exactly to our liking. And it even makes our clothes cheaper. Synthetic (man-made) fibers are cheaper than natural ones, so putting synthetics in the mix lowers production costs of garments. Win-win then, right? Well, if you care about keeping up with every trend, don’t want to spend all your money on it and don’t care about the impact this behavior has on, actually everything, including yourself, then; yes. Sure. But if you do care about the health of our planet, the people doing the work on your t-shirt, yourself and all others alive, let me take you along.

All into one yarn

Looking for information on this subject I ran into terminology that confused me a little. To avoid this becoming too much of a nerdfest, let me briefly mention that the internet speaks of ‘mixed blends’ and ‘blended fabrics’. A mixture is a fabric which is comprised of two or more different fibers each spun into a separate yarn. And a blend is a fabric that is created out of two or more different fibers which have been mixed before or during spinning into yarn.

Meaning: mixing is not just about getting synthetic yarn mixed in a piece of fabric (like Meike showed me when she lit up the treads of the mask) but the synthetic fibers get mixed ínto the yarn. And that is the problem. When fibers get mixed, especially in this way that they become one yarn, you can’t separate them again in a useful way. Utterly impossible! Recycling them? Don’t even try.

Here’s a video to give you a visual of fiber in general and a bit of this process. This is just cotton, but imagine that, when they speak of ‘the duct system and blending and cleaning machine’, that’s where fibers of other materials get thrown in too.

Fiberrrrs 

I want to be careful with all the technical knowledge there is on fibers as I can put up a whole story on the journey of clothes but I’m not sure if that serves you in your needs. Nina is finishing up a MOOC on circular fashion as we speak and shared with me amazing studies. You will find them in the links in the text. To give you the broad lines around fibers, it comes down to this:

Traditionally we know natural and synthetic fibers. Natural ones come from animal or plant origin and synthetic ones are produced in an industrial process. These fibers are originally made from fossil resources (mostly oil) but also biobased alternatives are available nowadays. Listed up:

Natural: wool, silk, leather, cashmere (animal based), cotton, linen, hemp (plant based)

Synthetic: Spandex, polyester, acrylic

Regenerated fibers:

More fibers entered the main field since the last few years. Regenerated fibers like Lyocell (also known as Tencel™), Viscose and Bamboo. Viscose might not be actually new, it got invented in 1883 and was used as a cheap alternative to silk. But it recently gained popularity in the sustainable movement. Rayon belongs to this section of regenerated fibers too. You will see it often. But I mention it on its own as it is not a fiber itself. It’s the name for regenerated fibers in general. So clothing labels you’ll get by can say Tencel rayon, viscose rayon, bamboo rayon. If it just says Rayon you still don’t know the true source. Regenerated fibers are made of natural materials but called semi-synthetic as they need processing before you can use them as fiber for yarn. As Tencel and Viscose are made of wood and Bamboo well, from Bamboo, they are biodegradable and take way less water to grow than for example a cotton plant (which in general is the least environmental friendly crop used in fashion). Although these fibers are made of natural sources and the way they are produced makes them good options for biodegrading and recycling, the chemical process to make them is quite something. Which does not make them great straight away. Tencelis something different in this light tho. Exactly why we love and use it. More on that in a bit.

Innovative fibers

A lot is happening in the field of sustaining the fashion industry at the base of fibers. Fabrics being created from pineapples (piñatex), orange skin, algae, fungi. Which is so interesting as these innovations will really bring more sustainability to the industry. Making them from waste materials or leftovers, being biodegradable as they are made from plants and growing in a very low-impact way in contrast to the other natural fibers we know.

These regenerated and innovative fibers make true recycling optional too. Where with ‘traditional’ fibers the amount of protein in them and the length of the fiber determines their strength, the renewable materials are broken down and then built up again just as they were before. So, where recycling traditional fibers shortens them and cuts their quality, renewable materials are all up for a new go. At least, if the clothes produced from them are made with the aim to recycle them. Because as you now know; if they get mixed with other materials, this will ruin the party.

Polyester = plastic

There is one specific fiber I want to bring to your attention. Polyester. By now hardly to erase out of our experience of everyday wear. A lot of the mixed blends today include polyester. Around 65 percent of our clothes are made of it. Polyester is plastic. And plastic is not our friend. It is put into clothing because it is very soft and it makes clothes very strong and more elastic. But that is because plastic is here to stay forever. Plastic can’t fade or degrade. All plastic ever produced is still here. When aiming to degrade plastic, you actually just transform it into teeny weeny pieces called ‘microplastics’ that are now everywhere around us. In the air we breathe, the soil beneath our feet, the water we drink and even the food we eat. Everywhere! These microplastics do not just shatter around when plastic gets broken down. Every time you wash a piece of clothing made of polyester it releases microplastics into the water. By now, the washing of synthetic clothes releases half a billion tons of microplastic fibers per year into the ocean. That’s more than 50 billion plastic bottles. Per year. It’s pure waste and literal poison.

As that isn’t bad enough already: it is made out of fossil fuel. Plastic is always made out of fossil fuel. Of which the winning and usage is molesting mother Earth. We do realize driving cars is not the most sustainable thing as they drive on oil. But all these clothes fashion companies produce are also made of the same thing. We have to stop that!

Also, wearing plastic on your skin all day every day; not good. And the ‘recycled polyester’ you’ll find is of course better than new polyester but it is mostly made out of recycled plastic bottles. Not your old clothes. And old polyester releases two times the amount of microplastics than newly produced one.

Pro’s and Con’s

Coming back to all the fibers I (quickly) mentioned: They all have their own pro’s and con’s, especially looking at their environmental impact. Colleagues of ours already wrote a lot on exactly this. What each material does for you, how sustainable the process behind the production is and how to compare them with each other. Read about each fiber in English here and for a environmental scan here, if you prefer reading about this in Dutch, go here.

I encourage you to check it out. Informing yourself on the features of different materials is so important and helpful in this transition becoming conscious about clothes. It will help you big time in finding your new favorite garments. If you know what to buy to serve your exact needs, like: breathing, or light weight, warm but not sweaty, whatever it is you want from your clothes, knowledge is your friend. When you know what to look for, you will not only save yourself the bad buys, but you will really love and thus wear the shit out of every piece you own. And at the same time, always feel your best because nothing in your closet is actually ‘meh’. That, to me, is what this is about.

Stop buying unconsciously

Care for what you do purchase, where and who you buy it from

Love what you own

Learn and understand how to care for it right so it will last

And then, wear it out completely and replace it with something of equal value to you

Because that actually is not just what it is about to me. That is what it is about in general. The only true sustainable way to handle clothes in the current system is to wear them out. What you don’t wear out becomes waste straight away because even though you hand them in to recycle, they aren’t made for that.

To bring this back to blends

Blending in itself isn’t necessarily bad as it makes clothes perform better, easier to care for and most of all; stronger. It makes them last longer. Which is great, if we wear them out. But if we only (want to) enjoy them briefly, clothes that last a lifetime are just freshly produced waste. Just as much as we need to change our consuming behavior, the industry needs to change it’s ways. That’s why we chose Tencel.

Closing the loop

You probably hear it every now and then: Closing the loop. What we mean by that is: making the production process an ongoing circle. Beginning again where it ended, ending where it begins. So, no waste! How?

With Tencel

I mentioned Tencel, also refered to as Lyocell, above. It appears under these two names because TENCEL is a brand-name for the fiber that is called Lyocell. This regenerated fiber is made of wood of Eucalyptus and Birch trees. The Austrian company Lenzing AG designed Tencel in such a way that the production is a closed loop, using less harmful chemicals that are abstracted from the fibers when they are done and then can be used over and over again. No chemical waste or polluted water. Truly zero waste. The trees used are grown in a protected way within Europe. So in contrast to other Rayon it certainly does not contribute to deforestation.  And the Tencel fabric we use is made out of 100% Tencel, no blending needed which makes it possible to completely dissolve and use again from start on. I am a visual thinker, maybe you are too, so here’s a video to show you Tencel.

Not just hippies

Sustainability-wise, Tencel to us is just the perfect option for the launch of our company. Other fibers as Linen and Hemp are really great options too, but as we aim for a true closed loop system, this is just the best (for now). Next to the sustainable aspect of the fiber, it is also so good as a base for clothing. The fabric is extremely soft, breathable and anti-bacterial, which will leave you feeling fresh as the shirt won’t come across worn after just a morning of work. You can hang it out after wearing it a day and put it on several times again before it needs washing. Which saves of course water but also leaves the fabric in higher quality longer.

And lastly, Tencel just looks so good. Exactly the style we aim for, casual, qualitative, street wear. Not that Linen or Hemp do not look good. On the contrary, I personally love the natural look they have. But I am not everybody. If we really want to break up with our old way of fashion, these natural fibers that ‘look sustainable’ as the stereotype confirms, won’t make it to the high streets. At least, not for everyone. There are already a lot of companies doing great work with Linen, Hemp, recycled cotton, polyester, all of that. If that’s the style you aim for, options are aplenty. And we love that.

People, like maybe you, that are very aware of the impact of clothes on everything, have options and favorites out there. Some expressing the sustainable vibes more than others. We are very excited about Tencel as it is such a beautiful and qualitative fabric that fits into truly anyone’s closet. Especially the closets of the ones that maybe never cared or still don’t care for sustainability. And that is just amazing! Do I say it’s amazing that people stay careless about environmentalism? Yes. That is not really the amazing part but you know, that is just reality. Some of us are born with this big, intuitive feeling of responsibility that makes us not even question if behaving sustainable is an option or not. But most of us aren’t. Inner motivation is stronger than cognitive knowing. If we, by creating a beautiful product that people take in with the vow to care for it as we intend, also shift consumerism in general to a sustainable version. Caring for ourselves and Pachamama. Big ideals are becoming very real. Within very clear reach. And you are part of that, so thank you.

 

*Writing this with a huge smile on my face.*

 

Liz

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