Natural fibers: A choice for health, sustainability, and responsibility
Natural fibers are substances with high extensibility extracted from plants and animals, which can be spun into filaments, thread or rope. Whether weaving, knitting, matting or bonding, these fibers constitute the fabrics necessary for society.
Like agriculture, textiles have been an indispensable part of human life since the birth of human civilization. In Mexico and Pakistan, unearthed pieces of cotton fabric can be traced back to 5000 BC. According to Chinese tradition, the history of silk begins in the 27th century BC. The earliest woolen textiles found in Denmark can be traced back to 1500 BC, and the oldest wool rugs found in Siberia are from 500 BC. Fibers such as jute and coconut fiber have been cultivated since ancient times.
Although the methods used to produce fabrics have changed a lot since then, their functional changes have been minimal: today, most natural fibers are still used to make clothing and bags, and to ensure the warmth, beauty, and comfort of our living spaces.
However, more and more traditional textiles are also used for industrial purposes—as components of composite materials, for medical implants, as well as geotextiles and agricultural textiles.
Plant fibers include seed hairs, such as cotton; stem (or bast) fibers, such as flax and hemp; leaf fibers, such as sisal; and husk fibers, such as coconut.
Animal fibers include wool, hair and secretions, such as silk.
Here are some specialty plant and animal fibers:
Abaca: Abaca, also known as Manila hemp, is taken from the leaf sheath around the trunk of Musa textilis. It is a close relative of the banana plant and is native to the Philippines.
Traditional use of abaca fiber is rope, especially marine rigging. Abaca is prized for its great mechanical strength, buoyancy, resistance to saltwater damage, and long fiber length – up to 3 m. Today, as an energy-efficient fiberglass substitute in the automotive industry, it shows a promising future.
Coir: Coir is a wood fiber extracted from coconut shell, which has the highest lignin, making it more durable but less flexible than cotton and unsuitable for dyeing. It is mainly used for furniture fillers and mattresses and is also used to make brushes, ropes and automobile seats.
Hemp: As one of the strongest plant fibers known, hemp is also being increasingly used in construction materials and bioplastics in car panels. Hemp fiber conducts heat, dyes well, resists mildew, blocks ultraviolet light and has natural anti-bacterial properties. The latest development of hemp fiber in "conttonized" can open the door to the high-quality apparel market.
Alpaca: As a domesticated species of the Camelidae in South America, the herd of alpaca is about 3 million, mainly distributed in the Andean region, and it is also distributed in farms in North America, Europe and Australia. Alpaca is one of the most diverse animal species in the world for fiber production, with two different types of hair and a variety of natural colors. Alpaca blends well with wool, mohair and silk. Soft and dense, or lustrous and silky, alpaca is used to make high-end luxury fabrics and outdoor sports clothing.
Angora rabbit: Angora rabbit has white silk-like fur, very delicate and soft, and is usually used to make high-quality knitwear or blended with other natural fibers for clothing fabrics. Angola rabbits are usually bred on "industrial farms" that use intensive production or are produced on a smaller scale by individual farmers.
Mohair: Mohair is the fluff of Angora goats, which is native to Turkey. Mohair is white with a very delicate and smooth texture. It is famous for its softness, gloss and easy dyeing. It can keep warm in winter, but can also be made into cool fabrics to resist the damp heat in summer.
Why natural fibers
Every year, farmers obtain millions of tons of natural fibers from various animals and plants. However, in the past half century, in our clothing, home decoration, industry and agriculture, natural fibers have been replaced by human-made fibers such as acrylic, nylon, polyester and polypropylene fibers. The success of synthetic fibers is mainly due to low cost.
The relentless competition from synthetic fibers and the global economic recession has affected the livelihoods of millions of people who make a living from the production and processing of natural fibers.
It’s a healthy choice.
Natural fiber textiles can absorb sweat and discharge them into the air, which can naturally breathe. Due to the tighter molecular structure, synthetic fibers cannot naturally capture air for natural "breathing". For many industrial products, natural fiber is also a healthier choice.
It’s a sustainable choice.
Natural fibers will play an important role in the emerging “green” economy, embodied in improving energy efficiency, reducing carbon emissions, and minimizing waste.
It’s a responsible choice.
The production, processing and export of natural fibers are vital to the economy of many developing countries and the livelihoods of millions of small farmers and low-income workers. Almost all natural fibers are produced by agriculture, and most of the harvest comes from developing countries.