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Natrual Fibers: Feeling Like a Natural Woman
By Sally E. Smith

When I was in college, we lived by the credo, “If it’s organic, don’t panic.” While that conviction was a reflection of a certain time and place (specifically, the late 1970s in Santa Cruz, California), it has enjoyed a resurgence over the last several years. Concerns about food additives, global agri-business, and local economics have prompted people to buy more organic or locally grown foods. Apprehensions about global warming and the environment have led people to support conservation and the development of alternative energy sources. This consciousness has even extended to the fashion world, where an increasing number of people are turning to the comfort and style of natural fiber clothing.

Of course, Making it Big has been providing natural fiber clothing to our plus-size community for more than two decades. But just as advances in technology have changed so many facets of our lives, innovations in textiles have revolutionized clothing fabrications. Over time, the distinctions between “natural fibers” and some “manmade fibers” have become blurred. As a result, many people have questioned whether apparel made with fabrics like rayon and Tencel should be considered “natural fiber clothing,” or be eschewed as synthetic.

While there isn’t a straightforward answer, we can start by looking at traditional natural fibers. Natural fibers are those that come from plants, animals, or minerals. Plant fibers are derived from cellulose. For example, cotton cellulose comes from the plant’s seeds, linen cellulose comes from the plant’s stems, and sisal cellulose comes from the plant’s leaves. Animal fibers are protein-based, and range from silk (animal secretions) to angora (animal fur) to wool (animal hair). The only natural mineral fiber is asbestos, which for obvious reasons isn’t used in clothing!

Next, we can look at those fibers that are truly “manmade.” These are classified as synthetic because they are made from chemicals that are extracted from oil or natural gas. Nylon, polyester, acrylic, and spandex are all synthetic fibers.

When we clear away the traditional natural fibers and the purely synthetic fibers, we’re left with rayon and its cousins, Tencel and acetate. Just as a hybrid car uses both gasoline and electricity, rayon is made using both natural fiber and a chemical process. The basis of rayon is cellulose (specifically, high-grade wood pulp), which is the same plant material used to make cotton, linen, flax, hemp, ramie, and sisal. The cellulose is chemically converted to a liquid, and then reconverted to a solid. After that, it’s processed in a manner similar to cotton.

So, where does rayon fit in the continuum of natural and synthetic fibers? Before I researched the subject, I would have placed it solidly in the “synthetic” category. Upon learning that rayon was both plant-based and manufactured, I thought of it as being a hybrid between the two, and would have placed it in the center of the continuum. Upon further reflection, though, I see that rayon is definitely cellulose, albeit what is termed “regenerated cellulose fiber.” Yes, rayon does go through a chemical process, but every natural fiber – even cotton – is treated with chemicals. Because rayon is essentially recycled wood pulp and is not a petroleum or natural gas byproduct, I vote for its full-fledged membership in the “natural fibers” club.

There’s no doubt that natural fiber clothing is both comfortable and stylish, but it’s also reassuring to know that it’s made from a renewable resource. Granted, the harvesting and processing of plant cellulose makes natural fiber apparel a bit more expensive, but it’s a small price to pay to feel like a “natural” woman.

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