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
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.