Clothing technology moves at a breakneck pace, as researchers and scientists continue to create new synthetic fibres to take the place of natural materials. But there are a few small manufacturers who have taken a step back and asked themselves: are any of these human creations really better than what mother nature developed? (To be fair, mother nature had the head start by roughly 4.5 billion years.)
In this article, let's take a brief look at the rise in synthetic clothing, and how some companies are turning to traditional, natural materials for alternatives.
The Rise of Synthetics
Throughout the 1900s, scientists created new, synthetic materials like nylon, spandex and rayon, causing a boom in chemically synthesized clothing. And in the 21st Century, researchers have continued to create even more synthetic fibres - Zylon, Vectran and PLA, to name a few.
But these synthetic fibres come with their fair share of downsides. They do not biodegrade easily, meaning they have a more severe impact on the environment. They tend to be poor insulators. They trap sweat instead of wicking it, which can leave wearers feeling sticky and uncomfortable. And, perhaps most damning: they are a significant cause of microplastics in the water supply.
So why does the clothing industry continue to use synthetic fibres? Large clothing manufacturers will cite the slightly superior durability of synthetics, but the real reason is much simpler: money. The clothing industry started using synthetic fibres because they are cheaper to mass-manufacture.
Luckily, with growing demand among consumers for longer-lasting, better-quality, eco-friendly options, there has been a renaissance of natural clothing. Small manufacturers are looking to the past, and they like what they see.
Modern Problems, Old-Fashioned Solutions
One such example of an old-fashioned material used to tackle modern problems is merino wool. As it turns out, this sheep's wool, which has been used in Spain since the 15th Century, is the perfect material for modern travellers.
Unlike synthetic materials, merino wool is naturally insulating, breathable, sweat-wicking and odour-resistant. The fine fibres of merino wool are coated in a substance called lanolin, a naturally occurring wax that helps protect the sheep from the elements in the wild. A eureka moment for clothing manufacturers came when they realized that lanolin does the same for human wearers.
Looking to the past, travel clothing companies were able to solve a modern conundrum. How do you pack light for a trip while still ensuring that your clothes stay fresh? Since merino wool breathes, insulates and vents bacteria-causing moisture, it stays fresh for an extended period of time. Some travellers even report wearing their merino t shirt for a month without it smelling.
Small clothing retailers have had similar revelations about other natural materials: hemp, flax and organic cotton, to name a few. While synthetics may be cheaper to manufacture, the cost-saving potential for consumers buying long-lasting, versatile natural clothing is undeniable.
With the rise of synthetic materials, the marketplace has flooded with non-biodegradable, subpar clothing products. Luckily, though, there are still clothing manufacturers sticking to natural materials, and consumers are taking notice. As they say: you can't beat mother nature's design