The Sustainability of Animal Fibres Explained
Here at the Printd. Collective we use a variety of materials and methods to produce our products. With so many fabrics to choose from, it can be confusing to know if you're choosing ethical or sustainable items. When it comes to materials sourced from animals, it's instinctive to think badly of them. But some of the most sustainable, ethical and useful fibres are from animals! Every single one of the fibres mentioned below can biodegrade which is definitely better than buying into the fast fashion world of polyester. Read on to learn about the good and bad points of these versatile materials.
Sheep Wool (Merino)
This is probably the best possible fibre you could choose! Sheep produce a new fleece every single year, which is then clipped by farmers and spun into yarn. This tends to be local farmers too, resulting in less fossil fuels for transportation. A common misconception is that using sheep for their wool is cruel. This is far from the truth. Sheep need to be clipped of their wool or they can overheat in the summer and suffer heatstroke. It can be life threatening! It can also be too heavy to move if left to grow, making them more vulnerable to predators. So it is much healthier to have them sheared every year, which is a win win!
Wool is also biodegradable, in the right conditions it can just take a few months to degrade, giving back natural nutrients into the land. If stored in a dry condition though, it can last a lifetime - meaning you are buying and consuming less overall.
Wool is also naturally flame retardant, breathable, hypoallergenic and water-resistant, making it ideal for multiple uses. It can protect and make us comfortable, just like how it is used for sheep. It can also absorb (up to 30% of its weight in water) and evaporate sweat without releasing odours. When used for interior applications, it can also take nasties out of the air by absorbing chemical pollutants.
The only downsides to wool is that the local farmers do not get paid an awful lot for each fleece. Creating a demand for wool products would create a demand for the farmers, hopefully bringing their pay up! But it also only takes up 5% of the world's textile industry, classing it as a luxury fabric. Wool also comes with a natural coating of grease which needs to be chemically treated to be removed.
Similar to wool with all of its properties and environmental impacts, but comes from the first shearing of a lamb (usually at seven months old). Lambswool is much finer than the wool of an older sheep. This makes it much softer and luxurious.
A luxurious fibre from the cashmere goat, farmed in south Asia. These goats need specific climate conditions making them rarer and higher value. Cashmere fibres are grown with a finer, softer undercoat and a coarser 'guard' coat on top which protects the animal from the elements. The different quality fibres are then separated to allow the extra soft fabrics to be made out of the 'raw' cashmere. The hairs are harvested by either combing (time consuming but gives better quality results) or by shearing. Due to the small areas where these goats can be farmed, these areas are becoming over-farmed and risk ruining the eco-system. Cashmere has a higher environmental impact than wool, up to 100 times the amount. It takes four cashmere goats to produce one sweater, while one sheep can produce five. Find products made with virgin cashmere or repurposed materials to reduce the risk of funding this over-farming.
From the angora goat, mohair is long, strong fibres with a natural lustre/shine and farmed in South Africa. It is considered warmer than the majority of other wools and more durable. It also grows more rapidly than sheeps wool, up to twice as fast, and grows up to 2cm per month. The younger the goat, the finer the fibre. The mohair from an older goat tends to be used for products such as rugs and coats due to its coarseness.
Raising angora goats is very similar to cashmere in terms of environmental impacts.
This is actually hair rather as wool! It comes from Angora rabbits, primarily bred in Asia, and is extremely soft and fine fibres creating a fluffy texture. Harvesting occurs on average every 4 months and results in either the shearing or plucking of moulting hair. Plucking allows for the finer, softer part of the hair to be kept in tact. Sustainability wise, it is a fantastic natural and luxurious fibre. The problems arise more when looking at the ethical side. Angora rabbits do naturally moult their hair, so when the hair is collected gently then it is actually benefiting the rabbit. This allows the animal to not overheat or get hair in their mouth and accidentally digesting it. But when farmed on a larger scale, then they are sometimes plucked before their hairs are loose. This can cause pain to the animals. Many fabric producers do not use angora hair for this reason.
Alpaca, Vicuna and Guanaco
These animals all come from the same family (related to the camel) and are raised in the South American Andes. Vicuna though is considered the finest natural fibre in the world. The Peruvian government controls the export of vicuna fibres with a labelling system that assures buyers that the animals are raised and sheared in their country. These profits go back to their local community. Second to vicuna is guanaco, which are not quite as fine and the animals are rarer and suffer from loss of habitat. These three animal fibres do not come with a layer of grease, meaning it does not need the chemical treatment that wool needs. The land they are farmed on is also treated extremely well by farmers and is considered a fair trade and ethical material. The only downside to these fibres are the loss of habitat of the wild animals and the poaching that occurs, particularly with vicuna and guanaco.
One of the oldest fibres known to man! Silk is created by the mulberry silk moth and is the only naturally occurring filament yarn (meaning it is a continuous length rather than a collection of small fibres). Silk is strong, yet soft, and takes dyes well.
When it comes to sustainability, we have to take into account the growing of the mulberry trees and the harvesting of the silk. When growing the trees, pesticides are commonly used (less than the growing of cotton though) and can only be used for one year before the leaves fall off and the tree is removed. When harvesting the silk, the silk worms commonly die in the process, still in their cocoons. The production of the fabrics also use a large amount of water and energy, meaning this is not the most sustainable natural fibre you can get. When buying silk, try to look for organic, 'peace' or 'wild' silk which is grown and harvested in a more natural way.