Sustainable Textile Innovations

By Simone Preuss, Feature Editor FashionUnited

Sustainable textile innovations are in demand like never before due to dwindling resources, natural fibres like cotton being resource-intensive to produce and petroleum-based fibres like acrylic, polyester, nylon and spandex not being the most environmentally friendly. Hemp, stinging nettles and lotus stems are sustainable alternatives to common materials like cotton and silk that may surprise many but they certainly show great promise.

Hemp fibres
One of the most versatile natural fibres can be obtained from hemp – hemp fibres, which are antibacterial, durable and resilient, and work as a natural air-conditioning system. In addition, hemp is a fast-growing plant that consumes very little water and does not require herbicides, pesticides, synthetic fertilizers or GMO seeds. ‘What’s not to love?’ one could ask, and also why this super plant has not already become the standard in textile processing.

The reason is the connection of the Cannabis Sativa plant with recreational drugs. Even though the only high that the production and use of industrial hemp generates is the knowledge of doing something for the environment, cultivation has been severely hampered, especially in the western world. The situation is different in China, where the industrial use of the cannabis plant was never prohibited. Thus, China currently accounts for more than 50 percent of the global hemp production and holds more than half of the more than 600 international patents on hemp fibers and textile production.

Stinging nettle fibres
The common stinging nettle, Urtica dioica, is a widely used plant that is easy to grow. For the production of the fibres, the nettles are harvested in the summer and the stalks dried well. This removes the sting. After drying, the stalks are broken to separate the woody parts. Then, the plant is hackled to separate the fibers and to remove the leaf attachments. Then, the fibres are spun wet and later dried. Twisting them increases tear resistance.

Similar to hemp fibres, stinging nettle fibres are versatile, keep the wearer warm in winter and cool in summer, and can be grown with far less water and pesticides than cotton. Thanks to new spinning techniques and hybrid plant species, nettle plants with super high fiber content are obtained, which are strong and flexible and have a good spinning length. Unlike hemp, there is no legal problem with the cultivation of nettles, which has made the plant a viable and legal market fruit.

Lotus fibres
Using lotus fabrics and textiles may sound exotic to western ears, but in countries like Thailand and Myanmar, for example, lotus fibers have been used for special garments for centuries. Not surprisingly because the manufacturing process produces a luxurious fabric that feels like a mixture of silk and raw linen that is also stain-resistant, light weight, soft, silky and extremely breathable. ‘What’s not to love?’ one may ask again. In this case, it is the complicated and lengthy manufacturing process that is the biggest hurdle when using lotus stems.

After harvesting the lotus stems, they are cut open at the end to extract the long, thin fibers. This must be done within three days of harvesting to achieve optimal results. The fibres thus obtained are washed and hung to dry before hand-woven on traditional looms. The quality of the lotus fabric is so superior that there have been attempts at commercial use; Jaipur-based Hero’s Fashion Pvt Ltd from India, for example, has already found many followers with its white NoMark Lotus shirt.

It remains to be seen how commercially viable and suitable for large scale production each of the three sustainable fibres – hemp, stinging nettles and lotus – portrayed here are. However, they will no doubt influence the fashion industry from fast fashion to the luxury market. Keep an eye on FashionUnited Business Intelligence to learn about other sustainable textile innovations.

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Photos: FashionUnited