A Conversation: The Lowdown on Textiles

By Regina Connell.

Textiles are so fundamental to the way we live and yet, unless you’re a maker, it’s rare that we spend time considering anything about them—other than how beautiful they are and how they feel, that is. But if you do stop to give them any additional thought, the conflicting information circulating about which process/production method/fiber is most eco-worthy is enough to just make you roll your eyes and give up.

But the discussion is more important than you might think. So with that in mind, we’d like to make things a little more user-friendly. Here’s our layperson’s checklist for thinking about quality in textiles, whether for the home or for clothing, along with some resources for reference. To see it in action, as applied to my search for the perfect t-shirt, go here.

The source of it all

The source of it all, image via The Scottish Ambassador

Fiber quality. This, obviously is the foundation of it all, whether it’s how it feels or how well it lasts. For natural fibers, the length of the fiber is everything: long is better: it’s smoother, softer, lasts longer and take to dyes better. Obviously, it’s hard to tell how long the fiber is. You can only tell by feel and by the label (fiber content and where it was made). Industry associations have come up with “brand” names for premium textiles. (In cottons, look for Supima or Egyptian Cotton labels; in wools look for the Pure Wool label, often from Scotland or Italy. A great deal of what you get from Japan is a pretty safe bet, too, when it comes to the use of quality fibers.)

Man-made or natural? To blend or not to blend? Is it man-made or natural? In general, natural is better, but it depends on the use (see Fitness for Purpose below). BUT there are some amazing man-mades—in particular, polyesters coming out of Japan that blow the socks off traditional silks and are definitely not cheap. Some designers, like Issey Miyake and his Pleats Please line, use high tech polyester exclusively since ONLY polyester can produce a permanent pleat.

Issey Miyake pleated fabric

Issey Miyake pleated fabric, image via Taschen

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The pleating process, image via Taschen

In other cases, you need man-made fiber for comfort. I once bought a pair of ridiculously expensive Japanese selvedge jeans at one of those hipster shops in San Francisco’s Mission without the 1–2% of lycra I was used to. They were the most uncomfortable jeans I’d ever worn and looked absolutely dreadful.

In still other cases, pushing the look and texture of a certain cloth will require the inclusion of fibers that are man-made, whether for texture, endurance, or sheen.

Textile as art at Erica Tanov's

Textile as art at Erica Tanov’s

To use another example, the fabrics that Erica Tanov uses from mills in France, Italy and Japan are so unique and complex that sometimes the fiber content tag has 17 items on it. “These mills do crazy, creative, amazing things,” laughed Erica during a recent studio tour. “The owners of the mills have such a love and mastery of pattern, fiber, and color—it’s just amazing. That’s what you get when you work with small mills and limited edition runs. They put such thought and care into it: [these fabrics] really are works of art, and sometimes I use them that way for wall hangings, handbags, and pillows.”

So bottom line, stay away from man-made fibers that are substituting for something else (to reduce costs) without providing any additional benefit (like wear, performance, or artistry).

Dyeing. Industrial textile manufacturing is notoriously bad for the the environment. The process uses huge amounts of water and dumps untold toxics into the world. These are things to avoid, of course.

Dyeing fabrics, with Andrea Donnelly

Dyeing fabrics, with Andrea Donnelly

Natural dyes (less toxic), however, are generally a good way to go, though they’re less effective on man-made textiles and can fade over time. (Newer techniques are improving radically to reduce this risk.) This proves challenging in the quality department: A technique that’s good for the environment may create something prone to losing its color, which means you’re that much more likely to fall out of love with it and throw it away. So another option, and probably the best: Look for textiles that use natural dyes whenever possible and learn to love the changes. You change over time—why shouldn’t your fabrics do the same?

Production. Once you’ve got the fiber sorted, it’s all about the production. How well is it woven? High quality weaves should be tight and consistent. Andrea Donnelly of Little Fool Textiles says, “When you look at a scarf from a large producer like Old Navy, it’s generally going to be a machine woven piece versus hand woven. A hallmark of this is when you rub fabric between fingers—the threads will move and bunch together and distort. It’s loosely woven so it takes less time and probably hasn’t been washed (which would have caused the fibers to come together). But the problem is, if you were to wash the scarf after you take it home, it would shrink and distort.” Does handmaking necessarily mean a high quality product, though? “Not necessarily. You can still find handmade textiles that are loosely woven. It just means that someone didn’t spend as much time on it. More threads mean more time.”

Production matters. Little Fool Textiles.

Production matters. Little Fool Textiles.

Artisanship and experience matter here: hand-woven gets you quality and the workmanship of small batch mills in places like Italy, Japan, the British Isles do the best job, hands down. Take a look at labels these days and you’ll increasingly see the provenance of the textiles if it’s worth talking about.

One of the ways most helpful ways to discern quality in a textile isn’t always easy to see when it comes to finished pieces. But if you can, take a look at the selvedge (the edge of a piece of fabric) as insiders like Andrea do: “I don’t think anyone appreciates a selvedge like a weaver: We know how hard it is to get right.” So, was it done right? Or was it the afterthought it was generally meant to be? It’s not just hand weavers who appreciate a fabulously crafted selvedge, though. Erica Tanov’s chosen mills regularly produce fabrics with selvedges so beautiful that Erica incorporates the selvedge into the finished item, as she did this spring. When there’s craftsmanship in even the less visible, often ignored details, you know you’ve found quality.

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Incredible selvedge, at Erica Tanov’s

Fitness for Purpose. For me, using the most sumptuous fabrics for a purely utilitarian purpose isn’t really quality in my book—it’s showing off. It’s de trop. Now, a sumptuous fabric that’s used as part of the design—something that’s really integral to it or is part of its essential quality—that’s OK. That means I would give a big thumbs up to my cashmere hoodie (softness + warm + presentability), but a big no to silk PJs (sweaty) or a fur coat in CA.

At the same time, a fabric needs to perform the function for which you bought it in the first place. A stiff wool that doesn’t drape well in a suit or for a curtain isn’t quality in that context. A performance fabric that doesn’t perform is useless, no matter how well-made.

Beauty. I don’t think you can have quality without beauty. Aesthetics must necessarily be a part of it. Besides, buying beautiful is good for the environment. Why? Because if a fabric—whether it’s in an item of clothing or in something for your home—is beautiful, you’re more likely to keep or give away the item, rather than dump it in a landfill. And if it’s painstakingly handcrafted, or if the pattern tells an ancient story, or if it’s embellished by artisans, you’re even less likely to toss it. So here’s where things get truly subjective: Is that beautiful thing you will keep forever made of manmade fibers and use some synthetic dyes? Maybe that’s OK. But don’t let us catch you tossing it next year.

Process and Story. Who’s making your clothes and fabrics? Are they suffering and at risk? Does that feel luxurious? And even if you don’t care about that (seriously?), can poor working conditions possibly even produce a quality outcome? Care about this. And know that even a Made in the USA label doesn’t guarantee fair wages or compliance with OSHA rules, though the likelihood is certainly higher than in Bangladesh. Your chances are better with non-industrialized textiles wherever they exist. My favorite examples of championing the work of non-industrialized producers: the IOU project on the every day level and Maiyet on the luxury level.

Resources

http://www.secondcherry.com/quality-1.html

Lynda Grose, Fashion and Sustainability: Design for Change and an interview with Lynda Grose.

Kate Fletcher, London College of Fashion, Fashion is seen as frivolous but it’s at the heart of contemporary culture, Guardian

 

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