Fabrics of health

Eco-friendly fabrics are back in vogue as they are not only good for the environment, but also for your body

eco-friendly fabric

The world is going the eco-friendly way. And clothing industy is not far behind. Eco-friendly materials are easy on the skin because of the sparse use of chemicals and pesticides in their production. Chemicals used in synthetic clothing may cause skin rashes and allergies. Eco-friendly fabric, however, are made using natural dyes and organic substances.

In the recent years, the following types of natural fabric are back in demand.

Organic cotton

The feel of crisp cotton on a hot summer day is indeed bliss. Cotton doesn’t irritate the skin; it breathes, allowing good air circulation. It absorbs body moisture, which, in turn, keeps the skin dry and cool. According to Cotton Council International, it is hypoallergenic and resists dust-mites, making it a good choice for those prone to allergies, asthma and those with sensitive skin. Besides, cotton is easy to maintain.

However, some of these skin-friendly properties of cotton may be lost because cotton growers use a large amount of insecticides while growing it. These pesticides stick to the fabric and may be absorbed by the skin on contact. So when you buy clothes made of cotton, make sure the cotton used is of organic variety.

“Organic cotton is excellent for people with sensitive or allergic skin,” explains Mini Shibu, creative director of an eco-fashion store in Bangalore. “Cotton is comfortable in all seasons. However, it has a high shrinkage value so pre-shrink the fabric before stitching.”

If you aren’t sure if the cotton you buy is organic, simply wash it before you wear to get rid of chemical traces.


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Jute is a strong fibre that does not degrade on exposure to sunlight. It is a good insulator of heat, provides UV protection, has low thermal conduction and is anti-static. These qualities also make it a popular choice for furnishing.

The manufacturing process does not involve using harsh chemicals and hence the fabric doesn’t cause skin irritations. Although inherently cool, jute is blended with wool to form a warm fabric. Fine jute fibres are also used to create silk-like golden fabric, which has caught the imagination of designers in recent times.


Linen is a fine fibre extracted from the stem of the flax plant. It is soft and shiny, and stronger than cotton. This cloth is highly absorbent. It has natural antibacterial and antifungal properties. It does not cause rashes or allergies and is anti-static too. This thermal regulating fabric allows the skin to breathe, keeping the body cool in summer and warm in winter. The smooth fibre produces lint-free fabric, which is a boon for those prone to allergies. “Linen is a fabric that has a unique lustre. It does not trap sweat and hence allows the body to breathe. However, it requires a bit of care as it is not a wash-and-wear fabric. Blended with silk, it becomes much stronger and gives a beautiful texture,” explains Shibu.

However, it lacks elasticity. This is the reason why it wrinkles easily.


Silk is a natural anti-allergen. It is lint-free and inhospitable to mites. It is soft and hence doesn’t irritate the skin. The texture and composition of the material discourages bacterial growth. Because of its light and airy texture, it is often used in nightwear. The material adapts easily to the shape of your body, increasing your comfort and improving sleep quality.

Although it is a natural fibre, environmentalists have been up in the arms regarding the method of producing silk fibre. Traditionally, silk is obtained from the cocoon by killing the pupa to get an unbroken strand. Organic or Ahimsa silk is made without killing the pupa. The fully-formed cocoons are left unharmed with the live pupa inside. When it matures into an adult moth, it bores a hole in the cocoon and flies off. The silk thread is then woven from the discarded cocoon. This method produces a fabric that is equivalent to regular silk. The resultant organic silk is slightly less lustrous, but much softer than normal silk. The Ahimsa silk is also wrinkle-free and has a better fall. Since this organic silk is woven like cotton, it produces a warmer fabric.

In China, researchers are trying to produce silk from milk and soy. This silk is 100 per cent organic. However, this fibre is still not in the mainstream. Soy silk is made from tofu manufacturing waste. Soy protein, a by-product of tofu, is used to make soy silk.

Bamboo fibre

Bamboo fibre is produced from the pulp of the bamboo plant. The plant grows naturally and abundantly without fertilisers and pesticides. The bamboo fabric is soft, smooth and comfortable. It is softer than cotton with a silk-like texture. The bamboo fabric absorbs and evaporates sweat in seconds. This natural breathability keeps you dry for longer.

It stays two degrees cooler than the ambient temperature in summer and significantly warmer in winter. Bamboo fabric inhibits the growth of bacteria, making it hygienic. The Japanese Textile Inspection Association found that bamboo fabric retains these properties even after 50 washes. In addition, it does not cause skin abrasions or reactions. Pure bamboo clothes can dry twice as fast as cotton clothes.

Banana fibre

The banana fibre is obtained from the white trunk of the banana tree. The outermost layer of the stalk produces coarser fibre used for carpets and ropes. The inner layer yields soft fabric for clothing. Banana fibre is strong, lightweight and glossy. This biodegradable fibre absorbs moisture well. Hitherto it was used for ropes and mats only. However, with the discovery of its more amazing properties, the fashion industry has also sat up to take notice.

Other materials

There are many other organic fibres, although not so popular in India.

Hemp, a versatile jute-like fibre, comes from the cannabis family. It effectively blocks UV rays and has no residual chemical effect. The plant for this extremely strong fibre can be grown almost anywhere without pesticides and very little water. It is biodegradable too.

Ramie, extracted from China grass, is a native of eastern Asia. Eight times stronger than cotton, this fibre has been around for centuries. This lustrous fabric is comfortable, stain resistant, easily washable, and absorbent and does not shrink.

Nettle fibre, derived from a wild weed called stinging nettles, is a natural moth repellent. Ages ago, before cotton was discovered, nettle fabric was extensively used. Its natural insulation makes it great for winters.

So the next time you want to add something different to your wardrobe, try the eco-friendly options. Don’t give non-availability as an excuse, they are easily available online.

This was first published in the November 2011 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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Sia Mitra is a New Delhi-based freelance science writer.


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