Analysis paralysis—being so overwhelmed by options you can’t pick a path—has new meaning thanks to climate change. Making the “right” choice has never been more complicated, but we’re here to help. This is Impact, a new sustainability series from PopSci.
Clothes shopping can be an overwhelming experience. Between inconsistent sizes and ever-shifting trends, picking out a pair of jeans can feel like an uphill battle. One extra decision for consumers is the fabric. Garment tags boasting organic cotton lay on a rack next to 100 percent rayon, and each new blend of fibers promises better softness, durability, or sweat-wicking ability.
If consumers hope to pursue sustainable shopping practices, finding pieces made from high-quality, long-lasting fabric is a good start to keeping their fashionable finds out of the landfill. Unfortunately, experts say what qualifies as “high-quality” is not a simple calculation.
Defining “high quality” fabrics
Huantian Cao, a professor at the University of Delaware’s Department of Fashion and Apparel Studies, says that “high-quality” can mean different things to different consumers. The price does not necessarily reflect quality. Some consumers may value the fabric’s durability, whereas others may value organic fabric without pesticides or chemicals.
“Wool is more expensive than cotton because wool takes more resources to produce, and the production is low,” says Cao. “Polyester is a very high durability type of material, but the price is pretty low. So, the cost may not be a necessary indication of the quality. If we talk about the quality and the durability, we have a lot of different considerations [on] how long it lasts.”
One indicator of high-quality fabric is the thread count. A high thread count in a piece of cloth will increase its durability by creating a denser (and therefore stronger) piece of cloth. In addition to price and thread count, consumers may also consider the sustainability of each kind of fabric they are considering.
Natural fibers require the growth of plants, which in turn involves land use, water use, and typically fertilizer (cotton is a particularly pesticide-heavy plant). Synthetic fibers may release microplastics into the water cycle. Still, Cao argues it does not necessarily make synthetic fabric less sustainable than natural fibers.
“It is extremely difficult or essentially not possible to say one material is more environmentally friendly than the other,” says Cao. “There are lots of considerations. We cannot just simply say cotton is more environmentally friendly than polyester. That’s actually not true.”
Care for and mend the fabrics you have
In this conundrum, how can consumers pick a fabric to use? Meg Stively, home sewer and editor of the sewing podcast Seamwork Radio argues that the fabric already in your home and closet is more sustainable than buying something new—all you need to know is how to take care of it.
“Mending is just one of the most powerful ways we can extend the lives of our clothes,” Stively says. “If you can mend and take care of your clothes, they’re gonna last longer and they won’t end up in the landfill as quickly. Go mending!”
Several tutorials exist online for mending techniques, from darning socks to stitching up a tear. YouTube is home to several in-depth mending tutorials geared towards beginners. Stively feels that woven fabrics are a better starting point for new sewers.
“I think when it comes to repairing the trickiest fabric, for me personally and perhaps beginners, would be knit fabrics: a t-shirt or yoga pants or athletic wear,” says Stively. “I think that mending does tend to work better with woven fabrics.”
Woven fabrics include denim, tweed, flannel, linen, and others. These fabrics are more forgiving with repairs than knit fabrics because of how the threads are arranged. Knit fabrics are typically stiffer and more at risk for “running” rather than “tearing,” and repairs are often more visible. However, visible mending has become increasingly popular in recent years, says Stively. Rather than attempting to hide repairs, visible mending can include patches, sashiko methods, or fun darning methods.
“You may do it in a contrasting thread or yarn color,” says Stively. “You can do it in a different woven pattern so that it kind of stands out, almost like a little patch on your clothes. [It] kind of just depends if you’re looking for a totally invisible repair, or if you want to kind of make it part of the garment’s personality.”
Second-hand purchasing can be sustainable—just know what you’re looking for
For sustainable sources of clothing, consumers can purchase second-hand clothing and customize the pieces at home. But, this isn’t always a perfect option—especially when it comes to buying plus-sized clothing to turn into smaller pieces, which causes accessibility problems, Stively notes.
Still, taking damaged or dated pieces and giving them new life is an easy way to keep from buying new fabric products. Look at the “upcycling” hashtag on TikTok—designers and hobbyists like @delikadodesigner and @ysabelhilado have gotten millions of views for transforming thrifted pieces.
“I think the trends for thrift store clothing lately have leaned more toward tailoring; being able to add some shaping to garments that may not have shaping, to be able to hem,” says Stively. “Sometimes thrift store clothes do have stains or holes, and that’s where you can really have fun and repair.”
[Related: Make natural fabric dye with vegetable scraps.]
If customers are on the hunt for durable, high-quality pieces at the thrift store, Stivley recommends starting with getting familiar with different fabric types. Learning the difference between lycra and lace will help inform a decision, but Stively warns that you may need to go beyond name recognition since fabric blend tags aren’t always present on second-hand wares.
“Have a knowledge of how textiles behave, what they feel like, what the weave might look like, how the fabric drapes, if it wrinkles,” says Stively. “If it’s a knit or more of a cotton woven, you can actually rub it a little bit between your fingers and see if it pills. If it pills when you do that, it’s probably going to pill pretty severely in the future.”
Both natural and sustainable fabrics have different uses and effects, but both Cao and Stively recommend minimizing consumption to maximize sustainability, whether that is through high-quality pieces or mending. In 2018, landfills received 11.3 million tons of textile waste. Companies produced 17 million tons of textiles in the same year, and only 2.5 million tons were recycled.
” We have to think about the long term,” says Cao. “Currently, we have a huge amount of textile apparel production, and it’s just way more than what we really need. If we can consider reducing consumption, that might be a way to make it more sustainable.”