While man-made fabrics often get a bad rap, our Tove & Libra team is of the belief that there’s more to this story than meets the eye.
Synthetic fabrics and blends have the ability to add both function and longevity to garments – but they must be used in the right way. So while that cheap polyester blouse from a fast fashion brand is likely to fall apart or trend out after a couple of wears, a responsibly-designed piece might incorporate synthetic elements that enhances its comfort, and helps you purchase less for seasons to come.
At Tove & Libra, at least half our collections make use of leftover designer fabrics that would otherwise be heading to landfill - and a good portion of this includes synthetic fabrics. We feel that upcycling these materials is a good compromise towards achieving our aim of providing multi-functional modern style without compromising on sustainability.
Besides, with advances in technology there are now man-made fabrics that have far less environmental impact than before. And in a world where no item of clothing can be perfectly produced, we feel it's important for each one of us to simply understand the environmental cost of various fibers, sans greenwashing – so while we can't be perfect, we can each make better choices.
Let’s be totally frank: polyester is pretty much a type of plastic. It requires the input of fossil fuels, and it takes a very long time to degrade once it finds its way into landfill. But it's easy and cheap to produce and thus has formed the foundation of fast fashion production.
While we abhor the widespread use of this material in disposable fashion garments, we do believe in the selective use of synthetic fabrics for the purpose of longevity. Polyester can make versatile and durable clothing – with Solotex® being an example of an enhanced polyester fabric which is wrinkle- and stain-resistant, as well as having excellent stretch recovery. These properties make it perfect for our go-anywhere pants (no more baggy knees!), such as the Navy and Airy colorways of our bestselling Pull-on Slim Chino.
And on the upside, polyester has the potential to be recycled (in theory almost endlessly), and producing recycled polyester requires less resources than producing virgin polyester. So it can be a less apocalyptic choice than most of us may instinctively think.
You may have noticed various types of recycled polyester, or rPET, popping up everywhere these days - the Textile Exchange actually forecasts 20 percent of all polyester to be recycled by 2030. We do try to make use of recycled Polyester yarns as well, but the limitations for small brands such as ours is usually that high minimum quantities are required to obtain these specialty fibers. This is where you have the power to be involved - as global demand increases for this option, suppliers can then make it more widely accessible.
As with polyester, nylon is another durable synthetic that we should be mindful to avoid sending to landfill. But similarly to polyester, nylon can also be continuously recycled into new forms, making it possible to reuse this man-made fiber almost indefinitely.
Making its debut in 1935, nylon became synonymous with the Second World War due to its extreme durability; this new "miracle fiber" was used in both parachutes and women’s stockings to great effect. As a man-made polyamide, nylon has a similar hand-feel to natural polyamides such as silk and wool, making it supremely comfortable to wear, yet being much easier to maintain at home.
Recycled nylon fabrics exist, but again the minimum order quantities are usually much higher than a small brand could achieve on its own. Global demand would have to increase significantly for this to change.
Viscose, Rayon and Cupro
All belonging to the family of “man-made cellulosic fibers”, this group of semi-synthetic fabrics has risen in popularity due to their appealing softness combined with low prices. They are sometimes being touted as eco-friendly as they originate from wood pulp derived from fast-growing regenerative trees such as bamboo, beech and eucalyptus. However, beware the sustainable claims made in relation to any of these fibers, as the true story is more complicated.
Viscose and Rayon have sometimes been passed off as bamboo in a prime example of greenwashing. However, garment-standard bamboo fiber is very different from bamboo-rayon, the former being mechanically produced which is a slower and more expensive process. Viscose and Rayon, on the other hand, are produced in a chemically-intensive process which results in an altered fiber that falls in a grey area between synthetic and natural. This crucial distinction led the US Federal Trade Commission to rule that labelling rayon as bamboo is actually misleading – and therefore illegal – so it’s always a good idea to be wary of any purchase described as "bamboo" and hawking its benefits (such as being antibacterial).
Besides, due to their growing popularity, viscose and rayon nowadays may derive from various types of commercial wood pulp besides bamboo. The embrace of these fibers by fast fashion brands has led to a spike in the depletion of forests for this purpose.
Cupro shares a similar story. Traditionally recycled from leftover cotton yarns or garments, this fabric may be marketed as "eco-friendly". However its potential upside is then negated by a chemical process that results in toxic waste that is often improperly disposed of. Bemberg - often used in high-end apparel linings - is a type of Cupro that is made using a more responsible process, but accordingly costs more.
Besides all this, there exists various qualities of these cellulosic fibers. Generally, you will probably get what you pay for - where cheap items made with these fibers will likely tear, crease or pill quite easily, besides probably having been produced with lax environmental standards.
We do incorporate viscose and rayon occasionally due to its superior softness and smoothness that is similar to silk, while being far easier to care for at home. As with other synthetics we start by sourcing from deadstock materials. Where we have used virgin viscose, we take care to ensure that it has been sourced from FSC-certified forests, and is of a high grade that minimizes creasing and pilling.
Lyocell / Tencel®
While this is also a semi-synthetic fabric, lyocell is produced using stringent eco-friendly processes. Also known by its trademarked name, Tencel®, you may have seen lyocell (rightfully) gaining all kinds of positive attention in recent years.
It is also manufactured from wood cellulose, but in a closed-loop production process that minimizes waste. The consumption of dyes and energy is relatively low, which means that it uses less resources to produce than many traditional fabrics, synthetic or natural.
The finished product is a win from both environmental, cost and style perspectives: Lyocell is every bit as breathable as cotton, while rivalling the softness and smoothness of silk. It is also extremely elastic and strong, making Lyocell clothing quite durable, and suitable for machine washing at home. Finally, the fabric’s superior drape makes it a fabulous choice for designers to create garments that can withstand the vigors of everyday life and still come out looking sophisticated.
We love this go-anywhere material so much that we now make our best-selling jumpsuits from 100% Tencel®, with more designs in the pipeline.