This article is from an old Waldorf school newsletter. If anyone knows the source please let me know 🙂
Anyone well acquainted with our school will have had their attention drawn at some time to the fact that when its a matter of cloth being put to use – in the kindergarten toys, in the handicraft lessons, in the curtains – that “natural fabrics”, i.e. pure wool, pure cotton and sometimes pure silk, are invariably chosen. Why is that really? They feel nicer? Is that all? Is that indisputable? Do they look better, for being more expensive?
I would like to explore the differences between natural and artificial fibres, using clothing as an example. First of all, what do clothes have to do? They have to lie right next to our skin as a buffer between us and the weather. Now, our skin is warm, and needs to be kept warm, it is sensitive, covered with sense organs of touch and it gives off moisture. So anything that clothes us must not only warm us, but be soft and smooth, be capable of sopping up extra moisture and getting it out of the way, that is allowing the skin to breathe. Secondly, let us be clear that the clothes we wear are animal, vegetable and mineral, and probably, you are at this moment clothed in materials from all these three realms.
For centuries, man has used plant and animal fibres to make cloth. Since the turn of the century fibres synthesized from mineral substances have become available to us in fabrics, and are in wide use, and, as they are generally cheaper to produce, are to a large extent replacing animal and plant fibres.
The Plant Fibres: Linen is made from the fibres within the stem of the linen flax plant, which is nothing like NZ “flax”, but a sister to the very light and delicate plant, with a small sky-blue flower held high, that grows amongst the grass on our school property. Before cotton came along in the early 19th century from the southern states of America, all things which are still nowadays called “household linen” – sheets, towels, tablecloths and so forth were made of linen. Nowadays scarcely anything of linen is to be found in the “linen” cupboard. Linen was also a word for “underthings”, because that is what they were made of. It could be spun very finely for handkerchiefs , or provide medium-weight material for suits, hardy sailcloth for children’s
clothes, or in heavyweight form be canvas for tents and sails.
We think of linen as being crisp and cool, rather than as something to warm us, it loves water and take it up greedily, hence its continuing use in teatowels. It is hardwearing, more so than cotton, and washes very well. One doesn’t feel clammy in linen.
Cotton comes from the seed pod of the cotton plant, which likes hot climates. It supplanted linen through its cheapness and availability (though this cheapness depended on the use of slave labour). Like linen, it is thirsty for water, and cool to wear on hot days, as it sops up perspiration and lets it evaporate in the air. Like linen then it is very suitable for wearing right next to the skin. Long after the advent of artificial fibres this was recognised. Although artificial fibres appeared fairly soon in women’s undergarments, for a long time children’s underclothing remained pure cotton. Now that is no longer the case but by and large men’s underclothing is still “natural”. Towels are still universally made of pure cotton, as no cheaper material can do
such a good job of mopping up water.
The Animal Fibres: Whereas the cool, watery plants offer us fibres that have more a relationship to moisture and keeping cool, the animal kingdom gives us the fibres for really warm cloth. Silk comes from an insect, from the cocoon of the silk worm moth which is unraveled into one long, strong light thread, and makes the cloth that is light, lustrous, smooth and yielding. It has a quite peculiar warmth – think of how a light fine silk scarf immediately brings about a lovely glow of warmth on one’s neck. It is also absorbent, kind to the clasp of a sweaty palm. From warm-blooded animals comes wool, camel-hair, alpaca, mohair and others, but lets stay with sheep’s wool which we know best. Its a very soft hair with a crinkly fibre, and it makes quite definitely the warmest fabric, knitted or woven. It doesn’t lie close to the skin, so air is trapped next to our skin, warms up and stays warm. It has the very special property of being still warm when it’s wet. It can become one third as heavy again with water without feeling clammy. For a long time it shrugs off water altogether, because its fibres are covered with tiny overlapping scales. Wool is very suitable for wrapping for little babies. And when trampers were lost not so long ago in the hills, constantly rained on, they took off all the garments that were not made of wool, and plodded on in their woollen ones, and were able to keep warm. Wool’s other special quality is its fire-resistance, it burns very slowly.
The Mineral Fibres: Although the mineral world is “natural”, mineral fibres don’t exist that can be used to make textiles, instead the fibres have to be made out of the mineral, by man, whereas in the plant and animal realm they are there for the gathering. A silkworm disease, and a resulting long-term scarcity of silk in the mid-19th century prompted scientists to search for a manmade fibre that might replace it, and by the turn of the century viscose rayon was being produced out of the cellulose (cell walls) of certain conifer trees, minced up, bathed in chemicals and finally squirted through fine nozzles into an acid bath to set it into long flexible threads. Later it became possible to make fibres from coal and oil products, and later still, other substances as well.
The chief virtues of an artificial fibre such as nylon, polyester, acrylic, is its great strength. A very thin fibre is much harder to break than a natural fibre of equal thickness. The first notable use of an artificial fibre was nylon for stockings, which became very quickly accepted, appealing as it did to practicality (not so much darning) and to men’s ideas of how women’s legs should look. It seems that nylon stockings were stronger in those days.
Clothes made from synthetic fibres hold their shape whereas a cotton garment, e.g. cord jeans, will soon stretch here and there and become “comfortable”, although not so smart. Synthetic knits snap back into place after washing whereas natural knitted garments gradually expand – shoulders broaden, knees bag out and socks concertina downwards. Synthetic garments don’t need ironing back into shape so much although one can’t escape ironing altogether and when you do iron them it’s harder. But what of their relationship to the warmth, the wateriness and the sensitivity of the human skin? When it comes to providing warmth wool and silk are far superior to acrylic, nylon, polyester etc.
And cotton, linen, wool and silk are far superior in absorbency. Synthetic fibres are actually water-repellent which is why they are the first of the clothes on the line to dry (hence the easy care label). They can’t dry off our skins and pass extra water vapour on to the environment. The moisture is left building up next to our skins, an environment for bacteria to flourish in.
As to softness – generally synthetic fabrics feel harder to the practiced hand, even if mixed in with natural fibres. Not always though. But as soon as a fabric is dampened (and our clothes do get slightly damper with use) it is apparent. A natural fabric will crush and fold and squeeze up very biddingly and softly but the wetter a synthetic gets the harder and more slippery it feels. The other way of detecting the presence of synthetic of course is by ironing – the fibres start to near their melting point, and up wafts that acrid smell, indicating the fabric’s birth through great heat and chemical processing.
Of course most material sold today is neither 100% natural, nor pure synthetic but a mixture. To the extent that it contains a synthetic fibre, it becomes more hardwearing, less warm, less absorbent. A towel with only 10% synthetic fibre mixed in is fairly useless, and 50/50 mix of polyester and cotton has more the characteristics of polyester than cotton, I find. Synthetic clothing suits the washing machine but not the human body.
The history of synthetic fibres is rooted in the search for a new fibre to clothe man, but they are used for or many, many other purposes than that and I feel that they are rightly used when they are used ropes and rainwear, sails and safety harnesses and in tyres, machinery and electrical appliances, where durability, strength and impermeability – their special qualities – are necessary.