On Natural Textiles

Rouleaux de lin Linen rolls, Wikimedia Commons.

At the end of 2018, I decided that 2019 would be the year I tried to find (and use) natural-fiber clothing and other textile products for environmental, ethical, and religious reasons, and I announced this on Twitter during one of those goal posts that basically everyone writes.

This idea came out of both secular and religious thinking.

I am a middle-class woman in her early 30s, so I can afford some types of eco-friendly purchases that others cannot, at least within reason. That said, the most eco-friendly things to do are to (a) not buy new clothes and (b) use secondhand stores for your clothing purchases. So, with that caveats, let’s go into some of the reasons why I made this decision and how things have gone so far.

Secular Considerations

In 2018, I noticed that I could not clean my glasses on some of my clothes. They would come away with an oily residue that was difficult to wash off with soap and water. I also started to notice a strange scent no matter how well I washed those clothes. My naïve question in library databases was, “Why is this the case?” That’s when I learned that many synthetic fibers hold bacteria and odors in a way that natural fibers don’t.

It explained why my older cotton T-shirts — some of which date to before I was born that I received from my mother — have held up well with no odor, and in fact the fabric has gotten softer and better over time, and why the synthetics I’d owned for only 1-2 years were deteriorating and exuding that oily stuff. From there, I had two observations and two questions:

  1. The lifetime of those synthetic clothes was very short. No matter how nice they looked in the short term, they would need to be replaced more often. This is neither sustainable (consumption-wise) nor good for my budget.
  2. I can’t donate deteriorating clothes like that, so they will go in the trash. These synthetic fibers do not break down quickly.
  3. From an environmental impact perspective, how many resources do synthetic fabrics use?
  4. If I can afford to do better, do I have an ethical obligation to purchase natural fibers given the landfill and environmental impacts of shorter-use synthetic fibers?

The answer to the first question is yes, most synthetic fibers use many resources, including water and chemicals, that damage the environment. Greenwashed products like bamboo textiles use chemicals, too — that fact was not intuitive to me, as bamboo items are generally considered more sustainable when purchasing household items like storage boxes, kitchenware, and the like. Incidentally, cotton (a natural fiber) is water-intensive, so during this process, I learned that hemp and linen were to be preferred. Cotton is inescapable, though, because it’s so easy to find, and linen is often blended with it.

The answer to the second question is also yes — if I know that I am in a position to avoid something harmful, my responsibility is to try.

Religious Considerations

In a religious sense, I was looking at temple prohibitions and ritual clothing regulations in several cultures (Egypt, Greece, Rome, Gaul). Frequently, academic articles and discussions of textiles in religion note prohibitions on the amount of ornamentation — jewelry, hem width, the cost of garments — in addition to things like color and materials. The reason I looked at these comparatively is that, in a setting like Hellenistic Syncretic Polytheism (or any Syncretic Polytheism, in this case in an American context), it’s important to consider a variety of angles before deciding on the best course of action.

White fabric is generally preferred in a religious setting, and animal hide products are often restricted to ones produced in specific contexts or prohibited. I do notice and observe these restrictions in more formal ritual settings at home. In some religions (and with some variability for context), wool garments are preferred or mandated; in others, any animal fiber is discouraged or forbidden. Sometimes, specific types of animal products are vital or preferred. These things should be respected.

So: I have three white linen dresses (summer and winter weight) and a few cotton sashes that I use for more in-depth ritual. While special ritual clothing is by no means necessary, it does set a serious and intentional tone that physically and psychologically contributes to a receptive state.

While I don’t consider daily ritual (performed in my work clothes before heading out the door), to require the same level of strictness, knowing these things has definitely impacted how I think about which clothes to wear on daily basis. (I don’t wear shoes during ritual, so I’ve never had to think about materials.) Also, for the first two years after the US presidential election, I wore almost exclusively black because I was upset and every week felt like a political century; after reading Nixey’s The Darkening Age (a book I have mixed feelings about), I started to steer away from it because wearing black reminded me of the ascetic Christians and paramilitary zealots who damaged and destroyed religious and cultural sites of non-Christians.

Black also fades quickly, which reinforces what I said in the secular section about choosing clothes that will last longer. You can re-dye cotton, and I’m still trying to figure out if there’s an affordable re-dying service I can use. (It’s forbidden at the laundromat, and I want my apartment security deposit back.) I’m now choosing grays and colors that fade in a more dignified way so they last longer.

How This Has Worked Out

Finding natural-fiber clothing in 2019 is very difficult, especially on a budget. It’s sobering how quickly textiles have transitioned from natural to synthetic. It’s weird to thoroughly read the fabric composition tags and online descriptions when one hasn’t before. I’ve had to ask people for advice. My boss’s boss has worn linen in the summer for years, and she was fabulously patient when I asked questions about work-appropriate linen, ironing settings, and general care.

I also don’t have a car, so I do most of my clothing shopping online — it works for me, I have my measurements handy, and I’m not shy about asking customer service for fit information like calf or thigh width.

Here are some takeaways:

  • Many things in the cotton category are actually cotton blended with synthetic fibers.
  • I hate Amazon, but AmazonBasics has linen pants. The darker colors are work-appropriate when paired with a nice blouse. Amazon also has several storefront sellers who specialize in linen and cotton-linen blend clothing.
  • Just because something in one color is 100% or more cotton doesn’t mean that all colors are 100% cotton. The material often varies!
  • Wool can be very soft, and it is a great sweater investment. The sweaters often have weird “trendy” cuts. I’d rather just buy a normal sweater and use it for years. Wool clothes are easiest to find in physical stores like the LL Bean Outlet Store or Uniqlo, but Everlane also has some pieces.
  • It is very hard to find natural-fiber workout clothes. I had to make compromises and use blends sometimes, especially after a screw on a spin bike tore open my leggings. Champion does have some mostly-cotton workout attire, and so do a few other companies.
  • Hemp is not a fiber I have investigated in any great detail, so I don’t know how it feels, but it is often blended with synthetics.
  • The cost is not as bad as I thought — I did a lot of comparison shopping, and I didn’t need to buy many replacement pieces this year.
  • Intentionally choosing natural-fiber religious clothing makes it more special.
  • Ironing. I’ve done more ironing over the past few months than ever.
  • Do not put linen clothes in the dryer. You will have to do more ironing even if the care instructions say dryers are fine. Line dry them. HANG THEM.
  • Linen is so breathable. These heatwaves + linen = ❤

Most of the above focuses on clothing, but I’m also applying it to other textile goods — it’s just far less visible because sheets, rugs, curtains, blankets, and other things wear out less quickly, and it’s greenest to use what one has. In other words, I did mean to use the word textile in this blog post; it goes way beyond fabrics.

It occurred to me while I was writing this that my mother never taught me anything about textiles or clothing beyond the basics of how to look presentable while I was growing up — it was always more about fit, appropriateness, and color. Years ago, when I was in my twenties, my mom revealed to me that her mother used margarine for much of the 60s-80s because it was seen as “healthier” than butter. The manufactured food product was not as healthy as the butter it tried to replace. Maybe the natural vs. synthetic fiber thing is a lot like that — we overcorrected towards the latter without really thinking about the environmental lifecycle and human impacts that would result. Of course, fiber is not the same as trans-unsaturated fatty acids. I’m sure that there are medical uses for synthetic fibers — along with advanced synthetics that are important in some settings — but the important thing is to ask what those contexts are and to make choices that are as ethical and sustainable as one can.

So far, I am very happy about this shift, and I plan to continue these habits after 2019 ends. 👚 👗 🥼 ❤️

3 thoughts on “On Natural Textiles

  1. i’m really glad to see your thoughts on this!! sticking to natural fibers is something i was very invested in several years ago, but after i transitioned i pretty much gave up on it, because sooooo much more of the low-middle end of women’s clothing (i.e., my price range) is blended or entirely synthetic. that said, it’s still absolutely an aspirational goal of mine, and hopefully one i can do better at going forward (now that i’m not working in fast fashion, my wardrobe churn is greatly reduced…).

    it actually ties into another thing you mentioned in one of your basics posts, too: i offered a couple of knit swatches to Athene, but they both contain synthetics, and i have no idea what to actually do with them besides leave them on my altar forevermore. (i realize divination can provide some guidance here, and i definitely ought to do that, but i suspect the practical question of implementing that guidance is going to lie solely with me).

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you for your thoughts!

      I think budget limitations are very universal, and there are always things one has to plan for — I remember when I was starting out professionally that I had very few pieces that were business casual, and it was a struggle because as a grad student, I had worn jeans and Threadless t-shirts pretty much 24/7, and yikes, sticker shock. Now that I’m in my 30s, I’m also updating as I go along so my presentation matches the level of maturity I want to convey — some of the stuff I wore in my 20s is a bit too youthful or doesn’t fit right because my body fat distribution is changing despite me technically being the same clothing size. I think the best one can do is strategically take advantage of sales and buy things in cuts that are trend-resistant. (I once found a nice silk blouse in a Goodwill, incidentally.) Good luck!


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