Natural Plant and Animal Fibres - A return to renewable resources

Until comparatively recent times we relied on natural fibres to produce our clothes, cloths, carpets, cordage, paper, ships sails, and insulation and building materials. The use of natural fibres, both plant and animal, to meet our needs goes back thousands of years and plays a significant role in history. In the history of natural fibres, one of the oldest recorded uses of plant fibre for fabrics is the use of hemp which was already being cultivated in China in 2800BC.

In the last century there has been a turn away from natural fibres towards synthetic materials, mostly derived from petrochemicals. This change was a result of the technological revolution and the short term economic advantages of synthetics.

We are now seeing a growing movement away from petrochemical based fibres back to natural fibres. There are three reasons for this. Petrochemical based fibre production has undergone continuing rising costs. Synthetic fibres rely on precious non-renewable resources and incurs environmental costs in their production. Petrochemical based products pose a health risk in most applications, both from direct exposure and also from secondary exposure through soil, water and air pollution.

Natural fibres are either extracted from plants from the leaf, the inner bark or fruit/seed crop, or from animal wool/hair, or insect cocoon or from mineral product. Plant sources of fibre include cotton, hemp, kenaf, ramie, sisal, flax, linen, lime, jute, seagrass, and abaca. Animal sources of fibre include sheep, alpaca, llama, goat, and camel, and can be either wool, hair or leather. Insect fibre is predominantly from silkworm cocoons.

The return to natural fibres to meet our fibre needs is only one part of the change that is required if we want to achieve sustainable living. We must also return to traditional methods of production - back to chemical free and organic production methods. Cotton is one of the most environmentally expensive fibres to produce. Cotton production is the second largest agricultural use of pesticides in the world with five of the nine top 'nasty' pesticides used. Cyanide, dicofol, naled, and propargite are commonly used in cotton production and these chemicals are known cancer-causing chemicals.

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