Want a simple wardrobe? You don't have to fill out worksheets, planners and charts, follow arbitrary rules, or make Pinterest mood boards, but you do have to understand fabrics, because bad material doesn't look good and doesn't last. The main reason I replace clothes is because I made a poor fabric choice. On the other hand, well-chosen fabrics add beauty and variety to a small wardrobe.
In an 1861 book about life in Paris, Chroniqueuse wrote, "How plain, alongside these Frenchwomen, appear English girls, who with ten times more natural beauty, seem so ugly with their coarse stuff gowns that cling to the figure," illustrating the influence material has on enhancing or diminishing physique. Thackeray wouldn't have spent so much time describing Becky's silks if they weren't important! Manufacturers and marketers program many of our textural preferences, so we make decisions haphazardly instead of selecting based on product attributes, like how fabrics look and feel. Here are the materials in my wardrobe, with a few notes on composition and care:
Common "Natural" Fibers
Warm, absorbent, and comfortable, silk holds stains easily but not dirt. Wild silk fabrics are more durable- and ethical- than pure dye silks, which are treated with starch and gelatin. Silk shouldn't pill or wrinkle easily. Aluminum chloride (found in deodorants) and perspiration weakens and discolors the material.
Care: Silk naturally handles water well- chemical treatments cause spotting. Machine or hand wash silk (including crepes and glossy finishes) before air drying. Steam or turn inside out and iron with a pressing cloth while damp. Hang up during a shower to de-wrinkle. Use dress shields, savon de marseille, and a damp wash cloth to scrub out sweat or perspiration after wear. Never use chlorine bleach or hydrogen peroxide. Shake, then air out, to remove dust and dirt.
Strong, durable, and nonporous, linen softens with age and attracts and holds less dirt and stains than smoother fibers. Highly absorbent, linen is comfortable and cool in hot weather, dries quickly, and doesn't lint. Linen clothes won't have much give, so make sure they fit properly before buying. Weight is a good indicator of durability. Brightly colored, wrinkle-treated, or bleached linens are weaker and have shorter life spans; look for vat dyed linen to ensure colorfastness.
Care: Linen should always be washed. Use a mild soap like savon de marseille, dissolved in hot water to prevent color removal. Hang to dry or dry flat. Steam or iron while damp.
Pesticide-laden, absorbent and prone to shrinkage. Warmer than linen but more colorfast, it dries less quickly and is less strong and durable. Cotton will yellow in the sun and is vulnerable to acids and mildew. Knitted or loose-weave cotton shrinks more than woven.
Care: Washable. Avoid hot water, bleach, or high dryer settings. Do not line dry in the sun. Steam or use a high iron setting.
Naturally water repellent and moth-resistant, wool absorbs odors, oils, and perspiration, so it's comfortable year-round. Choose soft, wrinkle-resistant wool; fuzzier or stiff wools are less durable and hold dirt. Avoid pulled wool, which comes from slaughtered sheep, and synthetic blends, which pill easily. Requires millions of acres of land for grazing, and sheep dips containing phosphorus or chlorine chromium. Because of toxic sludge created by mordant dyes, as much as 50% percent raw wool by weight is fibrous. The rest is oil, fat, excrement, and dirt, from which lanolin is extracted.
Care: Wool is always washable. Use cool water and gentle soap. Don't soak too long, since fibers can swell and weaken. Roll gently in a towel before drying flat. Steam or iron while damp. Reduce washes by brushing after each wear to remove dust and dirt. Air to remove odors, and hang wool clothes up during a shower or steam to freshen. Allow twenty four hours rest before re-wearing. To prolong life span, wipe with a lint-free cloth after each wear and let dry before putting away.
J. CREW TERMS
Double cloth: Warmer, more body.
Swiss dot: Delicate, doesn't wash well.
Jacquard / silk brocade: Belongs on couches, not in your wardrobe.
Strong and mildew resistant, hemp softens with each wash, dries quickly, and doesn't have a big footprint. The Hemp Industries association warns that hemp is the subject of greenwashing, but GOTS-certified fabrics are free from formaldehyde and heavy metals (hemp cultivated in Hungary and Romania, for the most part, abides by true organic methods- no pesticides or pollutants used in cultivation and production). Ramie is brittle and implicated in the mistreatment of laborers in China, Cambodia, Indonesia, and elsewhere. Viscose and rayon production is chemical intensive and results in heavy metal contamination of waterways. Click here to read about lyocell, a biodegradable but potentially unsustainable fiber (Tencel is sustainably managed), and here to learn about bamboo, which requires major chemical inputs and produces pollutants (Bedre Mode has a great take on bamboo fabrics). Similarly, modal is biodegradable and manufactured in a closed-loop system, but often derived from clear-cut rainforest wood. European made modal is generally safe, but Chinese or Indonesian modal is not.
Harder, twisted yarns are strong, smooth, resistant to pills, shrinking, and snags, and more comfortable. Look for a close weave in woven fabrics, and a steep diagonal twill line in denim fabrics. Synthetics are hydrophobic, non-compostable, and typically weaker than natural fibers. Diana Vreeland spoke contemptuously of a synthetic dress that came back from the cleaner "an oily sludge," and a Dacron shirt that "felt like an inferno." In Oui Magazine, Yves Saint Laurent said he refused to work with anything other than "pure fabrics- wool, linen, silk." Synthetic fabrics are derived from petrochemical resources. Production often entails the use of antimony, heavy metals, and carcinogens, which contaminate air and water supplies. Some materials even emit greenhouse gases, such as nitrous oxide. Though abrasion-resistant, petrochemically-derived fabrics degrade when they come into contact with skin oils, so they don't hold up to repeated use or laundering. Synthetics also hold more odors than natural fiber clothing, rendering them almost useless in a city wardrobe. That being said, I have three items containing a percentage of viscose, polyamide, elastane and acetate. I wash and air dry each, then steam / iron while damp.
While natural fibers are largely biodegradable and more absorbent (= more comfortable), production is enormously chemical / energy intensive and potentially toxic, regardless of whether something's labeled "organic" or not. It's best to buy something only when you really need it, and to buy used where possible. Before adding any item to your wardrobe, feel the fabric and see if you like it. Ask yourself:
- Can I wash it?
- Does it snag / wrinkle easily?
- Will it hold dirt / attract stains?
- Is it vulnerable to sunlight / mildew / pests?
If you can't make up your mind between two materials, one trendy and one conservative, it's better to choose the second, because trends date your wardrobe more than timeless styles! How do the fabrics in your wardrobe rank? Click here to evaluate their environmental impact.