Textiles: origin, care and animal welfare

The textile guide

What is actually the difference between modal and viscose? What is 'cupro' actually made of? Can I iron silk? And which material is best suited for my sensitive skin? In the meantime, countless fibers are used in the clothing industry, along with the associated technical terms, so that consumers can quickly lose track of them all. So that you know where your textiles come from and how to properly care for your favorite pieces, our textile guide explains the most common fabrics and their properties.

We will tell you everything you need to know about each fabric, including the following:

  1. Wool
  2. Cotton
  3. Polyester
  4. Elastane
  5. Viscose
  6. Silk
  7. Linen

A noble yarn with knitting: Wool

Wherever the term 'wool' is used, it refers in the strictest sense to the fur hair of animals, usually that of sheep. 'Pure new wool', however, may only be called that wool which is sheared exclusively from the living sheep. Thus, it is not only a particularly sustainable material, but also one of the oldest raw materials of mankind. There are also other types of wool, which are usually named after their animal of origin, such as angora rabbit, merino sheep, alpaca camel or cashmere goat. They all offer a thermoregulatory effect and a high wearing comfort due to their particularly fine fur. However, since their extraction and manufacturing process is much more complex, these types of wool are considered luxury variants with particularly high quality.For example, one pound of cashmere currently costs between $120 and $190.


Due to the special fiber structure of wool, it binds odor and repels dirt particles, which is why it is a popular material for outdoor clothing, such as sweaters, hats or jackets. The small air spaces in the fabric also ensure that the heat stays on the body. However, in order to benefit from these positive properties, you should take good care of your wool pieces. In principle, you should use the wool or delicate wash program at around 80 degrees for wool. When hand washing, you should also use a mild water temperature and a special wool detergent. Most of the time, however, it is enough to air out your wool sweater thoroughly on the balcony. To prevent the fibers of the wool from warping, you should not put the garments in the dryer, do not wring them out or hang them up, but rather roll them in a towel and then let them dry lying down. Wool, especially cashmere, also tends to pilling. The formation of knots on the surface of textiles is a natural property of wool and usually occurs at the typical friction points, such as the elbows. Here, a lint razor can provide relief. If, on the other hand, you simply pull on the wool nodules, this can result in damage to the stitch pattern. In addition, wool is extremely susceptible to moths, because the small moths love textiles of animal origin. In this case, it helps to clean and air the wool storage areas regularly. If you suspect that the moth has already laid eggs, you can put the affected garment in the freezer for at least a week to prevent a new infestation.

However, animal welfare organizations point to the often brutal shearing methods and the hygienic abuses in many farms. In Australia, for example, the world's largest producer of sheep's wool, so-called 'mulesing' is a common procedure. This involves cutting a larger flap of skin from the rump of young merino sheep in particular to prevent fly infestation. Not only is this painful ordeal performed without anesthesia, but its effects are widely disputed. China has also been criticized for accepting this cruelty to animals, especially angora rabbits, for profit. The small rodents with extremely long hair usually have their fur plucked out while they are still alive. In addition to the lack of thermal protection, the stress also leads to the death of the animals in many cases. As a result, many fashion companies have already taken angora wool out of their product range. Those who do not want to support the animal-cruel practices should pay attention to the corresponding certifications (such as 'mulesing-free') on the clothing and inform themselves online about the manufacturing conditions.

The long-lasting classic: cotton

The natural plant fiber cotton is obtained from the cotton plant (Gossypium), a subspecies of the mallow family. Contrary to its name, the cotton plant is actually a shrub that bears a fruit capsule with several compartments. Only when the capsules burst open and the white, heavily hairy seeds spill out can harvesting begin. The cotton must then be stored for post-ripening and drying until the seeds, plant debris and outer wax coating can subsequently be removed. What remains is a natural polymer of cellulose. In pressed bales, the cotton then makes its way to spinning mills around the world. Before a yarn is finally produced, the cotton still has to be sorted according to its fiber length. The longer fibers are then combed with the aid of a carding machine, carded and compressed into long strands. Although cotton is a renewable resource, its cultivation also brings with it certain problems. Time and again, non-profit organizations draw attention to the critical conditions on site, such as the enormous water consumption, the use of pesticides, the genetic manipulation of plants or child labor. Many companies are therefore increasingly focusing on sustainable cotton by tracing the resources used, creating safer working conditions and paying fairer wages.

What is certain is that cotton is grown in around 80 different countries around the world and is processed into about one-third of all textiles worldwide. The leaders in the production of cotton are India, China and the USA itself. Its main properties, resistance, absorbency and lightness, make it one of the most popular textile fibers of all. In fact, cotton can absorb up to 65% of its own weight in water. In addition, it is particularly kind to the skin, suitable for allergies and does not scratch, which is why, in addition to jeans and T-shirts, it is also popular for bed linen, towels and underwear. Another big plus is that cotton is particularly easy to care for. It can be washed at 60, 90 or even upt to 130 degrees, depending on whether and with what other materials it has been mixed. At higher temperatures, it is important to wash light, similar shades together if possible to prevent discoloration. Cotton garments tend to shrink when washed, as the yarns have little elasticity. As a rule, however, the garments regain their old shape through wear. For this reason, fabric softener should also only be used to prevent so-called "dry rigidity," for example in towels. This preserves the structure and absorbency of many garments and is also better for the environment. The same applies to the use of the dryer, with cotton items taking much longer to dry on the clothes rack than other textiles. Cotton can be easily ironed at up to 400 degrees, but with mixed fabrics the temperature should always be determined by the most sensitive material.

The all-rounder made of plastic: polyester

Like polyamide, polyacrylic and elastane, polyester is a chemically produced synthetic fiber and is one of the most widely produced synthetic fibers in the world. In Germany alone, 240,000 tons of polyester were produced in 2008. While polyacrylic and polyamide are synthesized by polymerization, for example, polyester is produced by polycondensation. In polycondensation, two monomers are linked together in a condensation reaction to form polymers. For the production of polyester, a carboxylic acid (here: terephthalic acid) and alcohols (here: ethylene glycol) are esterified with the elimination of water and react to form polyethylene terephthalate. The latter is a type of polyester used primarily for plastic bottles (better known as PET). In the melt spinning process, heat creates a mass that is forced through spinnerets and thus converted into fibers. Depending on the setting of the spinnerets, the fibers can be thin or strong, round or angular, matte or shiny. The fibers then have to be shaped in several treatment steps and fixed again by reheating. Natural polyesters have been known since 1830, for example in the form of certain resins. Glycerin phthalate was the first synthetically produced polyester and was used as an impregnating agent during the First World War. From the 1930s, polyester was developed in the USA as an alternative to silk in order to become less dependent on Japanese silk production. In 1935, chemist Wallace Hume Carother succeeded for the first time in producing fully synthetic and spinnable polyamide, which was used primarily for nylon stockings. This was followed by the inventions of polyurethane (1937), polyester (1941) and polyacrylonitrile (1942). From the Second World War onwards, with the start of mass production, the triumphal march of man-made fibers was then virtually unstoppable.

As fashion fabrics, synthetic fibers are today mostly afflicted with prejudice. Nevertheless, fully synthetic fabrics also have their raison d'être, as they are inexpensive and easy to care for. In addition, fibers like polyester offer a vegan alternative to animal-based materials. The fact is that without man-made fibers, numerous garments would be unthinkable. A major advantage of polyester fibers, for example, is that they are light and elastic, but also hard-wearing and tear-resistant. As a rule, polyester can be washed at 80 degrees in the gentle wash program. Since the material dries quickly and hardly wrinkles, tumble drying is not necessary. Polyester can be ironed turned inside out at a low temperature. The main problem with synthetic fabrics like polyester is that they do not breathe and hardly absorb moisture. This leads to faster sweating and an uncomfortable feeling when worn. However, more breathable polyester fabrics, such as microfibers, are already being produced by means of modern manufacturing processes.

Polyester is also considered highly flammable, which is why clothing made of 100% polyester should not be worn too close to open flames. Friction and dryness can cause synthetic fibers to become statically charged. Antistatic sprays or metal hangers can help here. Synthetic fabrics such as polyester are also often criticized because fossil raw materials such as hard coal, crude oil and natural gas are used in their manufacture, and their reserves are limited. It is estimated that almost 70 million barrels of crude oil are used each year to produce polyester. The processing of crude oil is also energy-intensive and consumes a lot of water. In addition, like all synthetic fibers, polyester is not biodegradable and cannot be endlessly reused. However, that doesn't mean you have to throw away your polyester garments. A carefully tailored sweater made of polyester can last for several years without losing its shape and color if you take good care of it. So it's better to buy less new things and to avoid plastic cotton swabs and water bottles as much as possible.

The miracle of shape: elastane

Elastane, also known as spandex, is a synthetically produced chemical fiber. Due to its high polyurethane content (at least 85%), elastane is, as the name suggests, particularly stretchy. In the so-called polyaddition process, various polyurethanes and polyethylene glycols are fused together. In the process, thousands of individual molecules combine to form polymers, without any by-products being split off. The resulting polymer mass is dissolved and pressed into filaments (i.e. continuous filaments) by spinnerets in the dry spinning process and consolidated. The solvent evaporates and is extracted. The filament can then be processed "naked" or twisted with other yarns in various ways. The first elastane fibers appeared on the American market in 1959 under the name "Fibre K". From 1962, the textile was marketed under the brand name Lycra, which is still familiar today, and quickly enjoyed great popularity due to its versatile applications. If a garment is to be tight and fit snugly, but still stretchy, elastane is the right choice. In fact, elastane can be stretched over three times its length and then returns to its original shape. In addition, the textile scores with its shape retention and low weight. The material is smooth, soft and can be easily dyed. Examples of elastane garments are pantyhose, corsetry and shaping goods, swimwear, socks and sportswear. There is no risk of pilling with spandex, but fabric softeners should not be added to prevent the material from wearing out.

However, elastane is not usually used in its pure form, but is added to other textiles to give them more elasticity. Fabrics with a maximum of 20% elastane are referred to as "stretch". If the proportion of elastane is too high, on the other hand, the fabrics risk losing their shape. However, elastane fibers are considered to be extremely easy to care for and can usually be machine washed at 40 °C. In principle, elastane fabrics are not necessarily harmful to health, but the textiles can trigger an allergy when worn directly on the skin. Elastane is problematic primarily because its manufacturing process has negative consequences for the environment and possible recycling is currently too costly and not fully developed. Since small fiber particles (also known as microplastics) are released from the material every time it is washed, they end up in our wastewater in various ways. However, sewage treatment plants cannot filter out the tiny plastic particles, so that they can now even be detected in fields and oceans.

Naturally artificial: Viscose

Viscose is a semi-synthetic fiber obtained from the natural raw material cellulose. In a complex chemical process, caustic soda, sulfuric acid and carbon disulfide are used to produce a viscous spinning solution from which the viscose threads are ultimately pressed. As a rule, the pulp comes from recycled wood waste, such as beech, spruce, pine or eucalyptus. Viscose is popular because it combines the advantages of both cotton and silk: it is soft, light and extremely absorbent, which is why it is often combined with other fabrics. Due to its suppleness and matte sheen, viscose is also often referred to as artificial silk. Since it is breathable and antistatic, it is especially suitable for allergy sufferers. Clothing made of viscose should be washed at 60 to a maximum of 80 degrees on a gentle or delicate wash program and should not be spun or dried in a dryer, as it is considered wrinkle-prone anyway. If possible, liquid detergent should be used for this purpose, as otherwise powder residues can adhere to the material. If the temperature is too high, the fabric can shrink by one or two sizes. With baby shampoo and warm water, however, one or the other garment can still be saved: The trick works best if you knead the washing water into the fabric and then roll it in a towel. Now you can squeeze out the liquid and carefully pull the garment into shape. Don't be alarmed if the fabric feels hard and wavy after washing. The garment can then be ironed smooth while damp and turned inside out at a low temperature.

Alongside viscose, modal, lyocell (sold under the proprietary name Tencel) and cupro are among the four most important regenerated fibers, i.e. man-made fibers of natural origin. The latter, however, are considered far more robust and environmentally friendly than viscose due to their modified process. Modal, for example, is very similar to viscose and is obtained exclusively from beechwood waste, but differs in that it uses an improved spinning process. This makes the material much more tear-resistant and dimensionally stable. Modal is also considered a 'better viscose' because the fibers are easier to care for and less prone to wrinkling. Lyocell, in particular, is considered a more environmentally friendly alternative to viscose because the non-toxic solvent N-methylmorpholine-N-oxide is used in the manufacturing process. In addition, only Asian eucalyptus is used for Lyocell, which does not require artificial irrigation or fertilization. This significantly reduces both CO2 emissions and water consumption. Cupro, also known as 'copper silk'" is obtained by the so-called Cuoxam process. In this process, the short-fibered protective fabric of the cotton plant is dissolved in a special copper oxide-ammonia compound. The resulting viscous liquid is pressed into warm, fast-flowing water to produce a very fine thread. The copper ions are then removed and rinsed off with highly diluted sulfuric acid. Textiles made of cupro have a silky-smooth appearance and a soft feel, which usually gives them a luxurious appearance.

A contentious natural product: silk

The basic material for silk comes from the cocoon of the silkworm. The main source is the so-called mulberry moth, which is grown under special conditions until it sheds its skin and pupates. With its special glands, the caterpillar spins an endless thread around itself, consisting mainly of protein. The cocoons are then collected and boiled in hot water before hatching. The individual threads are then twisted by machine or even by hand into a single yarn. Finally, the silk is cleaned, dyed and ends up on our counters in carpets, parachutes, bed linen, scarves or nightwear.


The manufacturing process for the supple yarn was developed over 5,000 years ago in China, where silk quickly became an important commodity. Today, this method of extraction is controversial, as several thousand of these animals have to die for a single piece of clothing. Nevertheless, those who do not want to do without the look and feel of real silk will find a good alternative in synthetic fibers such as viscose or nylon. A special feature of real silk is its glossy effect and its strength. Although silk can absorb around 30% of its own weight in water, it is far less tear-resistant when wet. For this reason, the fine fabric should only be washed at mild temperatures and never wrung out or spun. Pure silk is best washed by hand or dry-cleaned. Silk should only be ironed inside out when it is still damp and only at mild temperatures. To prevent wrinkles, it often helps to hang the garment in the bathroom and let the steam soak in.

The natural beauty: linen

Linen is a natural fiber made from the stem of the flax plant. While cotton consists of unconnected individual fibers, linen fiber forms bundles embedded in a bark layer. The outer fabric is covered by a protective wax layer. The main constituents of linen fibers are cellulose (65%), polysaccharides (16%),water (8%) and pectin (3%). In the process known as "gathering", the plant, including the root, is pulled out of the ground using special machinery to ensure that the fibers remain as long as possible. After harvesting, the flax is set up in a swath and dried out to form a kind of straw. The seed pods are then separated from the stalks using a comb-like fluting board. To release the fiber bundles from the tissue surrounding them, the flax must be roasted. To do this, the plant stalks are laid out in the field or in a water basin, where the resulting microorganisms break down the pectins. After being dried again, the straw can then be swung, broken and chaffed. Pitching or combing the flax yields the long, fine linen fibers. The combed-out short fibers can then even be further processed into paper or insulating material. In the final step, the fibers are sorted according to their fineness and processed into yarn with the aid of a roving machine. In addition to textile use, different types of flax are used in food, as a healing and laxative agent, or for extracting linseed oil. The first evidence of the use of the flax plant can be found as early as the Neolithic period. Today, flax is mainly cultivated in China, Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and Egypt. Within Europe, France, Belgium and the Netherlands are among the traditional cultivation countries.

The smooth and firm feel of linen radiates high quality and naturalness. Due to its air permeability and cooling effect, linen is a real classic in summer fashion. In addition, linen is often used for bed linen, carpets and curtains, as the fiber is very robust and durable. Even in the Middle Ages, linen was popular clothing because of its dirt-repellent and antibacterial properties. Visually, by the way, linen and cotton are very similar, but the breaking strength and abrasion resistance of linen is much higher. In addition, the cultivation and processing of linen is considered much more environmentally friendly. On the one hand, the flax plant is resistant to pests and therefore does not require pesticides. Secondly, hardly any chemicals are used in the production of linen, whereas softeners and dyes are often used in the production of cotton. On the other hand, flax fiber processing is twice as expensive as that of cotton, which in turn is reflected in the price. However, there are also blended fabrics that combine the durability of pure linen with the suppleness of cotton. While the so-called half-linen has a flax content of at least 40%, pure linen consists of 100% flax. In general, pure linen is boil-proof and can be machine-washed at 90 degrees without any problems. Only with dyed linen you should be a little more careful, because the fabric can easily give off color. Since linen fabric has little elasticity, it is extremely susceptible to wrinkling and should only be spun lightly. So instead of putting your linen pieces in the dryer or on the clothes rack, it's better to hang them up. Pure linen can be ironed damp on the highest setting, while for mixed fabrics it is better to take another look at the care label. For dark linen, it is advisable to use an ironing protector, otherwise shiny spots may appear.

Photo credits:
Photo by Bozhin Karaivanov on Unsplash

Photo by Johnstons of Elgin on Unsplash

Photo by Molly Mears on Unsplash

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