While synthetics fibers are more ubiquitous than
ever, natural fibers remain an important part of
fashion. Those who actively look for them and
prefer them do so for a number of reasons.
Some appreciate characteristics such as
softness, hand, and other markers of quality.
Natural fibers tend to breathe better than many
synthetics making them more comfortable in
various climates. Many natural fibers such
as exceptional cottons, silk, cashmere, and
leather products are seen as luxury fabrics and
upscale designer fashion.
Those with environmental concerns will often
choose to shun especially petroleum based
synthetic textiles, and see natural fibers as
more responsible and sustainable options.
are beginning to address the demand through the
use of recycled textiles, sustainable fibers,
and organically grown materials.
However, both synthetics
and natural fibers can be processed and dyed
with toxic chemicals that both pollute water
supplies and can affect human health through
wear. Consequently, the
choice to purchase natural fibers is not a total
is the most widely available eco-fashion
designer that offers plus-sizes to 3X.
Styles are available in organic cotton, linen,
hemp, silk, and rayon.
Cotton is the most
extensively used natural fiber.
It also is one of the most resource intensive
from an agricultural perspective. A
growing percent of the global cotton market is
being devoted to
organic cotton production
that is then used in eco-fashion labels.
Choosing more sustainable farming methods
reduces environmental damage and human exposure
to toxic chemicals, but also increases price.
Consequently organic cotton is primarily used by
boutique and more upscale designers. The
most accessible collection for plus-size
shoppers is at
for sizes 12 to 38W.
As a fiber staple cotton is a key component in
everything from basic t-shirts and jeans to high
thread count, luxury shirts. Both knits
and wovens are frequently blended with
synthetics for both easy care and added body or
stretch. Pima and Egyptian cottons are the
most sought after varieties, as both have
especially long fibers that can be woven into
exceptionally soft, plush fabrics. Expect to pay
more for garments made of both. Sweaters
made of pima cotton are also lightweight yet
provide superior warmth. Mercerized cotton, on
the other hand, is a processing treatment that
strengthens the fiber and gives the surface a
lustrous appearance. Purist often look for 100%
cotton which can still be found but can take
extra effort to find, even in such long standing
cotton socks or bras.
Especially popular in the
warm summer months and for
hot climate resort
destination vacations, cotton
breathes better than many synthetics and is
often easier care than some other natural
fibers. It comes in a wide variety of styles
such as crisply tailored shirts
and twill pants to more
free-spirited bohemian styles in ethnic
prints. Cotton sun dresses are
particularly sought for both casual and summer
occasion dressing ranging from afternoon garden
weddings to graduation parties. Those with retro
modern feel have been especially popular in
recent years with plentiful cotton plus-size
options from on-line retailers such as
One of the oldest natural
fibers, linen is made from flax.
Fine bolts of linen are still in existence from
the period of the Ancient Egyptians who used it
almost exclusively. More sustainable than
cotton, modern day conventional flax farmers
still employ herbicides during the growing
process. However, the main environmental
problem in the linen process is the stage known
as retting. A water based, enzyme process
that rots away the inner stalk and produces
acid, methane, and sulfide as by-products, if
the processing pools are released into the
environment water pollution ensues. Western
European countries mandate an alternative
retting process that is more environmentally
friendly but more labor intensive. Linens
bearing the organic label use the later process.
Irish linen is considered some of the finest
quality and by default uses the later method.
A reasonably tough fiber,
linen can be woven as coarsely as a
burlap sack or as thinly and finely as sheer
tissue. Generally, more expensive, finer
linen is considered the lighter weights.
It is most popularly used for suiting, shirts,
and dresses in
business and career wear
for summer and hot weather wear.
Most frequently available in natural earth-tones
such as white, beige, khaki green, brown, and
black, color palettes in pastels such as yellow,
pink, and blue have been available in recent
years. Casual options including shirts,
pants, and shorts in
loose, easy silhouettes are also
common during warmer months.
Reliably available from trendy plus retailer
in business separates including dresses,
jackets, and pants during the hotter months in
sizes 12 to 32W, it is becoming more widely
available in extended sizes, generally, as
consumer demand for natural fibers grows. Although wovens are
the most common, linen knit sweaters and tops
can also sometimes be found in this fiber.
A growing number of department store labels
including some of their in house brands, are
making organic linen knits and related fibers
such as hemp available in extended sizes to 3X.
Silk is one of the most
sought after natural fibers for
its hand, luster, and beauty. A protein or
animal based fiber, it has ethical as well as
toxicity from production issues about which some
consumers feel strongly. The most common
types of silk come from a long and ancient
tradition using the cocoons of the
Bombyx mori or mulberry
silk worm. In order to keep fibers pristine
and undamaged from emerging moths they are
dropped in boiling water during the incubation
period, killing the pupa. This silk makes
the luxury level silks we associate with
high end designer fashion.
These silks can also be
a process that adds metallic salts to the fabric
to improve its luxury characteristics although
it often becomes more fragile in the process.
These can cause health problems for some people.
Pure dyed silk is stronger, and also considered
the superior product. Cocktail dresses and
evening gowns are particularly sought after in
silk, but tailored silk blouses and scarves are
also popular with career women. Premium
labels such as
available from the more upscale department
stores such as
Saks Fifth Avenue,
frequently work in silk, although lesser cost
options can be found in larger sizes at
cataloguers such as
Draper's & Damon's.
Extended plus-size women, again have a resource
for silk blouses and occasionally silk jackets
and knits, that are appropriate for the office
in sizes up to 30W.
There are a range of other silks that don't kill
the moths and allow them to emerge including
"Peace Silk", wild silks,
and Ahimsa silk. Fibers are
shorter and faintly colored instead of pure
white, giving a very different quality to silks
of these varieties. Often stiffer with natural
nubbing, these textiles tend to have an earthier
appeal than the mulberry silks. Although
commonly understood as an exclusively Eastern
product, silk has been directly raised and
manufactured in the United States during various
periods, including mills in Northampton, MA in
the early 20th century that produced more silk
than China. Sericulture (silk worm raising) is
still practiced in the U.S., especially by small
cottage industry artisans who dye their own
silks. Boutiques, juried craft shows, and some
art galleries devoted to local or textile crafts
are where you will find these fabrics for sale
to make your own garments.
Hand-dyed and painted silks are regularly
small artisan-owned labels
and boutiques. Many of these
have a vintage art deco kimono feel. eBay
and Etsy are both resources that with patience
can be treasure chests of unique finds. Premium
velvets are silk velvets popular in the
art-to-wear market, rather than rayon velvets,
and can be especially luxurious and costly.
Designers to look for in the major department
Johnny Was, and
Citron, all of which work in a
BoHo or Art-to-Wear aesthetic. A
more moderately priced retailer,
is a particularly good resource for a wide range
of sizes of BoHo inspired fashion including petites and talls
to 18, and women's sizes to 24W.
Another animal based, protein fiber, wool most
commonly is sheared from sheep without harming
the animal. Different varieties of sheep
produce different wool qualities in terms of
length of fiber, softness, weight, and warmth.
More exotic wools come from other types of
animals such as goats, yaks, alpaca, and camels.
These more exotic wools form the basis of both
luxury products and some eco-fashion labels.
Some of the best known and
prized include cashmere, camel
hair coats, and alpaca sweaters. Both
woven and spun, wool creates textiles that
remain warm when wet and has moisture wicking
properties which has made it an especially
important fiber in damp climates where it can
even be made into items such as
socks and boot liners.
Consequently, certain parts of the world are
particularly well known for evolving specialty
and luxury wool textile traditions.
British wool twills, plaids, fair isle, and
fisherman sweaters are all in fashion demand,
for example. Wool can also be felted into
garments and accessories, adding another
traditional crafting tradition that makes its
way into fashion, often as embellishments.
Italian designers also produce exceptionally
fine woven wools used for suiting.
Upscale department store
and their off-price, remainders outlet
are two of the best resources for plus-size
cashmere sweaters in sizes to 3X. Other
fine woolens can be found in traditional
retailers such as Pendleton and
Eskandar is an especially luxurious British
knitwear company that makes generously oversized
woolens that often fit much, much larger than
their labels would suggest. More exotic
fibers such alpaca, yak, and cashmere are
regularly available from sites and boutiques
that specialize in (global) hand-crafted goods,
National Geographic's shop
Leather & Suede
Animal lovers will sometimes shun leathers and
suedes as unethical, but faux and vegan options
are equally fraught choices, many times made of
petroleum based synthetics which are bad for the
environment both during the manufacturing
process and at disposal. Furthermore, there is
some evidence that suggests
the synthetic replacements such as pleather may
contain chemicals that act as endocrine
disruptors linked to such things
as metabolic disorders and fertility issues in
Leather tanning can also
be quite environmentally toxic,
and consequently this especially durable and
fashionable material is probably one best chosen
wisely and in moderation by those with
comes in a wide variety of grades and qualities,
as does that used for gloves, coats, and purses.
The softest, most supple types are the most
sought as luxury items while tougher grades are
chosen for durability. Luxury grade animal
hides are prized both for their suppleness and
the exoticness of the animal from which they are
obtained. Further ethical quandaries for
fashion lovers can complicate buying decisions
with rarer leathers which may come from
endangered or close to endangered animal
species. Fur often makes the headlines as
groups opposed to animal cruelty stage protests
at high end fashion venues, but exotic animal
skins and products have enduring popularity in
the highest echelons of designer fashion for
their beauty and authenticity.
One of the best resources for leather coats, all
year, for full-figured women is
Plus specialty retailers in recent years have
offered almost exclusively faux-leather options,
even with the rock-and-roll punk leather trend
taking center stage.
consistently offered genuine designer options during the
fall and winter shopping seasons in sizes to
in addition to genuine leathers and suedes, will
also occasionally offer genuine furs in extended
sizes during the winter months.
stylish leather coats and blazers to size 28W,
in addition to shoes and handbags all year.
Rayon & Modal
Fibers such as bamboo and other cellulose and
wood pulps are considered rayons.
While technically natural
fibers, they cannot be processed outside of an
industrial setting using a tremendous number of
and made from sustainable and renewable sources,
unlike most synthetics, they are more
environmentally friendly than most petroleum
based materials. Modal, a second generation
rayon, is extra soft and adds wet strength to
the properties. Tencel, a variant, is the most
environmentally friendly fiber in its processing
Rayons were invented as artificial silks, and
are sometimes referred to as "art silk".
They can come in a variety of textures and
weights mimicking natural raw silks, light
chiffons, georgettes, and heavy charmeuse satins.
Look for "Art Silk" rayons in the vintage sari
market where artisans and crafters are able to
pick up gorgeous embroidered and beaded borders,
in addition to 5 yard pieces of sari cloth for
upcycling projects in places such as Etsy,
Amazon, and eBay.
Artisan dyed and painted
boutique fashion in plus-sizes is
frequently available in rayon.
Burnout velvets are mostly
Modals, because of the softness, have been
turning up in knit tops and
but sometimes do not wear as well as a cotton
knit, developing holes faster than other
materials, and like cashmere prone to moth
Experimental Biotech Fibers
In the drive to create more environmentally
friendly textiles and move away from petroleum
exciting new technologies are being experimented
with and developed in the biotech world.
Largely unavailable in plus-sizes during these
early phases they are worth noting and watching
as the eco-fashion space grows.
bacteria grown clothing,
are just some of the new textiles in fashion to