Natural Fiber Clothing & Eco-Fashion at Elegant Plus
Browse Related Elegant Plus Editor's Pick
Although Elegant Plus earns a small fee on all purchases made through the shopping recommendations below, it is a completely free shopping resource for the consumer, and many times we are able to provide links that offer consumer discounts and free shipping offers upon landing on the partner retailer's site. All selections are available at time of posting and purchases can be made directly from the retailer on the associated shopping link. All of the shopping guides include designer selections which are noted with the designer's name in descriptions.
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 used in 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. Eco-fashion brands 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 solution.
Eileen Fisher 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.
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 favorites as 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 from modern classics 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 Modcloth and eShakti.
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. Although wovens are the most common, linen knit sweaters and tops can also sometimes be found.
Shopping Resources for Plus-Size Linen Clothing
Department stores are some of the best resources for plus-size linen fashion. Labels as diverse as Ralph Lauren and Bryn Walker regularly offer linen looks. Smaller, art-to-wear labels with one-of-a-kind fashion such as Blue Fish will also frequently use linen. More classic brands such as Eddie Bauer will also sometimes feature options in larger sizes. Trendy urban retailer, Ashley Stewart, frequently has a complete linen collection appropriate for work wear during the warmer months in size 12 to 26W.
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 "weighted", 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 Lafayette 148 and Marina Rinaldi frequently work in silk, although lesser cost options can be found in larger sizes at cataloguers such as Drapers & Damons.
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.
Shopping Resources for Plus-Size Silk Clothing
Hand-dyed and painted silks are regularly produced by 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. Designers to look for in the major department stores include Tolani, Johnny Was, and Citron, all of which work in a more BoHo or Art-to-Wear aesthetic.
Meanwhile luxury labels such as Marina Rinaldi, Melissa Masse, and Anna Scholz can also offer more sophisticated silk dresses in plus-sizes. Another luxury department store favorite, Lafayette 148 is a reliable source of tailored silk blouses appealing to executives. Upscale resort apparel in flowing designs in both solids and patterns are also very popular in airy silks. Soft Surroundings is a particularly good resource for a wide range of sizes including petites and talls to 18, and women's sizes to 24W. Premium velvets are silk velvets, rather than rayon velvets, and can be especially luxurious and costly.
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.
Shopping Resources for Plus-Size Wool Clothing
Upscale department stores Bloomingdale's and Neiman Marcus 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 Woolovers. 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, such as National Geographic's shop Novica.
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 humans. 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 environmental concerns.
Everyone knows shoe leather 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.
Shopping Resources for Plus-Size Leather Fashion
One of the best resources for leather coats, all year, for full-figured women is Wilson Leather. 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. Nordstrom, Bloomingdale's, and Macy's have consistently offered designer options during the fall and winter shopping seasons in sizes to 24W.
QVC offers 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 chemicals. Biodegradable 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 technique.
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 . Artisan dyed and painted boutique fashion in plus-sizes is frequently available in rayon. Burnout velvets are mostly rayon velvets.
Modals, because of the softness, have been turning up in knit tops and sleepwear, but sometimes do not wear as well as a cotton knit, developing holes faster than other materials.
Experimental Biotech Fibers
In the drive to create more environmentally friendly textiles and move away from petroleum based fibers, 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. Milk proteins, bacteria grown clothing, and corn fibers are just some of the new textiles in fashion to watch.