Sage Learning Center

The interlacing of plant fibers — what we call weaving — dates back 12,000 years to the Neolithic times. Even before that time, a weaving principle was used to interlace branches and twigs to form shelters and baskets. Initially, people used animal skins for clothing and bedding.


Before 5,000 B.C., experimentation with other natural materials produced the first basic woven fabrics and cloths. Then the first cloths came which consisted of plant fibers from hemp and flax and animal fibers such as wool.

For centuries hand weaving was the only production method. The spinning wheel developed in India and the technology travelled to Europe by the 14th Century. Not until 1733 with the invention of the flying shuttle, and the subsequent need for spinning to keep up with it, did production begin to increase significantly. The invention of the steam engine, and its adoption by the textile industry began the industrial revolution.

The fabrics made for most interior applications include wool, polyester, flax, nylon, linen, silk, hemp, acrylic, chlorofibers, and any combination of these. New fibers are being developed from corn plants. Conventional synthetic fabrics are usually chemically treated for fire retardancy, water- and soil-repellancy and permanent press qualities — all of which can outgas VOCs.

Some pollutants associated with textiles are formaldehydes, sulfur dioxide, acetone and flourocarbons. Sustainability criteria include textiles that are not made or treated with hazardous chemicals, use no formaldehyde nor have VOC-emitting materials. Specify natural fiber fabrics — some are manufactured to be biodegradable (for example felt byproducts sold to Swiss farmers who use it as insulation for their crops), or specify fabrics made from recycled content or are recyclable (such as recycled polyesters and nylons).

Over 4 million tons of post-consumer textiles enter the waste stream every year, mostly going to landfill. Only 1 million tons are collected for recycling. About 25,000 tons of new textile fiber is disposed of each year by manufacturers and mills. One Canadian company has come up with a process to “re-spin” and make new cotton yarn from waste and several manufacturers have products using respun synthetic fibers.

Polyester, nylon and acrylic are produced from plastic (made from petroleum, a non-renewable resource). The manufacture of polyester fiber can generate toxic air emissions when not contained by the manufacturer. Nylon is generally considered non-toxic although some people report skin reactions from close contact with nylon. Acrylic has been suspected as a carcinogen. Recycled plastic content fabrics (including PET, soda pop bottles) are considered a sustainable product when not combined with natural fibers. Technology hasn’t yet been developed to deconstruct the combination of these two types fibers. Further recyclability of PET fibers is currently limited until further technological developments. Specify recycled content polyester, nylon or PET polyester.

All Natural Fiber Fabrics are renewable and have the potential to be sustainable. Wool is a natural fiber from sheep. Its qualities are its absorbancy, resiliency, insulation and ability to take dye well. Its environmental concerns include land erosion by flocks of sheep and pesticide runoff from their chemical immersion treatment for parasites. Many wool suppliers now exist who meet sustainability criteria for land use, animal management and wool processing. Specify wool that is washed rather than dipped in chemicals from sustainable farmers.

Hemp is an extraordinary fiber — once America’s largest crop and grown in China for 10,000 years. It’s a fast growing renewable resource requiring no chemicals. It naturally aerates the soil, eliminating the need for crop rotation and minimizing any potential soil erosion. It requires half the irrigation of other plants, including cotton. It is the strongest natural fiber, absorbent yet wicks away moisture, has a natural stain resistance, mold and UV light resistance. It’s durable and performs well.

Cotton fulfills 50% of the world’s textile needs and is produced in 60 countries. It also accounts for no less than 25% of the global insecticide market and 10% of the pesticide market, with enormous polluting capabilities. Since the early 1990’s and emerging trend toward organic cotton has grown exponentially. Cotton is absorbent, strong and breathes. Organic cotton is grown in varying colors eliminating the use of dyes. Specify organic cotton fabrics. If processing is required for color selection, specify non-chlorine bleach (which usually means a safer peroxide bleach) and non-toxic dyes.

Flax and Linen are interchangeable terms. Linen fibers come from the inner bark of the flax plant. It is resilient, has appealing natural coloring but is also frequently bleached or dyed. Specify no chlorine bleach and non-toxic dyes.

Copyright © 2000-2008 GreenSage. All rights reserved.