Although it may be difficult to imagine a tropical cane or an agricultural staple as a luxury fabric, innovations in textile production are making it possible to transform unusual raw materials into cloth with three-dimensional features, varying textures, and superb drape. Examples of renewable fabrics include:
Lenpur, an Italian fiber, is made from the pulp of white pine trees. Soft and absorbent, it wicks moisture well and neutralizes odors.
Sasawashi comes from the leaves of a plant that grows in Japan. This linenlike fabric is highly absorbent, and it is said to have anti-allergenic and antibacterial properties. The leaves are first made into a paper that is then cut into long strips and twisted into yarn.
Sea cell, a fabric derived from sea algae, is cool and soft, with a feel similar to that of smooth cotton.
Soya is made from soy protein, a byproduct of tofu manufacturing that would otherwise be discarded. The fabric has a sheen like that of mercerized cotton and a linenlike drape.
Tencel (generic name lyocell) comes from the pulp of Austrian red beech trees typically grown on land unsuitable for food crops or grazing. The fabric feels like cotton but is stronger and has a more fluid drape.
Unlike the days of old, when natural-fiber clothing meant a one-size-fits-all outfit that made you look like Saggy Baggy the Elephant, today you can wear your environmentalism on your sleeve without sacrificing style. Out of a growing concern for the textile industry's environmental impact, an increasing number of designers are turning to earth-friendly fabrics and calling their work eco-fashion.
"People are beginning to understand how much difference they can make just by what they choose to wear," says fashion designer Linda Loudermilk, who uses only sustainable fabrics in a high-end line she calls luxury eco. Her pieces, which range in price from $350 to $1,700, include bamboo dresses and "sherpas" that feel like sheepskin but are made from recycled plastic bottles and cotton. She designs with organic cotton, soy, sea cell, reclaimed antique lace, and sasawashi, for which she owns the U.S. patent. Loudermilk calls the women she dresses metro-naturalists. "They're women who live in the city, are very social, and go clubbing," she says. "They love fashion and style. They want to look good, but they want to do good, too."
Designer Eileen Fisher, who's a dedicated yogi, agrees with Loudermilk that what you wear is a reflection not only of who you are, but also of what you stand for. For that reason her company has adopted environmental concern as a primary focus. "We used to think that 'natural' was enough," says Fisher, whose name and company have been linked with social consciousness for the 21 years she's been in business. "But the industry is beginning to realize that we need to do more. I've always preferred using natural fibers. But the more we know about them, the more we realize we have yet to learn."
Fisher has been using organic cotton in her clothes for the past three years. "We're a large enough company that when we buy organic, we have an influence on the industry." The influence trickles down slowly through wholesalers, manufacturers, and growers. "We may be taking small steps," she says of her company and peers who are moving toward organics. "But we're on the right path."