Fashionably Natural

In the 1990s, consumers are saying “no” to conventional dyes, “wrinkle-free” treatments and pesticide-doused fabrics that are harsh on clothes, not to mention your health and the environment. Many are making the switch to natural, breathable, chemical-free alternatives. Hemp, organic cotton, flax and tencel fabrics, in a growing variety of styles and colors, are some of the options now found in mail-order catalogs and retail stores.

Natural fiber clothing comes in a wide variety of comfortable and stylish designs. Photo By Elaine K. Osowski
Natural fiber clothing comes in a wide variety of comfortable and stylish designs. Photo By Elaine K. Osowski

According to James Liebman, staff scientists for the Pesticide Action Network (PAN) in San Francisco, the U.S. grows 13 million acres of cotton each year, the bulk of which is doused with pesticides and insecticides. Liebman says that many acute pesticide poisonings are associated with the chemicals used in the cultivation of conventional cotton. In 1995, Endosulfan, one of many chemicals used in modern cotton growing, was responsible for killing 250,000 fish along a 16-mile stretch of Alabama’s Big Nance Creek when rainfall washed the insecticide into the river. Endosulfan is also a suspected carcinogen—known to be toxic to wildlife and people.

Organic cotton, on the other hand, is grown without the use of synthetic chemical fertilizers, pesticides, growth regulators or defoliants. Instead, farmers rely on organic fertilizers, crop rotation and “integrated pest management,” the use of “beneficial” insects to naturally control species which damage crops. Farmers also employ human labor to cut weeds. During production, the cotton gins are cleared of residue from conventional cotton before organically grown cotton is introduced. To earn the organic label, cotton must follow this rule and be grown on soil that has been free of synthetic pesticides for at least three years.

Attention Earth Shoppers

Suellen Fisher Henney’s interest in natural clothing stems from her sensitivity to formaldehyde, which is used during clothing production to preserve yarn and make fabric softer. Permanent-press clothes also rely heavily on formaldehyde to help prevent wrinkles.

To escape this chemical assault, Henney introduced her Fisher Henney Naturals organic and chemical-free clothing line for women in 1995. Henney’s clothes use FoxFibre cotton, which is genetically bred to grow in shades of brown, green, reddish brown and yellow, eliminating the need for toxic dyes (which pollute waterways and cause allergic reactions in some wearers). She says her clothing line is “for people who want style and don’t want to look frumpish.” Available by mail-order, items include formal business attire, shorts, sweaters, even lingerie and jeans.

Henney says that about 30 percent of her customers are chemically sensitive, while others are just environmentally conscious people who know the harm caused by conventional cotton production and cloth dyeing.

Another ecologically-minded fashion company, Reflections Organic, produces a natural clothing line relying on citrus soaps to clean fabric, and beeswax and natural oils-instead of petroleum products—to lubricate machinery. “When Reflections Organic takes the cotton to be spun or weaved, the emphasis is not on adding chemicals to the process,” says owner Rob McFarland.

McFarland says his company uses low-impact dyes that have no heavy metals, require less energy and water, and have a high color-fastness rate (close to 95 percent). He says his company started dyeing its clothes in 1995 when customers started asking for more than the “natural” look. He measures the growing success of the organic movement, in part, by the fact that fewer people are complaining about the higher cost of natural clothing and instead are asking for more styles and colors. Reflections carries 100 percent organic cotton apparel for the entire family, including dresses and trousers, sweaters, undergarments, infantwear and bathrobes.

Richard Hahn, president of Tomorrow’s World, says that his mail-order company, which started in 1991 selling socks, now offers a full line of clothing, shoes and bedding items made from organic cotton and hemp fabrics. Hahn says his best sellers include Deja shoes (made from recycled materials and hemp), hemp jeans and organic cotton undergarments. Tomorrow’s World also sells bulk hemp and “transitional” cotton fabric (grown with the same process as organic, but in soil that’s in the three-year transition period to becoming certified). “It’s a way to support the idea and concept of organic cotton,” he says.

Other companies are creating eco-fabric blends. EcoSport blends organic cotton with tencel, a biodegradable fiber made from wood pulp (and the first natural fabric introduced to the industry in over 30 years). Taken from managed tree farms, tencel was introduced to the market about four years ago. EcoSport’s co-founder Marylou Marsh-Sanders says that tencel drapes like rayon and is extremely durable. However, it is not chemical-free, relying on low-toxic chemicals during production. EcoSport features a tencel and organic cotton blend of camisoles, shirts and pants, as well as a complete line of natural and some color-grown organic items.

Trad Trading, makers of Trad Hound organic cotton clothing, offers casualwear in organic natural and color-grown brown, as well as low-impact dyed items, featuring their newly developed process—Downstream Dyeing—which uses water-soluble, biodegradable dyes derived from replenishable botanicals like indigo and safflower. The line includes shorts, pants, dress shirts, pullovers, T-shirts and caps (all unisex); some items are available in color-grown check patterns.

California-based Organic Threads, makers of organic cotton color-grown socks, also uses FoxFibre. Owner Gail Richards says, “FoxFibre uniquely deepens with each washing.” She adds that her socks are “a totally U.S.A.-made product—from farmer to knitter.”

Hip Hemp

Growing hemp is still illegal in the U.S., but sales of hemp clothing have increased dramatically in recent years. Hempstead, Earth Goods and Two Star Dog all offer high-fashion clothes using the world’s strongest natural fiber. A common clothing fabric for over 2,000 years, hemp’s eco-friendliness lies in its ability to be grown in any soil, without the use of dangerous pesticides or fertilizers. A great fabric for jeans and coats, hemp also beautifully combines with silk, cotton and other natural fabrics for a variety of looks.

Chris Boucher, founder of Hempstead (whose unofficial vice president is actor Woody Harrelson), is pleased with the industry’s success, hoping his line of men’s clothing, as well as accessories, women’s items, and organic cotton/hemp and silk/hemp blends, will continue to appeal to comfort-conscious consumers.

Seattle-based Earth Goods sells its Earth Tribe line, featuring shirts, trousers, tote bags, and other accessories. While the clothing regularly uses plant and fruit-based dyes (including Indian trumpet bark and Beetle palm nuts), it also offers naturally-colored items, including elegant hemp scarves.

Two Star Dog sells natural hemp jeans, dresses, coats and dress shirts for men and women, as well as organic cotton items and designs made from eucalyptus tree fiber. Floyd Boutros, the 80-year old father of Two Star Dog’s founders Allan and Steven Boutros, recently presented the company’s products to a North Dakota House committee, which helped win approval for hemp research at North Dakota State University.

Natural fiber clothing has other eco-perks as well-many companies use tagua nut buttons (harvested from the tagua palm tree and providing jobs to rainforest tribes), recycle their textile scraps and support organic farmers. So buying natural clothing not only allows you to look cool, it helps Mother Earth look good, too.