Inspiration / Sustainable Sewing

There’s plastic in my fabric?

There's Plastic in my fabric? // Sustainable sewing series on Megan Nielsen Design Diary

This month we are celebrating Plastic Free July, a monthly long challenge to reduce the amount of plastics we use. What’s that got to do with making clothes you ask? Well, it turns out there’s plastic in our fabric, minute pieces of plastic that will persist in the environment long into the future. So for Plastic Free July we are sharing ways makers can reduce their plastic footprint.

How big is the problem?

Clothing is the number one source of primary microplastics, contributing to over 34% of the global total.  And the number is set to grow with global production of synthetics becoming a larger proportion of production year on year.

The version of microplastics found in our clothing are called microfibres. Scientists are finding this tiny debris from our cloth everywhere; in the soil, oceans, drinking water and food chains. The research to date is finding that the asymmetrical and sticky make up of microfibres makes them a particular problem for animals.

Where have microfibres been found:
  • drinking water worldwide
  • oceans and waterways
  • animals guts
What problems do they cause?

While we don’t yet fully understand the implications for human health, we do understand the following risks:

  • microfibres leach toxic chemicals from production into the environment and they also readily adsorb chemicals from the environment which are then eaten by animals;
  • when eaten by animals, microfibres can artificially fill up the guts of animals, causing blockages and death;
  • the risk of bioaccumulation of carcinogens in our food chain is higher for microfibres than other microplastics due to their high surface area and ability to adsorb chemicals.
Which fabrics shed microfibres?

All fabrics shed microfibres, but the rate at which they break down varies drastically between natural fibres and others. Here’s the hit list:

  • Avoid: polyester, acrylic, nylon, lycra/spandex
  • Avoid: blends containing synthetics
  • Proceed with caution: cellulose microfibres (rayon, lyocell, viscose, modal, bamboo) have also been found in food chains.
What can we do about it?

Microfibres are leached from our fabrics during production, washing and when disposed of so the solution has to be all encompassing:

  • use less and reduce waste when cutting and in design;
  • use 100% natural fibres where possible;
  • wash less and look after your clothes to give them a longer life;
  • add one of these microfibre catchers to your washing machine – Guppy Friend or a Cora Ball;
  • investigate disposal options in your region; and
  • advocate for better options such as take back and recycling programs.

Microplastics Action List - How to limit our impact when making our own clothes! // Sustainable sewing series on Megan Nielsen Design Diary

There are lots of wonderfully creative ways to turn this problem into something positive. I have a friend who cuts us her old leggings into yarn like strips and uses them to make macramé plant holders. The Rouge Ginger stuffed a cushion with her worn out synthetics when she couldn’t find a suitable way to dispose of them. My current strategy is to down size any worn out adult clothing into kids clothing and to prioritise 100% natural fibres when buying new.  This Plastic Free July let us join as a community to reduce the amount of synthetics we use, and to ensure that those is existence don’t end up in our waterways.

Source:  Microplastic pollution from textiles – a literature review (2018) 

Sustainable sewing series on Megan Nielsen Design Diary

About Author

Nicki is the co-creator of Fibershed maker’s movement and has been instrumental in the foundation of Fibreshed Melbourne as she believes connecting communities around slow fashion is the way forward. Reframing sustainability as a something of value to all makers is her passion, and she loves to inspire by doing and learning herself.   As the designer, knitter, weaver and seamstress of her own clothes Nicki has a passion for exploring sustainability in textiles.

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Johanna Imhoff
6 years ago

Thank you for this post; it’s great to see people talking about this issue. Is the issue with cellulose fibers simply that they take longer to break down than wool, cotton and silk, or are there other concerns as well?

Johanna Imhoff
6 years ago
Reply to  Nicki

Thank you!

6 years ago

I know every little bit helps and I am already 95% committed to natural fibers only (what to do about stretch denim!) but then I think about mass clothing production and consumption… it seems hopeless. I work in a place dedicated to rescue, rehabilitation, and research of marine mammals, and while it’s heartbreaking to see the effects on animals, research also suggests humans will absolutely not get away unscathed. Toxins tend to concentrate as they move up the food chain, and we’re pretty high up. Thank you so much for spreading this information!!

6 years ago

Thank you for this; I worry that this issue gets forgotten in between awareness campaigns. Do you know of any tests or studies done to see how effective the Guppy Friend or Cora Ball are?

Johanna Imhoff
6 years ago
Reply to  Janet

I’d like to add that my Guppy Friend is not working well for clothing that is a blend with a small percentage of synthetic… it gets way too heavy with water and doesn’t spin properly. I’d love to just spin it again, but I rent and my on-site laundry is coin operated and doesn’t give me the option to choose where in the cycle to restart. :(

6 years ago

Do you know if the Cora Balls are available in Australia?

5 years ago
Reply to  Kathryn

I looked into buying a Cora ball and it doesn’t look like there is a retailer in Australia. The company that makes them does ship internationally though. They sell them singularly or in packs of 3 and 8, so it could be worth getting some friends together and splitting postage.

6 years ago

Thank you Megan for doing this work! I’m a returned sewist (after an almost 40 yr hiatus) and I’ve been impressed in general with the higher level of awareness in the sewing community re sustainability…most of my clothes were purchased second hand for many years and even when I decided I didn’t want them I passed them along. I’m a huge natural fiber fan :) but that 5% spandex is going to be hard to give up! Having a bit of stretch in cotton can be the difference between comfortable pants and ones that dig into you with sitting and bending :)

6 years ago

This is an important topic, and there is no easy solution. It is important to be aware that plastic isn’t the enemy, but our disposable consumption of it that is worrying. Did you know that cotton production methods are equally environmentally unsustainable? 20,000 litres of water are used to make one T-shirt and a pair of jeans. I invite you to search the internet and read up about how polluting cotton production methods are to our planet. Choosing natural fibers isn’t necessarily an environmentally sound choice. I agree that our best bet is to make good quality clothes that last longer and take better care of them.