Fibre Origins

Animal, Vegetable or Mineral? Virgin or Recycled?

Fibres are the building blocks of the natural world, we have been converting some of these into our clothing, transport, harvesting and shelther for millenia. The ability of a community to clothe, protect and provide for itself has been a wellspring of community health, wealth and trade for just as long. Industrialisation and innovation has both enhanced, mimiced, modelled & innovated on these ancient traditions that has become the globalised textile and apparel industry of today. Read on to explore these building blocks.

Natural fibres

These fibres grow from plants or animals. If they are plant based they are built with cellulose, if they are animal based, they are built with protein, (corn based fibres break the rules here, protein from plant.) If they can be used after harvesting and washing (maybe a bit of long soaking and a lot of mechanical action too in the case of flax/ hemp/ some bamboo) then they are natural.

Silk is included here, noting that for silk to be harvested the chrysalises need to be soaked in hot water or steamed (worm still in) and the ends have the be picked out of this to be wound off.

Man-Made Fibres

These use plant or animal (milk) based building blocks to industrially make polymers extruded into fibres. The minute you are reconstituting a plant grown product, from one form to another, e.g wood and bamboo into viscose, Tencel ™, modal ™ etc. (viscose from bamboo is the most common form of bamboo fibre in the market), these are actually all man made. These have been developed into a wide variety of final fibres and yarns, and can feel very luxurious. They also often take a very long time to dry!

This technology is now being applied to chemically recycled plant based fabrics and novel waste feedstocks eg straw and orange peel – these are most commonly all part of the family of regenerated cellulose fibres

Synthetic Fibres

These usually consist of oil based constituents. These are entirely inventions of the industrial era, the main players here are Polyester and Nylon. Elastane, or Lycra ™ is Polyurethane and in this gang too! Essentially these are plastics that are extruded into fibres with a myriad of final properties and characteristics. Modern processing is now including post industrial and post consumer hard plastic waste back into useable fibres, e.g. Polyester Fleece from plastic drink bottles, and Nylon swimwear fabrics from salvaged ghost fishing nets. Though this is a tiny fraction of the market and there is growing awareness that this takes plastic from the circular system of turning bottles back into bottles and downcycling them into a cloth that can never be fully recovered.

Polyester is currently about 60% of the global annual fibre consumption.

Recycling – this can be possible with some synthetics, though rarely back to textile fibre of the same grade as its virgin counterpart, more of a downcyclebut the capacity to recycle fibres, globally, is very small, most end up in landfill and don’t biodegrade.


Textile recycling has been occuring as long as we have been making textiles, for the vast majority of our history the labour intensive process of growing, harvesting, preparing, spinning, weaving or knitting and dyeing were so valuable that no items were thrown away, and many were repurposed and reused. This also went for any waste accrued during all these processes. The sections below cover recycling techniques beyond the ideal first steps of repair, remaking and upcycling, where we take waste cloth and items to turn them back into a fibres and yarn again.


Pre-consumer textile waste is generally easier to collect and recycle – most commonly understood as things like garment offcuts, – the sections of cloth left behind after garment panels are cut out. These are homogenous and the fibre content is known. – these are the most sought after feedstock for textile recycling today as they can be collected easily by fibre content category, and colour and can immediately be put into mechanical ragging machines.

Pre-consumer is also a term used for garments – recycled as deadstock before ever being worn – this can be easier than post consumer as items from an overrun, brand change or quality error will be from a know origin, and be consistent in fibre content and colour.
The feedstock can be very high grade and commercially valuable as well as easier to manage for a higher quality yarn and cloth at the end.

Frequently, recycled content is used as a portion of fibre content, blending with virgin fibres to give the resulting yarn and fabric even more strength and longevity.


As the name suggests this is textile recycling feedstock taken from garments after they have been worn. Generally this is a more muddled waste stream, and the preparation to remove all trims, buttons, zips etc is very manual and labour intensive. When this does occur at scale it is generally done in countries where wages are low. Clothing for decommissioning may have no remaining labels making sorting by fibre content hard and the resulting muddle of natural and synthetic content, and a variety of colours mean the resulting products are more of a downcycle than a recycle. For example, the blankets removalists use, or coarsely co-mingled to make insulation or carpet underlay.

Mechanical - Ragging

waste pieces of cloth are fed into a machine that tears the fabric apart, giving a resulting pile of sections of yarn and fibre that can look quite fluffy. This has traditionally been known as the shoddy process, and for wool, this indsutry never left us as wool is such a high value fibre. This technique is growing in popularity again for cotton and other natural fibres, and can indeed be done on a mix of fibres. The value of the output, is entirely dependant on the value of the input. Mills are expanding in Spain, Bangladesh, India and more to sort waste cotton by colour, rag it, and blending it with virgin fibre to make a range of yarns for t-shirts and other causal wear. Prato in Italy has ever remained a region famed for processing of wool shoddy as well as virgin wool products.

Mechanical - plastic grinding for polymer extrusion

The process of grinding waste hard plastic items for their polymer content to become pellets again for extrusion, including as skinny textile fibres is also frequently called ‘mechanical’ recycling as it doesn’t change the chenical content of the feedstock, even though it processes is by re-melting it to be re-formed again in to new items. The pure nature of plastic drink bottles is an example of the pre-requisite level of input quality necessary to make a viable textile fibre as an output – commonly seen on labels as rPET. However it is not possible to take the rPET textile fibre outputs and re-melt them to become a fibre again of the same calibre, as so much more is added, fillers and dyes etc. So this really is a down cycle when used to make textile fibres, as opposed to re-cycling, when it’s used to make clear bottles again.

Chemical Recycling

This is where a feedstock is taken back to it’s molecular building blocks and put it back together again. In textiles this is most successfully occuring in the world of regenerated cellulose. Where we take pre and post consumer 100% cotton cloth, eg denim offcuts from jeans manufacturing, and take that and dissolve the cloth to make a solvent of cellulose molecules to be re-extruded as new ‘viscose’ fibres. This has been possible for a very long time, as the viscose rayon process has been around since early in the 10th century.

Bemburg made in Japan, uses the short fibre waste from the cotton spinning process, more recently, Refibra, by Lenzing is made from cotton offcuts through it’s closed loop Lyocell process. We are now seeing many novel feedstocks rangeing from orange peel, coffee beans and other agricultural waste being able to at least be a portion of a cellulose fibre based yarn and cloth. It is worth noting that in order for these premium textile to textile recycling systems to be possible we need 100% cotton items to be in the system in the first place to create the heirarchy of feesticks to then re-circulate through these innovative processes.