You can find natural and synthetic fibers among the world's most used fibers for textiles. Natural fibers can either be plant-based, animal-based, or mineral-based.
Plant-based fiber types include seed fibers like cotton, bast fibers like hemp, core fibers like jute, leaf fibers like abaca, fruit fibers like coconut, stalk fibers like wheat, cane, grass, and reed fibers like bamboo.
Commonly used animal-based fibers for fashion include wool or hairs and silk fibers. You might also have heard of other wool types like angora, cashmere, alpaca, and mohair.
Here is a list of different types of natural fibers and their uses and properties with examples and pictures.
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Cotton is the most widely used natural fiber worldwide and one of the cheapest to produce. And it's the second most used fiber for garment production behind polyester globally.
Cotton has been used for over 7,000 years to make clothes since it offers numerous advantages for fabric production. About half of all textiles contain natural cotton fibers.
Cotton has a low price because it's mass-produced globally. It's the most widespread profitable non-food crop.
Cotton is easy to clean, soft, durable, lightweight, breathable, and absorbent. It's a natural material, bio-based, biodegradable, compostable, and recyclable.
Dying cotton fabrics is also effortless, fast, and in a variety of long-lasting colors. Cotton fabrics regulate body temperature very well and are perfect in hot weather to keep you cool and fresh.
Cotton harvesting begins at the cotton plant bolls. Cotton is then processed and combed into yarn. But the cotton plant requires tons of water, pesticides, and fertilizers to grow.
Regular cotton production isn't ecological, ethical, or sustainable. It drains resources, generates waste, involves harmful substances that ruin biodiversity and soil fertility, and endanger human health.
Many intensive farming operations genetically modify cotton fibers to increase their productivity and resist pests.
You can read our article on conventional cotton fibers to learn more about their disastrous environmental impact.
Flax is a popular natural fiber harvested from the flax plant. Textile manufacturers used flax to make linen, a very sustainable material that is breathable, soft, comfortable, and luxurious.
Linen has been used for a very long time to make clothing. It's an old fabric, much more ancient than cotton. In today's market, linen is more expensive than cotton because of its costly manufacturing.
Flax represents less than 1% of all textile fibers consumed worldwide. It has been used for thousands of years to make linen textiles that wrap mummies in ancient Egypt to help with preservation.
Flax plants grow in many different countries around the world. Natural flax fibers are extracted from the plant, spun into yarn, then woven into linen fabric. Europe produces more than 85% of all flax fibers globally.
The flax plant has an overall low water footprint. It requires very little water to grow unless the weather is warm and dry.
In history, linen cloth symbolized luxury, preciousness, and extravagance. It was found at dining tables in the Middle Age as a symbol of power, to exhibit authority and wealth.
Today, linen is expensive because it's hard to weave. Its manufacturing is a laborious and timely process. Since natural flax fibers easily break, the machinery must run very slow.
Linen fabric production costs twice as much as cotton production. Flax plants cannot be mowed but pulled up by the roots. It can take up to 90 days to harvest flax.
Many fashion brands and designers use natural flax fibers to make a wide range of other products such as household articles, including pillows, curtains, bath towels, rugs, and wall coverings.
Check out our article on the popularity of linen for more information about natural flax fibers and their uses.
Hemp is one of the most environmentally friendly natural fibers in the world. It's a great material to create comfortable textiles and beautiful fashion with fantastic qualities.
Hemp is soft, breathable, lightweight, and durable but wrinkles easily. It's also expensive to produce, difficult to dye, and overshadowed by cotton.
Hemp is one of the oldest natural fibers used for textiles in the world. Talented artisans already used hemp 10,000 years ago to make clothing.
Hemp plants grow quicker and easier than most trees in temperate climates. They have a very high yield since one acre of hemp can produce two to three times more fiber than an acre of cotton.
Hemp also requires little water to grow and almost no pesticides or fertilizers. Textiles made from hemp fibers are natural, bio-based, and biodegradable.
Natural hemp fibers are strong, longer, more absorbent, and more resistant than cotton fibers. They don't benefit from the same popularity as cotton due to low availability and costly production.
You can read our article on the pros and cons of hemp as a natural textile fiber to learn more about its properties and uses.
Ramie is a long-lasting and enduring natural fiber. It's lightweight and breathable like cotton and linen but not very flexible or elastic.
Textile manufacturers make ramie fabric with natural fibers extracted from the Ramie plant. It's a very eco-friendly and sustainable fabric, great for the eco-conscious shopper.
Ramie originates from China, India, and Indonesia and is one of the oldest fiber crops. Farmers have used natural ramie fibers for thousands of years, mainly for fabric production and weaving clothing.
Ramie fibers are fantastic cotton substitutes with rising popularity. They are very versatile and used to create dresses, sweaters, skirts, jackets, suits, shirts, blouses, pants, jeans, or sportswear.
Ramie's production process is very similar to the one used for linen. Ramie isn't widespread because it remains expensive due to labor costs during cultivation and production. The cheaper alternatives are cotton and linen.
Check out our article on ramie fabric for more information about natural ramie fibers and their uses.
Jute is an environmentally friendly fiber used for textile manufacturing and clothing weaving. It's also one of the cheapest natural fibers and the most widely used globally after cotton.
Jute fabric is strong, durable, and eco-friendly, with a natural look and feel. It has high density, heat resistance, and moisture retention. It's mainly composed of cellulose and lignin, components of plant and wood fiber.
Farmers collect jute fiber from the bast or skin of the jute plant. There are many different types of jute fibers made from different botanical varieties of jute.
Jute plants require lots of rainfall, a warm and humid climate and take about 120 days to grow from April to August. They typically grow in tropical lowland areas with humidity above 60% without pesticides or fertilizers.
Jute is one of the longest natural fibers, harvested in single long strings, 1 to 4 meters long, and a diameter from 17 to 20 microns.
Natural jute fibers are widespread in India, China, Pakistan, Bangladesh in clothing, cordage, and packaging. It's widely used in agriculture and also for handbags, shopping bags, luggage, and wallets.
You can also find jute in filters, geotextiles, decorative items, and home furnishings such as carpets, curtains, canvas, rugs, coverlets, and containers.
You can read our article on eco-friendly jute fabrics to learn more about this great alternative to reduce textile environmental impact.
Abaca is a natural plant-based fiber used to make eco-friendly textiles. It's a versatile material used in many different applications, including clothing fabrics in the fashion industry.
Abaca is a leaf fiber that comes from Abaca plants (Musa Textilis). The abaca plant is native to the Philippines and is quite similar to banana trees.
Abaca fabric is highly durable, long-lasting, and breathable. It's carefully hand-woven on traditional wooden looms by villagers in the southern island Mindanao of the Philippines.
You can commonly find natural abaca fibers in packaging material for agricultural products, bags, luggage, and wallets. Manufacturers also use abaca for cordage, filters, geotextiles, and decorative items such as canvas, rugs, carpets, and curtains.
Abaca is a multifunctional and traditional matting product that is also 100% eco-friendly and recyclable. Abaca is used in many applications and is safe to place in an indoor or outdoor environment.
Check out our article on abaca fabric for more information about natural abaca fibers and their uses.
Bamboo is a natural fiber considered eco-friendly. It's a very sustainable, fast-growing crop that requires almost no fertilizer, pesticides, labor, or additional water.
Unfortunately, natural bamboo fibers very rarely make textiles directly by mechanically processing the plant stem. The process isn't commercially viable. And finding this kind of textile is a difficult task.
Generally, textiles advertised as bamboo aren't natural but semi-synthetic, rayon-like fabrics made from regenerated cellulose extracted from bamboo.
Most bamboo fabrics available in the market are bamboo rayon or viscose made of natural cellulosic polymers from bamboo. The manufacturing of textiles from bamboo requires heavy processing and is usually very toxic.
Manufacturers disintegrate bamboo fibers into a viscous liquid before reconstructing them into thin threads and spinning them into yarns.
Bamboo rayon or bamboo viscose fabrication consumes large amounts of resources and hazardous chemicals such as carbon disulfide, sulfuric acid, ammonia, acetone, or caustic soda.
You can read our article on bamboo fabrics to learn the truth about its manufacturing and environmental impact.
Pineapple is a natural plant-based fiber made of cellulose extracted from pineapple leaves. The material makes good use of pineapple waste by offering a more ethical alternative to animal leather.
Ananas Anam is the company behind Piñatex, a pioneer in leather alternatives made from pineapple leaf fiber. More than 500 clothing manufacturers have used Piñatex since its commercial launch in 2015.
Pineapple leather allows farmers to generate additional income by sorting and selling long leaves suitable for fiber production instead of burning them or leaving them to rot.
Pineapple is one of the most productive tropical fruit plantations in the world. One acre of pineapple plantation can produce 20,000 fruits every 15 months.
But pineapple only flower and fruit once, so the plant and its leaves are a waste product after harvest. The long fibers from pineapple plants are widely used in the fashion and furniture industry today.
Check out our article on Piñatex pineapple leather for more information about natural pineapple fibers and their uses.
Wool is an animal-based fiber obtained from sheep, goats, muskox, rabbits, or camelids. It's often used in the fashion industry to make warm, technical clothing, such as socks, gloves, coats, pullovers, jackets, sweaters, and more.
Wool is a textile fiber made of animal proteins and lipids. Many types of wool fabrics exist, including shearling, alpaca, cashmere, mohair, and angora.
However, wool production has a disastrous impact on the environment. The farming and processing of wool pollute the air, soil, and water, producing greenhouse gases and wastes.
More than 95% of all wool comes from mass production globally. And mass production isn't ethical or sustainable. Wool fiber is one of the five most environmentally damaging fibers worldwide.
Animals used for wool farming are enslaved, exploited, subjected to painful treatments, and exposed to dangerous substances with long-term disastrous effects on ecosystems and human health.
We encourage you to read our article on the harmful effects of wool production to learn the truth about its environmental impact.
Silk is luxurious, natural, and considered one of the finest fibers worldwide. The most expensive silk is mulberry silk, made from the caterpillar cocoons that eat mulberry leaves over several weeks in their pupal stage.
There are many different types of silk. It depends on the animal species, what the insects eat, and the country of origin. But mulberry silk is the finest and contributes around as much as 90% of silk production.
Silk fibers come from several insects called silkworms. Manufacturers commonly use the silk of moth caterpillars to make textiles. Other animals such as leafhoppers, flies, ants, wasps, bees, beetles, and spiders can also produce silk.
Silk has a soft hand feel and a shiny look. It's comfortable, smooth, versatile, breathable, durable, and resistant.
Unfortunately, silk production is very cruel to animals as it destroys hundreds of thousands of sensitive silkworms every year to harvest silk from their cocoons.
Silkworms are killed in boiling water during their pupal stage to preserve material quality, thread length, and value. Whereas in nature, silkworms chew their way out of their cocoon when they become adults.
Check out our article on silk animal cruelty for more information about silk production and its impact.
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About the Author: Alex Assoune
Alex Assoune (MS) is a global health and environmental advocate. He founded Panaprium to inspire others with conscious living, ethical, and sustainable fashion. Alex has worked in many countries to address social and environmental issues. He speaks three languages and holds two Master of Science degrees in Engineering from SIGMA and IFPEN schools.