Bast Fibres: Bringing Sustainability to Fashion and Farming
A sustainable alternative to cotton, the fashion industry’s leading plant-based fibre, bast fibres offer an eco-friendly, regenerative solution that decreases the need for irrigation, fertilizers, and pesticides to produce the fabrics that we wear.
What are bast fibres?
Bast fibres are bundles of fibres collected from the outer third of the stem of a plant between the woody core and the thin outer layer. Because these materials function to provide structural integrity to the stem, they also bring strength and durability to textiles made from them. They are biodegradable, natural fibers that tend to be breathable and versatile.
There is a wide range of plants that can be sources of bast fibres, but those most common in the apparel industry include flax, which is used to produce linen fabric, and hemp. Other plants that are a bit less well known are ramie (a type of nettle), dogbane, milkweed, jute, and kenaf. These plants are known for their ability to be grown with low-impact methods, utilizing less water and inputs than other crops.
Types of bast fibres
Flax: fibrous material collected from the stem of flax plants is used to produce linen fabric – a breathable, soft, versatile, and hypoallergenic fabric. Europe, and especially Belgium and France, is the primary production region for flax destined to become linen; about 85% comes from Europe.
Hemp: eco-friendly fabrics made with hemp fibers are durable, versatile, and weather resistant. The largest producer of hemp is China, which grows 20-30% of the world’s hemp crop. Other countries that produce fibre grade hemp include North Korea, Europe, Canada, and Russia.
Ramie: native to eastern Asia, ramie is a plant in the nettle family that is used to create strong, stiff fabrics that look similar to linen. However, the low elasticity and brittle nature of ramie fibres means that fabrics are improved when ramie is blended with other fibres such as wool. China is the primary producer of ramie – growing over 95% of the world’s ramie for fibre.
Dogbane: tall stalks of dogbane can be used to collect fine fibres with that are long enough to spin into soft, yet strong, yarn. Dogbane grows in various areas across North America and is an important fibre for some groups of indigenous people, who used it to make rope, nets, snares, clothing, and more.
Milkweed: milkweed produces strong, fine fibres that behave somewhat like a mix between cotton and linen. However, the fibres tend to be very short, which makes it difficult to spin into a smooth, even yarn.
Jute: fibres extracted from the ultra-long stalks of jute plants are typically strong, yet coarse. They are great for producing textiles requiring a lot of durability, where the feel of the fabric doesn’t matter - because jute fabric is not soft. India is the number one producer of jute.
Kenaf: a very fast-growing, yet low-maintenance plant, kenaf is grown in many different locations across the world. The bast fibre obtained from the kenaf stem is strong, weather-resistant, and long enough to be easily spun into yarn. Fabric made from kenaf has a similar appearance and feel to linen but is coarser and not quite as soft.
Sustainable farming practices
While bast fibres are eco-friendly due to being biodegradable and originating from natural sources, rather than being artificially created; they also support sustainable and regenerative farming practices.
Plants that produce bast fibres tend to require less irrigation and other inputs than cotton, the chief plant-based fiber used in clothing production today. Conserving water and limiting fertilizer and pesticide applications creates a more sustainable farming system that helps to preserve, rather than harm, our environment. In addition, bast fibres usually require less machinery and are generally less expensive and time intensive to produce.
However, these crops can take the benefit even further than just sustainably reducing harm on the environment – they support regenerative farming, which works to improve the environment rather than just maintain it. Plants used in bast fibre production are often great cover crops working in rotation with other crops, keeping the soil covered to minimize erosion and incorporating organic matter to improve soil fertility. A greater diversity of crops within a farming system not only improves soil quality, but minimizes plant diseases, further reducing the need for chemical applications.
Innovation in the fashion industry: brands incorporating bast fibres
Many emerging brands and independent designers are incorporating bast fibres into their designs as a way of encouraging use and production of more sustainable fabrics.
Valani: creating dreamy, fun, and flirtatious designs with sustainable fabrics and production practices is the core of Valani. They offer beautiful hemp clothing that makes sustainability fashionable.
Love and Confuse: ethical and sustainable fashion are key for Love and Confuse. They create timeless, staple pieces all with 100% natural linen fabrics that will last and won’t go out of style.
Sugar Candy Mountain: incorporating only ethically sourced fabrics into their designs, Sugar Candy Mountain creates relaxed, everyday garments made from natural fibers including linen and hemp.
First Rite: launched in 2015 by Nikki Garcia, First Rite produces minimalistic, effortless pieces using only natural fibers, including linen and other sustainable fibers such as alpaca.
The rise of slow fashion
The slow fashion movement is a “sister movement” to the sustainable fashion movement. Slow fashion promotes the idea of reducing consumption to create a more sustainable production process for clothes. This means creating and purchasing clothing that is high-quality, not trendy, and seasonless – making clothing that will last and can be worn over and over for years to come.
This idea ties in well with using sustainable, natural fibres such as bast fibres to create eco-friendly garments that are timeless and durable. Not only does this support sustainability in farming and fibre production, but also in the garment production process. Encouraging consumers to purchase fewer pieces, but choose garments that are high quality, classic styles will help move brands in the direction of slow fashion and less waste.
Using bast fibres in your designs is a great way to support efforts to preserve and enhance our environment through sustainable fashion. There are a variety of options available online for purchasing fabrics made with natural, bast fibres – linen and hemp being the most common and easiest to source. You can find linen and hemp fabrics in a range of weights, colors, drapes, and blends that include other fibres – so you’ll be able to find something perfect for your designs!
Linen is a great fabric choice for a variety of applications – not only is it a sustainable option, but it’s breathable, moisture absorbing, and super durable. It also comes in a great range of weights and drapes, and it dyes beautifully. One of the best properties of linen is how it “wears-in” over time – with each wash it gets softer and more lived-in, while still maintaining strength and sturdiness. Linen is gaining major momentum in both the fashion industry and the home sewing community because it’s so comfortable to wear and easy to sew.
Linen is the perfect choice for summer garments because the breathability will keep you cool and help you avoid and annoying sweat marks! Wouldn’t this lightweight linen make an amazing summer top or dress? Linen also blends well with other fibres to create fabrics with a very diverse range of uses. For example, this linen/cotton blend would be great for a jacket! Linen also looks great in a print – check out this striped linen/cotton blend! It would look great in a pair of summer trousers or shorts.
Hemp fabrics are similar to linen in many ways: they are breathable, durable, moisture absorbing, they dye well, and they soften through washing. However, hemp is a bit stronger than linen because the fibers from the hemp plant are longer than those from flax. In addition, hemp is resistant to UV light – so it will protect your skin from those harmful rays in addition to not fading in the sunlight. One other difference is that hemp has less elastic recovery than linen, so blending hemp with other fibres can improve the elasticity of the fabric.
As with linen, hemp can be used for a variety of different applications. It can be great for outerwear – its durability and weather resistance help protect the wearer from the elements. This mid-weight natural hemp fabric would make awesome jackets or trousers! Or choose a lighter colored, structured, hemp fabric for a summery blazer and pant set, such as this white natural hemp fabric. When made in lighter weights, the breathability of hemp can be perfect for summer shirts and tops. This lightweight hemp fabric would be a great option for a summer shirt!