What Are Plant Fibers, and Where Do They Come From?

Written by: Mackenzie Wade



Time to read 8 min

How often do you consider where your clothing comes from and what materials it's made from? Natural plant fibers have been used for centuries to make textiles, but with the advent of synthetic materials, we've become increasingly detached from the origins of our clothing. Plant fibers, which are often stronger, more durable, and more comfortable than synthetic fibers, can offer an eco-friendly solution to the harmful effects of synthetic textiles, and understanding where they come from empowers us with the knowledge to make healthier, more sustainable buying decisions.

But what exactly are plant fibers?

Fibers are a material which is composed of thin and continuous strands. Plant fibers in particular are elongated plant cells with thick cellulose walls. Fibers obtained from plants and animals are known as natural fibers, whereas synthetic fibers are man-made from materials like petroleum or plastic — think polyester or nylon. 

Fabrics made from synthetic materials are associated with environmental degradation, can have harmful effects on textile workers, and are linked to an array of health issues. Fortunately, the prevalence of plant-based natural fibers offer both a solution to these issues and enhanced functional properties like comfort and durability.

Understanding the difference between some of the most common plant fibers can be helpful when considering their application, characteristics, environmental impact, and economic value. It's important to mention that there are countless types of plant-derived fibers and fabrics in the world today, and new varieties are being discovered and developed seemingly every day. To get a sense of some of the more out-there innovative plant fibers in development, check out some of the plant-based alternative leathers stepping onto the fashion and interiors scene.

For now, we'll cover some of the most common plant fibers in the world today, many of which have been integral parts of world cultures for thousands of years.

cotton plant fiber
Image credit: Izzet Ugutmen
1. Cotton

Cotton, produced in approximately 70 countries worldwide, is one of the most common, well-known plant fibers out there. It's found in apparel, upholstery, bedding, canvas, accessories, footwear, towels, and the list goes on. 

Cotton is known for being strong, natural, renewable, breathable, and soft. Its softness can vary depending on the quality of the fiber, but some cotton varieties can even be softer than cashmere. Extremely absorbent, cotton can hold water up to 27 times its weight. 

Despite its incredible properties, cotton has become more controversial in recent years, as conventional cotton production has proven to be harmful to the environment and to our health. Conventional cotton production uses synthetic fertilizers and other chemicals to increase production. These toxic chemicals leech into the environment, contaminating water sources and resulting in significant greenhouse gas emissions. 

Alternatively, organic cotton eliminates the use of chemicals in its production, making it more regenerative on the landscape and having an overall better environmental and social impact. Agricultural practices used for organic cotton production positively impacts soil health, water, and biodiversity. Forgoing the use of toxic substances and pesticides makes organic cotton significantly more environmentally friendly and healthy.

linen fabric flax plant fiber
Image credit: Julian Elliott
2. Flax/Linen

Linen, the millennia-old fabric commonly associated today with farmhouses and country living, is one of the most sustainable natural fibers. Made from the flax plant, linen is an excellent fabric for it's low heat retention, strength, and resistance to pilling. 

The best quality flax grows in Western Europe due to the ideal climate and soil conditions. Flax requires little to no irrigation and no use of GMOs. Additionally, every part of the plant is used, leaving behind zero waste

Flax fiber is considered a bast fiber since it comes from the stem of the plant. In the process of creating linen fabric, the cortex or bark is removed from the plant. The cortex is then scraped, removing most of the outer bark. The residual material is washed, dried, and then degummed to extract spinnable fiber. 

These fibers are then woven into linen fabric, used in a variety of applications including tablecloths, clothing, upholstery, and bags. It is one of the more readily available natural fabrics, but it is still less available than cotton and therefore tends to come at a slightly higher price tag.

jute plant fiber
Image credit: Monumasud
3. Jute

Although less popular in the West, jute is extremely common in India and its neighboring countries, where it has been grown for textile purposes for over 5,000 years. Sometimes called the “golden fiber” for its soft, shiny, silky texture, jute continues to be widespread in uses such as bags, ropes, rugs, upholstery, and canvas and sometimes apparel.

This remarkable plant grows most prevalently in South Asia. Around 85% of jute production is local to the Ganges River Delta, which extends from Bangladesh to India. Jute plants can grow over 10 feet high, and it yields a sustainable plant fiber that is highly biodegradable, breathable, and environmentally friendly. The production of jute returns to the soil and helps the soil retain moisture.

In addition to its positive environmental impact, Jute also happens to be one of most inexpensive textiles. Although artisan jute can be pricier, many types of jutes can cost as little as $1 per yard

eucalyptus plant fiber
Image credit: Y. Swee Ming
4. Eucalyptus

Steadily increasing in popularity in the fashion world, eucalyptus fiber is a wood-derived fiber from eucalyptus trees grown in sustainably managed forests. Eucalyptus fiber, or lyocell is commonly referred to by its brand name, Tencel, which is developed solely by Austria-based company Lenzing

Though it technically is not organic, the production and chemicals used to produce Tencel is non-toxic, and it doesn't pollute the environment. The production process begins with the harvesting of eucalyptus wood, which is then cut into small pieces and ground into pulp. The wood pulp is dissolved with a solvent called amine oxide in a closed-loop system, meaning that the solvents are recovered and reused. After processing, the resulting substance is pushed through mechanical spinnerets, from which lyocell fibers emerge. The fibers are washed, dried, and spun into yarn that is woven into soft, silky, breathable fabric.

Since eucalyptus trees can grow quickly in relatively poor, rocky soil without irrigation or pesticides, it is an incredibly sustainable raw material for textile production. They also are felled rather than uprooted, so planting new trees in their place isn't necessary for regrowth.

Tencel fabric is most commonly available in clothing and bedding and is loved for its slick, smooth texture and ability to add unique softness when blended with other fibers.

kapok plant fiber
Image credit: Wasanajai
5. Kapok

Moisture-resistant, quick-drying and resilient, kapok is an extremely soft, fluffy plant fiber derived from the kapok tree. While it is primarily cultivated in Asia, kapok thrives in a range of locations including Mexico, the Amazon Rainforest, parts of West Africa, and even south and central Florida. In the textile industry, kapok is primarily used as stuffing for pillows, mattresses, and upholstery, but this majestic tree also has a wide array of other uses. Because of its natural buoyancy, it has been used in life preservers and other water safety equipment, and kapok timber has been carved into canoes and used in other wood products like paper. The oils and seeds are also commonly used to make natural soaps and other plant based beauty products. 

Considered by some to be the most sustainable plant fiber available, it leaves behind absolutely no human footprint. Hard spines that grow on the trunks give it a natural form of protection from animals, making pesticides unnecessary. Kapok are also fast-growing trees, seeing around 13 feet of growth per year. Free of added chemicals, the manufacturing process of kapok fabrics can be sustainable as long as harmful synthetics aren't used for fabric finishing treatments. The fibers are fast-drying which reduces the need for machine drying, saving energy. As long as the fibers are 100% pure kapok or blended only with other natural fibers, it is also biodegradable and compostable, contributing to a sustainable life cycle for this incredible plant fiber.

hemp plant fiber
Image credit: Pixel-Shot
6. Hemp

Despite its controversy, hemp fiber and fabric is an incredibly environmentally friendly plant fiber. Many in the textile industry argue for easing restrictions on hemp growth to help make this fabric more readily available on the market, and for legitimate reasons. Hemp is a remarkably sustainable and renewable plant that grows extremely quickly in many different climates, does not require the use of chemical pesticides or fertilizers, and that yields the highest per-acre yield of any natural fiber. That's 250% more fiber than cotton and 600% more than flax. In addition to its high yield, hemp is often used as a “rotation crop” by farmers to help heal the soil in between growing other crops and to benefit any plants growing around it, thanks to its deep root system. These deep roots also allow it to sequester carbon from the atmosphere.

Hemp has significant market value given that every part of the plant has multiple potential uses. Hemp can be used in building products, natural paint, ink, paper, and the oil and seeds can be used in food and beauty products. Though Europe and China are currently the largest producers of hemp, China remains the largest producer of hemp for use in textiles.

As fabric, hemp fiber is breathable, biodegradable, durable, absorbent, and suitable for use in apparel, bags, home textiles, rope, and sails. Other non-textile products include biodegradable plastic and bio-fuels, giving it incredible potential for positive environmental impact.

banana plant fiber
Image credit: Jahangir Alam Onuchcha
7. Banana

While banana fiber is the least common plant fiber on this list, banana textiles are growing in popularity, use, and production worldwide. Anytime crops traditionally used for human consumption are used as fibers for textiles, the ethics of its use understandably comes into question. In the case of banana textiles, the fibers come from the peel of the fruit, a part of the plant that otherwise would go to waste. In other words, food is not being sacrificed for the production of this fabric. 

Banana trees grow most readily in warm climates like in India, Southeast Asia, and Central America. The trees take between 18 and 24 months to grow, but once they are mature, a single tree can yield 12-30 leaf stalks reaching upwards of 20 feet high. Since these stalks can be harvested every few months, banana trees can provide a sustainable source of income for farmers. Banana trees are also environmentally friendly, having a low impact on soil health, requiring no additional water, land, or fertilizers since it easily regrows in the same place. 

The process of making banana fabric begins when the fibers are peeled and separated from other components of the plant. Soaking the plant in water is often done to help soften and separate the fibers, which are then bunched together, dried, and then regrouped according to quality. The final stage is spinning the separated fibers into yarn, which is woven and used in accessories, clothing, decor items, and industrial products. The fabric is breathable, naturally soft, hypoallergenic, and comfortable.

In today's world, it's more important than ever to consider the environmental impact of the materials we use in our clothing and textiles. Plant fibers like cotton, flax, jute, eucalyptus, kapok, hemp, and banana can offer sustainable alternatives to the synthetic materials that have dominated the market for decades. These natural fibers are renewable, biodegradable, and often grown using organic practices that protect the environment and support local communities. By choosing plant-based textiles, we can support a more sustainable and ethical fashion industry, one that values the planet as much as it values style and comfort.

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Mackenzie Kuck

Mackenzie is a professional designer, lifelong artist, and sustainable materials aficionado for the interiors and fashion industries. She is passionate about bringing organic, non-toxic materials into the market and empowering others to live and shop sustainably.