Something struck me while I was shopping for my newborn daughter recently, a thought that turned an otherwise jovial experience into something painfully irksome. While sifting through the piles of baby clothing at an East Village children’s consignment shop in search of some cold-weather necessities, it was strangely clear to me that at least 90% of the outerwear was made from synthetic, man-made fibers. It was to my utter dismay that many of the thick onesies, lined jackets, and bunting were not of the 100% wool or cotton variety. I was none too pleased with the abundance of polyester, or polyester blends and the lack of pure, natural fibers. Some may say that I’m uppity in this regard, but how is it that materials such as pure wool, which, ironically during the times of the Prophet Muhammad (May peace and blessings be upon him) was the raiment of the poorest of the poor, is not only hard to find, but exorbitantly expensive?
We can thank the current environment of mass production for that. As everything becomes faster and cheaper to produce, it’s no wonder that clothing nowadays consists of synthetics that not only look cheap, but are weak in composition thereby having a shorter shelf life than its nature-made counterpart. Clothing made from acrylic, nylon, rayon, polyester and so forth have permeated the textile industry in such a way, that it’s turned plant and animal-based fabrics into something scarce. When I eventually come across a garment that doesn’t contain synthetics, my initial elation is replaced by disappointment once I look at the price tag. It’s been my experience that prices tend to soar when it comes to clothing that hasn’t been “tainted”. I recently came across a knit cotton cardigan and hat set for a little over $50…for a baby. That may be pennies to some, but for me, $50 is excessive, especially when it comes to clothes that won’t fit after a few months.
Why are natural fibers so important? For one thing, they are a testament to that which is genuine and worthwhile. Things like linen, cashmere, hemp and muslin add so much substance to a garment. Clothing tends to have more character when you’re able to tell where it came from, especially when something is handmade. The subtle creases that look good when not ironed, the warped weave, the tiny irregular holes of something woven are, for me at least, the markings of a well-made, long-lasting, must-have piece. And if we care at all about the environment, once these clothes hit the landfill, they will degrade much faster without putting harmful chemicals into the earth.
If only it didn’t have to come to this. Something that was once so commonplace fifty years ago now a precious commodity, a coterie for those willing to pay. But there’s hope. My saving grace has been thrift, vintage and consignment shops, places where good quality clothing that has fallen out of favor with their previous owners end up. I’ve had the pleasure of procuring a few pieces that will never go out of style, mostly because the material was harvested and not cooked up in a laboratory. They provide substantial warmth and comfort and feel right next to my skin. I just pray that these fibers will still be around when my daughter is an adult. I’d really like for her to be able to appreciate a cashmere sweater one day.