Photo courtesy of Aessai from their AW20 collection

Have you ever wondered what really makes an item sustainable? Or debated the qualities of an "it" item? Maybe you've pondered the future of retail in a post-pandemic world?
In a strange cycle of 'normal' life starting, pausing and restarting, more questions than answers have arisen in our daily lives but in an effort to understand our surroundings better, we've decided to get some answers.  

We're starting with what we know best and that is the questions driving the fashion and beauty industry forward. From topics on sustainability to the merits of organic beauty, we'll be digging into the questions that have perplexed us and piqued our curiosity; and to do so, we enlist the help of industry experts to get the full run-down.

For the first instalment in the series, we are talking knitwear! In your wardrobe, you may have an alpaca wool scarf here and a jumper made with a mixed blend of nylon & polyester over there and hey, maybe you love them both but today, we're weighing them up against each other to explore their differences and learn just how sustainable they are.

What is the difference between natural vs. synthetic materials when it comes to quality and longevity?
Cashmere, Alpaca and Merino wool are often the hallmark of luxury knitwear. We invest in our cashmere jumpers and wool scarves usually because they are "higher quality" but in saying this, what exactly are we referring to – the touch and feel, the farming in lands far beyond us, its condition after years of use or all of the above?

To help us nail down this definition, we asked Rebecca Kramer, creative director of London-based sustainable knitwear label, Aessai (who are launching soon exclusively on Matches Fashion), and she outlined that "Synthetic fibres are traditionally more durable than most natural fibres, they are profoundly stronger and have a tendency to dry quickly and absorb dye easily. They are water and stain resistant and are also not susceptible to moth and mould damage." OK, so far, so good – but with all these pluses, how do natural fibres rival it? As you might've guessed, in the sensorial experience. Explaining further, Kramer says, "Natural fibres which are derived from a plant source (like cotton or linen) are extremely breathable, soft and very light. Animal fibres have a large absorbent capacity, and also act as a temperature regulator capable of protecting the body from cold and hot temperatures." So in other words, a polyester jumper will weather a storm but a cashmere jumper keeps you warm through it. But of course, the answer is not so black and white and their differences grow more complex when we ask questions on sustainability. 

Aessai AW20

Which one is more sustainable?
Full disclaimer: this is a very loaded question. Knitwear companies are faced with challenges that span across ethical farming, traceability, landfill and recycling and more. So, for all intents and purposes, we're going to keep it fairly bite-sized. To start, all natural fibres are biodegradable, synthetic fibres, however, are not. British knitwear company, John Smedley, alongside The Campaign for Wool illustrated this when they buried their wool garment with a synthetic one in the grounds of Clarence House. "When dug up (by HRH Prince Charles) a few months later, our wool had biodegraded causing no damage to the environment, whereas the synthetic was still pristine," says
Jess Mcguire-Dudley, Marketing and Design Director at John Smedley. It would seem then that synthetic fibres' durability is a plus when it comes to wearing but not throwing away.

How about recycling then? To an extent, we know recycling both materials are possible: earlier this year we couldn't get enough of the Prada Re-Nylon collection which sees nylon regenerated using ECONYL yarn, and most recently, COS have just launched a recycled cashmere collection. So why is the use of post-consumer textiles not common practice? According to Sophia Opperskalski, Fibre and Materials Specialist at Textile Exchange, "less than 1 percent of all textiles are currently recycled. The majority is incinerated or landfilled." If that figure didn't shock you, you may need to read it again! When we asked her why it's so challenging, Opperskalski explains, "Technologies for high-quality textile-to-textile recycling are only just emerging and not yet widely adopted...Textile collection schemes are insufficient, and a large share of the textiles that are collected are fibre blends, which are particularly challenging to recycle. There are also concerns and challenges regarding chemicals in post-consumer textiles." These are just some of the obstacles – don't get us started on the excessive water consumption known to produce cotton and wool.
So, can we really say one is more sustainable than the other? We venture to give an ambiguous but (recently) well-informed "no".

COS Recycled Cashmere Collection

With all this in mind, how can we shop knitwear consciously? 
It's easy to get disheartened when you learn that there's a long road ahead but we're taking baby steps. It's likely your purchase of a recycled jumper (which Opperskalski recommends) or ethically-farmed jumper is already a step in the right direction. Take Waste Yarn Project, for instance. They work on using leftover fibres to create one-off unique jumpers. Siri Johansen, the founder, elaborates: "Our sweaters are made using almost every fibre out there, depending what’s left over at the factory. We do an edit to avoid cheap, bad quality yarn, as each piece is handmade, a time consuming creation, we want the materials to reflect that." 
On the consumer's end, synthetically produced jumpers are usually cheaper than their counterpart and although Jess herself triumphs natural knitwear (have you ever felt a John Smedley jumper?!), she notes, "washed/worn and repeat may make them [synthetics] seem like the easy option." On the other hand, natural knitwear is often considered an investment due to their breathability and quality of insulation. 

Waste Yarn Project

So, there you have it. Both natural fibres and synthetic fibres have their pros and cons when it comes to the wearer's experience and it's life cycle after that; And as we catch up to technology and more brands make sustainable strides, the conversation is sure to continue and change. Needless to say, we have more burning questions but we'd like to think we're better off than when we started!