How often do you look at what a garment is made of before you purchase it? I always look, if for no other reason, to see how the garment needs to be cared for. Mostly, I want to know if it has to be dry cleaned. Also, whenever I see that an item is made of natural fibers, I view it more favorably. I know from online reviews/forums that others feel the same. Somehow wearing an item essentially made of plastic (polyester) doesn't hold the same appeal as wearing something that comes from nature (wool, cotton, cashmere, etc.). But are natural fibers actually better than man-made fibers?
Obviously, the answer to that question can vary from person to person. Here are my comments on different fibers, which are of course, subjective and based off my own experiences. Although I comment on the durability and care instructions for the different fibers, these often vary based on the quality of the garment, whether or not it has a lining, how it was constructed, etc.
Daylight Apparition Ruffled Top, ThreadSence.com, $32
Polyester (man-made): As I said above, the thought of wearing plastic makes me shudder a bit, but really, some polyester fabrics feel very nice. It generally keeps its shape, which is why it is often mixed with cotton (poor quality cotton can become misshapen over time). It can easily be machine-washed, as well as machine-dried and ironed, but don't dry or iron it on high heat -- it can burn/melt.
Indie Darling Dress, ModCloth.com, $54.99
Rayon (partially man-made): Rayon is an amazing fiber. It feels smooth, flows over your body and drapes very well. It is reasonably durable as long as it is cared for well; however, caring for rayon garments can require a bit of work. While it's sometimes okay to put them in the washing machine (I'd at least put them in a garment bag), do so with caution! I've had some rayon garments never be the same again after a trip through the washing machine. Many rayon dresses I have state right on the tag that they are dry clean only and because I really like them, I don't mess with that.
Sparkle & Fade Crisscross Back Sweater in Teal, Urban Outfitters, $59
Acrylic (man-made): Acrylic is a man-made fabric that is designed to resemble wool. If you buy a sweater that's heavier than a cotton one would be, but not very expensive (think most Urban Outfitters and ModCloth sweaters) then there's a good chance that it's acrylic. I've come across many acrylic sweaters that feel amazing and some that feel gross and cheap. The main problems I have with acrylic (and some Googling showed me I'm not alone) is pilling and static. To keep your acrylic garment looking decent, I'd recommend washing it in a garment bag on the cool cycle and avoiding the dryer. I've done this with acrylic sweaters that claimed to be hand-wash only, and they turned out fine. An acrylic sweater certainly won't last as long as wool sweaters, but they are easier to care for (most don't require dry-cleaning!)
Shirley Sweater Dress in Cream/Black/Mustard, ShopDearCreatures.com, $78
Cotton (natural): Cotton is one of the most universally loved fibers. Part of the appeal is that it can be machine-washed, because who wants to be constantly running to the dry cleaner? Cotton is great for summer because it is very absorbent and breathable. The only downsides would be that it sometimes wrinkles easily and can shrink if washed improperly and/or it's not pre-shrunk. Shrinking can generally be avoided by washing items on a gentle cycle with cooler water and not putting them in the dryer.
Tippi Cardigan in Crushed Grape, J. Crew, $59.50
Wool (natural): One of the first things that wool brings to mind is an itchy sweater, because, hey, we've all had one (or two or three…). However, not all wool is itchy. I find Merino wool to be less scratchy than other types, but some people still find it to be uncomfortable. Wool is great for the winter because it's extremely warm. It is also very durable, so even though wool garments cost more, they are generally true investment pieces that you will have for years. Caring for wool garments can be a bit annoying. Wool either needs to be hand-washed or dry-cleaned. Machine-wash at your own risk because if something goes wrong, you might end up with clothes for your old Barbie doll!
Cashmere Hat in Charcoal, everlane.com, $40
Cashmere (natural): Everyone loves a cashmere sweater! And it is easy to see why. Cashmere is soft and warm. Even people who don't want to invest in a sweater, will buy some cold-weather cashmere accessories like a hat or scarf to keep them cozy during the winter. The only downside of cashmere (besides the price) is that it can be annoying to care for. It doesn't always have to be dry-cleaned, but it can't just be thrown in the washing machine with the rest of the clothes. It sometimes can be hand-washed or washed in the machine on the coldest, gentlest cycle possible (plenty of people swear this works, but I wouldn't risk it on a new $100+ sweater).
Silk Boyshirt in Transatlantic Blue, Madewell, $110
Silk (natural): Nothing feels quite as luxurious as silk. It is beautiful and feels great against your skin. Like wool garments, clothing made from silk is often more expensive, but silk is a pretty durable fiber so again, you should have your purchases for many years. You should plan on either hand-washing or dry-cleaning any silk garments you buy (check the label for instructions). Also, it needs to be kept away from direct sunlight when it is wet, as that can make it yellow.
I certainly didn't cover every type of fiber here because that would be an encyclopedia instead of a blog entry. And really, I can't provide a conclusion about whether natural or man-made fibers are better. Even in terms of the environment, it is not obvious which one is better (for example, although bamboo itself is natural, it has to be broken down and processed with many chemicals before it can be made into an item of clothing). So basically, you'll just have to look at the information above and do some research on your own to decide which is best for you.