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What Are Microplastic Fibers? And why should you care?

I’ll keep this fairly short, as there are already a lot of excellent articles about this topic on the web, and I’d much rather be sewing 🙂 But since microplastic fibers inspired this blog, I thought I should lay out the basics of this huge environmental issue and how it has affected my sewing hobby.

Basically, microplastic fibers are tiny shreds of plastic that enter the water supply every time a piece of synthetic fabric is machine washed. If you want to get a sense of what they look like, take a peek at your sewing machine. The dust that accumulates around your thread spool and inside your machine is made up of teeny fibers that break off from the thread. And if you’re sewing with polyester thread, as most of us do, those fibers are microplastics. Make sense?

The trouble is that these tiny bits of plastic are washed into our water systems every time we do the laundry, where they’re accumulating at an alarming rate. A 2011 study found that of 85% of human-generated waste on shorelines is composed of microplastic fibers. Even more worryingly, the fibers are turning up in the bodies of fish and shellfish all over the world, in oceans and fresh water alike. In the terrifying words of one ecologist, the fibers seem to be “weaving themselves into the gastrointestinal tract” of fish. Ick. Research on microplastics is still a young field, but scientists’ concerns are growing. Health experts warn that they may even be entering the air we breathe.

As a seamstress, this all got me thinking. At first glance it seems like there’s a simple solution: buy natural fiber clothing. Easy, right? Except that anyone who sews knows there’s more to a garment than just the fabric. Every piece is put together using thread, which is most typically made of 100% polyester. Polyester thread also encases the overlocked seams of most garments to keep them from fraying. Interfacings are typically made of synthetics, and so are zipper tapes and even clothing care labels. In fact, I started to wonder: in the 21st century is it even possible to buy clothing made of 100% natural fibers?

If I was a fashion blogger I might try to find a retailer who could answer that question. But as someone who sews for fun, I became interested in exploring it myself. There’s a reason plastic is everywhere in the modern world – it’s inexpensive and practical. If you take synthetic fibers out of garment construction, what are you left with? This blog is an attempt to answer that question.

If you want to know more about microplastic fibers I suggest checking out the Global Microplastics Initiative and the gross-yet-hilariously-named Plastic Soup.

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