Check your tags. Is your sweater plastic or natural?

fashion-605508_1920It is sweater season! Time to pull out the fall clothes bin from under the bed filled with our favorite sweaters. Most of us give our good ones the VIP treatment, but do you actually know what they are made of? If you’ve never looked at the tag on the inside of your sweater, you could be wearing plastic without knowing it.

I figured all of us on a zero waste journey could use a cheat sheet to make sure that we know exactly what our clothes are made of. I have been focused on making smart and sustainable purchasing decisions, a challenge thats hard as hell but I’m trying. I hit roadblocks because there are so many opportunities to be fooled if we don’t educate ourselves.

I was recently at a consignment store looking for sweater that will keep me warm this fall. When the season changes, I love looking around at secondhand stores because they bring out the good stuff first. This is the stuff they have been keeping in the back until there is a demand, and I want to get my hands on them before they go.

I immediately found a beautiful navy one from Banana Republic. Problem was, I wasn’t sure what the material was, so I had to google in the aisle, while women pushed me into the rack of used clothing. I realized I really should know what I’m reading instead of trying to learn as I go. So I did my research to differentiate between the natural and synthetic material. Here is a list of the materials you may find on those tags, and what they’re made of.


Synthetic Fibers to Avoid

These are made of plastic. They are 100% non biodegradable. Once you’re done with them, they will sit on the earth and live longer than you. Worst of all, since sweaters are not woven tight, those plastic microfibers enter the water stream. The plastic absorbs toxins and fish eat it thinking its food. Those toxins then transfer to humans when they eat it. It is a whole thing! Anyways, let’s try to keep synthetic fibers out of the ocean by not bringing it into our homes.

Polyester

The monster of plastic clothing. It doesn’t allow your body to breathe, so you will get incredibly hot in a sweater made of this stuff.

Acrylic

Chances are, if you’re looking at a super soft sweater worth less than $40 dollars retail, it is made of this plastic fiber. It can be made into a light and fluffy fabric, perfect for sweater weather.

Spandex

Do you really need a stretchy sweater?

Nylon

Originally produced to be a cheaper alternative to silk stalkings, the nylon stalking took off in the market. Now it is a commonly used blending fiber. You likely see it blended with other synthetic and natural fibers.

Rayon

This material starts off as a plant, but after a lot of chemical treatment during the manufacturing process, it becomes semi-synthetic. May also be called “Viscose Nylon” – so beware.

Plant Derived Fibers

All these listed are 100% biodegradable and have a low(er) waste manufacturing process. The concern with plant derived material is the farming process. Buying organic is ideal, because the mass use of pesticides pose a threat to health of farmers and the earth. Many of these fibers are also bleached in the manufacturing process. But these are the most sustainable and ethical option.

Cotton

This should be your go to material. Never steers us wrong. It is lightweight, breathable and a classic. Go 100% organic if you can, there are plenty of clothing lines dedicated to organic cotton fashion like People Tree.

Modal

This is the aforementioned fiber that I was confused about at the consignment store. It’s made from Beech Tree pulp. Had to look it up. It is actually a very soft material that blends well with cotton.

Lyocell

Eucalyptus tree wood pulp turned into an eco-friendly material. It has a relatively low waste manufacturing process.

Soy Protein

If you can get your hands on a sweater made from soy protein, then bless you. Soy protein is a by-product of the tofu manufacturing process so it is repurposed waste. It can be made into a cashmere like material, perfect for colder months. You won’t find many clothes in the American market made of this but I wouldn’t be surprised if it booms in the future.

Animal Derived Fibers

Our vegans would want to stay away from this category. Chances are though, most of the natural sweaters you’ll find at the secondhand shop will have fibers made from animal material. These are still 100% biodegradable. Animal fibers cannot be dyed bright colors so you’ll see them made into mostly black, brown, grey and other dark colored sweaters.

While there are many types of wools, you’ll see the ones below more often than others.

Wool

Harvested from sheep, this material is another classic and commonly used for winter wear. It is the most wonderful fabric on the skin, but a pain to maintain. Labels suggest dry cleaning, but lets not with those chemicals. Don’t wash it too often and hand wash in cold water, with special wool detergent. It comes in a recyclable plastic bottle so we’re good. Merino wool additionally comes from sheep but a special breed called, you guessed it, Merino.

Cashmere

Taken from a goat’s coat. This type of wool is the softest, most luxurious natural material you can find, these sweaters will usually cost you a pretty penny. It can be washed the same as wool – rarely, and with special care.

Alpaca Fleece

Another wool, harvested from Alpaca. Like sheep’s wool it is warm and breathable but has a silkier feel and no lanolin. This means it is hypoallergenic. Alpaca are native to South American countries, mainly Peru.


Once you start connecting the dots, just from looking at dyes and feeling the fabric, you’ll be able to tell if it is natural or synthetic. Natural sweaters let your body breathe and the comfort itself is worth the money. It is so easy to find naturally made sweaters at secondhand stores, some still in really good condition. I encourage you to buy used rather than new because, you know, one woman’s trash is another woman’s treasure.

Let me know if this has been helpful, or if you have every been confused when looking at your tags like I was in the comment box below!

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