This is one of the oldest forms of material used by humans as clothing and it remains an important fabric particularly for footwear and accessories. Around 3.8 billion cows and other bovine animals, sheep and goats are used in the leather production industry each year – around one animal for every two people on the planet. More than half the world’s supply of leather raw material comes from developing countries, with China being the dominant buyer and processor. The global trade in raw leather is around $30 billion per year.
Bast fibres like flax (for linen), hemp and nettle are a traditional source that has been used by humans for thousands of years, although they presently make up only a small proportion of total fabric use. These fibres are found in the inner bark layer (phloem), of the plant that sit between the woody core (xylem), and the outer-most layer (epidermis). The long phloem cells must be separated from the xylem and epidermis before being further treated to make them ready to weave or knit into fabrics4, either as a pure fibre or in a mix with other fibres such as cotton. Most bast fibres are used for other products such as paper, ropes and carpets.
This is a broad category of fibres and materials that are diverse but make up only a tiny fraction of the entire amount of fabrics used. Many of these are experimental in nature – for example, they may be made from materials originally derived from mushrooms, pineapple or milk.
Notions and hardware
Metals, plastics, wood and other assorted materials go into making the ‘hardware’ that is intrinsic to many clothes (zip fastenings, buttons, buckles, clasps and so on). These items may be small but their production is far from small-scale – the zip market alone is worth $13 billion in sales per year.5