In textiles, plastics and synthetic chemicals are inescapable.
It was March 2022, and with my best friend’s baby shower approaching, I knew the gift I wanted to make: a stuffed whale or two.
My friend loves whales and I love sewing. The mother-to-be received the plush cetaceans with delight, but as I’d worked, my own satisfaction waned.
Most children’s toys have a limited lifespan. Kids grow up; toys get lost. Yet the polyester and spandex fibers in the whales’ fabric and stuffing would last for decades, centuries, even millennia. Polyester is spun from polyethylene plastic, the same stuff used in water and soda bottles; while spandex is made, in part, of polyurethane, the main ingredient in memory foam mattresses. Petroleum-based textiles don’t readily biodegrade like wool or cotton — instead, they break down into ever-smaller bits of plastic. Textiles are a major source of microplastic pollution. According to a June study, we inhale about a credit card’s worth of floating plastic fibers each week.
I imagined polyester filaments wafting into the newborn’s lungs or washing down the drain and making their way to the ocean, where they’d wind up ingested by creatures as small as krill and as huge as humpbacks.
I resolved to make a new, better, improved set of plush whales — ones that would be plastic-free, and entirely home compostable. All I had to do was source 100% cotton fabric, stuff it with cotton and kapok — a natural fiber from the seedpod of a rainforest tree — and embroider baby-safe eyes with cotton thread. All the scraps would be sent to my backyard compost pile, and slowly transform into soil for my organic garden.
It sounded simple.
Soft, fluffy and full of plastic
The author, with additional polyester-based whale iterations, slowly going mad.
A stuffed animal must be, above all, huggable. And, given that I was making whales, they needed to be blue. I looked for biodegradable fabric that was both blue and appropriately fluffy.
German teddy bear fabric, made of cotton and Angora goat hair, was an attractive option, but it ran $150 per yard. Every other suitably furry cotton fabric I could find had some form of plastic in it. That lovely, stroke-able organic cotton velour? Five percent polyester. That wooly cotton “sherpa” fabric? Twenty percent polyester. At last, I found something that seemed too good to be true — a fuzzy, baby blue, 100% cotton fabric. I ordered a yard, waited for it to arrive, and began to cut and sew.
Except something was off. As I worked, the fabric’s fibers stretched and snapped in a most un-cotton-like manner. Perplexed, I took a lighter and singed a piece of scrap. Instead of burning into ash, as cotton does, it melted. I wrote to the fabric vendor and received bad news: the bolt had been mislabeled. It was 5% spandex by weight.
It was too late to reverse course. My friend’s baby arrived in April, and while the mostly plastic-free whale was graciously welcomed, I wasn’t about to let the fossil fuel industry declare victory. Armed with my new knowledge, I got busy making a truly compostable toy. Or so I thought.
A year after my experiment, I spoke with sustainability expert Alden Wicker to understand where I’d gone wrong. Wicker is the author of “To Dye For,” an investigation into the almost entirely unregulated world of synthetic chemicals in fashion.
My first mistake, Wicker told me, was assuming that the fabric’s label offered a full picture of everything that had gone into making it. “A fabric that is correctly labeled as 100% cotton actually almost always has dyes and finishes added to it,” she said. “The dye and finishes on a fabric can be up to 8% of the weight of the fabric depending on what they are and what they're doing.”
Wicker gave the example of washable wool. In this process, wool fibers are treated with chlorine gas and then coated in a petroleum-derived resin. Epichlorohydrin, used in the manufacture of this resin, is classified as a probable carcinogen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Over time, this coating flakes off, making its way into air, water and household dust.
Even OEKO-TEX fabrics — certified to a high standard for environmental and human safety — can contain synthetic chemicals, Wicker explained, albeit at levels below what’s considered hazardous. “You don't want those in your organic garden,” Wicker said.
The pervasiveness of synthetic chemicals in textiles leaves fashion designers and crafters like me with few options. “If you wanted a petrochemical-free, all-natural fiber,” Wicker said, “you would have to go find an undyed, unbleached cotton potentially, or a very, very minimally processed, locally raised wool.”
The problem here was availability. As far as I can find, there’s no such thing as a teddy-bear-style fabric that’s 100% wool. And as for the naturally colorful, no-dye-needed cotton that Wicker recommended, it was gorgeous, but not suitably blue or fluffy.
Dyeing of frustration
The almost plastic-free whale, sporting a baby blue back made of 5% spandex. The blue fabric had another drawback: ripping into shreds under an embroidery needle — hence the vestigial eyes.
The whales that ended it all. Plastic-free, but not petrochemical-free. The author left for grad school before she got around to sewing on the whales’ glass eyes.
Back in the summer of 2022, I thought I’d found a fix. After days spent trawling fabric websites, I’d found something that seemed to fit the bill — a shaggy, teal blue, 100% organic cotton fabric, sporting the more or less reasonable price tag of $40 per yard.
Except there was a hitch. The sole company that sold the fabric no longer offered it, after their textile mill had raised its prices. I raced to order what might have been the last few yards left on the planet from a local fabric store in Montana.
After much sewing, stuffing and stabbed fingers, I finally had what I assumed to be a truly compost-safe whale, plastic-free from his German glass eyes to his Korean cotton corduroy belly. With a small mountain of fabric leftover, I began sewing whales big and small, planning to sell them for some pocket change. All the while, my compost filled up with fluffy blue scraps and fraying bits of corduroy. I felt, if not virtuous, at least a bit smug. Take that, Big Oil.
Until I began to wonder about the fabric’s lovely teal hue. The color came from a dye and I had absolutely no idea if that dye was safe for babies or gardens. At first, I reasoned that the dye was such a tiny component of the fabric that it couldn’t do much harm. But the more I read, the more my assumptions unraveled.
“Almost all dyes, unless specifically stated otherwise, are petrochemical dyes that are made from fossil fuels, and that are synthetic, and you just don't want those in your compost,” Wicker said.
Synthetic dyes are poorly biodegradable, can sicken textile workers and pollute local waterways and are linked to health harms including skin conditions and cancer. On top of these risks, toxic heavy metals such as lead and cadmium can be added to dyes to make their colors more vivid, Wicker said.
If I really wanted a blue whale, Wicker said, the safest option would likely have been to use natural indigo, a pigment derived from one of several plant species.
A year ago, I’d come to the same conclusion — and finally thrown in the towel. Dyeing with indigo is a long, messy, odiferous process. Factoring in the costs of materials and labor, indigo dyeing would have pushed the price point for a single small whale to more than $100. I’d wanted to sew a few cute cetaceans on the side, not turn into a one-woman textile factory.
When individual action is not enough
I went into this process expecting to learn more about sewing: how to make a pattern, how to stitch on a curve, how to use a four-inch long doll needle to embroider eyes (ouch). Instead, the lessons I learned were of the skin-crawling kind.
The chemical industry has infiltrated every corner of our lives, transforming even the most innocent items into potential hazards to our health. Until governments better regulate the 350,000 synthetic chemicals currently in use around the world, we consumers are left to muddle along in a world of cancer-linked food packaging and hormone-disrupting houses.
Long after I myself have turned into compost, my whale experiments will linger on in one form or another. A sprinkle of microplastics. An ooze of questionable dye. A legacy that no one would want to leave behind.