Fashion gets a taste for fruity fabrics

Textiles made from natural fibres showcased during Philippine Tropical Fabrics Month. Image: Joel Adriano

Natural textiles made with sustainable fibres from banana and pineapple have been showcased in a fashion show in the Philippines.

Philippine Tropical Fabrics Month is held every January to celebrate the creative and local textile industry, while highlighting new innovations in clothing production. It is geared towards farmers, producers of natural textiles, retailers and manufacturers.

A highlight from this year was a fashion show aimed at boosting commercial production of indigenous tropical fabrics woven from silk, as well as natural fibres drawn from plants such as banana, pineapple and abaca, a banana species native to the Philippines.

Fashion is one of the world’s most water-intensive industries, which, according to research published in 2020, uses over 79 trillion litres of water every year. More and more companies are sourcing more eco-friendly, sustainable alternatives to fibres with a large water footprint – making one cotton shirt can use up to 2,700 litres of water.

Although not a recent discovery - people have been making fibres out of banana stems since the early 13th century - natural textiles are becoming more mainstream, used for items including bags, footwear and home furnishings, as well as clothing.

Abaca fibre, also known as Manila hemp, is noted for its strength, buoyancy and resistance to saltwater damage. Pineapple fibre, which is recovered from the plant’s leaves, is soft and lightweight and often combined with silk or polyester.

Key benefits include a smaller water footprint - abaca plants, for example, need minimal water and fertilisers to grow - and they do not release microfibres that pollute waterways and the oceans, unlike many synthetic fabrics. Studies show that 35% of microplastics found in the ocean result from washing clothes made of synthetic material.

Banana plants. Image: Mathis Jrdl, Unsplash

The Philippines pioneered textile production in South-East Asia. Large-scale textile manufacturing began as early as 1906 but changes in global trade and policies, saw the garment and textile industry’s export value drop from US$3 billion in the 1990s to about US$1.2 billion by 2016. The country remains competitive in the mid to high-end market mainly for embroidery and intricate design capabilities including handwoven fabrics made with indigenous fibres.

Julius Leano Jr, of the Department of Science & Technology’s (DST) Philippine Textile Research Institute says that the country needs to innovate, adding “While there is a need to differentiate what is truly Philippine textile, the cornerstone has to be science, technology and innovation."

The DST is helping the industry in areas such as new natural dyes, which replace toxic chemicals in the processing of textiles, while opening up opportunities for communities and local manufacturers. The Philippine Tropical Fabric Law prescribed the use of local fabrics for uniforms of public officials to promote local production of textiles using indigenous materials and fibres, especially abaca and pineapple.

Leo Lagon, co-chief executive officer for homegrown clothing brand Bayo, said that despite the law the main issue is historic government procurement rules which prioritise the lowest bidder.

“The materials (indigenous fibres) are expensive to begin with since they are not mass produced and there are cultural appropriations involved. Besides, innovation doesn’t come cheap, especially if you work around sustainability issues.”

“The solution is for the government to adopt green procurement policies and buy from companies with emphasis on sustainability.”