Finding Tolerable Clothing or Fabric
By Doris Brunza
UPdate Fall 1993

Tolerable clothing can be a difficult necessity to obtain when one has multiple chemical sensitivities.  The reason for this is the numerous chemicals required to make raw yarns into fabric as we know it.  Sensitivity to these chemicals leaves many of us feeling like ragged Cinderellas waiting for a fairy godmother to appear! There is no easy answer to this problem, but as an experienced fashion designer with chemical sensitivities, I do have some insights to offer.

A survey of popular apparel fibers makes it obvious why cotton is the preferred choice of chemically sensitive individuals.  Most synthetic fibers are made from coal and petroleum derivatives, and therefore provoke reactions.

Polyester (Fortrel, etc.) is the worst offender.  It is made from long-chain synthetic polymers of esters of a dihydric alcohol and terephthalic acid.  Not a very appetizing recipe!

Nylon (Antron) is made of long-chain synthetic polyamides and is tolerated much better than polyesters if not given a permanent chemical finish.

Spandex and Lycra are polyurethane derivatives and can sometimes be tolerated in the small amounts used in stretch fabrics, usually 5 to 8 percent, although 10 percent and above may cause reactions. 

Acrylics are polycrylonitriles, suspected of being carcinogenic by the EPA.

Rayon, the oldest synthetic fiber, dating from the 1920s, starts out as wood pulp or cotton linters, but is then dissolved in acetone or ammonia and extruded through spinnerettes (shower-heads) to form fibers.  Rayon is so weak when wet that it requires chemical finishes just to survive laundering.

Silk is a natural-protein fiber, but like synthetics it carries an electrostatic charge that attracts positive ions to the body.  Most commercial silk is treated with chemicals for washability.  Real “sanding” is a harmless mechanical process, but “sanded silk” is achieved through chemicals alone.  The largest U.S. silk importer washes all his fabric in bounce softener, and his mill in China refuses to tell even him just how they finish the fabric.  

Cotton is a 100 percent natural vegetable fiber that carries no electrical charge, is soft, comfortable, washable, and durable.  The problem is that all cotton must be chemically processed to become the soft fiber that the consumer loves.  Although cotton is one of the most heavily sprayed crops in the United States, much of the pesticide and herbicide is bleached out or washed away during the manufacturing process.  The chemical residues of these processes constitute the major sensitivity problems.  Yet without these oils, waxes, and chemicals, cotton could not be knit or woven into fabric.

Let’s take a closer look at the processes involved.

Only in the spinning process is cotton untouched by chemicals or oils.  This is to ensure even dyeing, should the yarn be package dyed (dyed on cones) for what is termed “yarn-dyed” fabrics.  Some better fabrics are made of these yarns that have already been dyed on the cone, especially plaids and stripes, but most of the fabric used in the United States is dyed in yardage form after the fabric has been knit or woven in the natural color.  This is called “piece-dyeing.”

After spinning, the yarn receives a polyvinyl alcohol sizing to make it weavable.  After weaving, the fabric is then bleached.  Half the companies in the country use hydrogen peroxide, but half still use chlorine.  The sizing is then removed from the fabric with a detergent.  Next is “scoured” washed with sodium hydroxide.  Finally, it is piece-dyed, often with formaldehyde-fixing agents, but these are removed by another washing.  The last step is finishing, and this is where a lot of sensitivity problems begin.  A urea-formaldehyde product which cross-links molecules is routinely applied to all United States cottons to reduce shrinkage and wrinkling.  Cotton is a fiber designed by nature to absorb, and heat is used to lock finishes into the fiber.  When heat is applied, this molecule expands and permanently “trapped” in the fiber.  That is why it cannot be washed or drycleaned out.  

“Pure finish” indicates that nothing has been applied to the fabric at this point, but this does not always guarantee wearability for the chemically sensitive.  Detergents and softeners are always used in making fabrics, and some of these never wash out completely.  Formaldehyde is not the only culprit.  

Knitted fabric goes through similar processes.  To be knittable, yarn must be waxed and oiled.  The knit fabric is then washed in detergents and softeners.  An anti-curl chemical is added to the wash for all jerseys and most fleeces.  Knit goods that are piece-dyed after knitting follow the same course as woven fabrics.  Yarn-dyed knits are washed, framed, steamed, and finished with heat and, usually, formaldehyde resin.

Sweaters and some circular knits are just washed with detergent and softeners and tumble-dried to remove oils and to reduce shrinkage.  These make them “best bets” for many.  No finish is put on them, but again their wearability depends on the chemicals used to wash and soften them.  (The low-foam industrial detergent Aresolve is one of the worst offenders around.)  As with wovens, heat is used as part of the processing and can actually lock chemicals into the fiber.

As you can see, many steps involving chemicals are used in making the fabrics we wear.  Even the purest organically grown cotton must go through most of these processes to become fabric.  Beware of claims that “no chemicals are used on this fabric from planting of the seed to the arrival at your door.”  This is virtually impossible and constitutes false advertising, in my view.  It is impossible to knot yarn without waxing and oiling it, and the oil must be washed out with some kind of detergent.  Jerseys must be de-curled to lie down on a table and be cut.  Even with the best of intentions, some chemicals must be used.  The question is: Are you sensitive to the particular chemicals used to make a particular fabric?

In view of the above information, what is poor Cinderella to do?

“Garment-dyed” clothing may offer a solution to the clothing dilemma if you can find a brand that uses dyes and detergents that you can tolerate.  The beauty of garment dyeing is that the fabric must be finish-free to accept the dyestuffs.  No formaldehyde finish here! The downside is that the excess dye is then washed out with detergents and sometimes softeners.

At first I thought that another answer was to buy “greige goods,” undyed fabric right off the loom.  Theoretically, I could wash off the oils, waxes, and yarn sizing with my own brand of detergent and make clothing.  Unfortunately, the grey goods shrank enormously with each successive washing and became stiff as a board! I realized that American fabrics are designed and woven to be complemented with chemical processes and finishes.  On their own, they are unworthy of a needle.  

There is a reason for this: The market demands it.

The typical American closet contains many items of inexpensive clothing, which are discarded frequently to change an entire wardrobe.  American manufacturers give us exactly what we demand, which means using inferior, short-staple cotton (which requires chemical processes and finishes to be presentable) in order to keep prices down.

Europeans, on the other hand, buy very few clothing items, all of high quality, and live in them for years.  It is not uncommon for a French secretary to own one Givenchy suit and wear it to work every day for four years, changing her look with accessories.  European cotton fabrics are made from superior Pima (long-staple) and Egyptian cottons, which have a naturally silky hand.  The yarns are spun into fine sizes and woven tightly, producing a fabric that is not only soft and silky, but almost indestructible.  These fabrics do not need chemical enhancement to make them feel good.  They have simple starch finishes that wash out completely after several washings.  

To sum up, the best bets for clothing fabric-sensitive Cinderellas are generally cotton sweaters, garment-dyed clothing, “pure finish” fabrics, Egyptian cottons, and Pima cottons from developed countries.  (Those imported from the Third World are very often fumigated on board ship.)  It is important to note that not all European cotton is formaldehyde-free, but there is a good chance that the finest, most expensive will be.  And there are still dyes and detergents used in the processing to consider.  

How you care for your clothing has a lot to do with how well you can tolerate it, as well as how long it will last.  Here are some suggestions.

Consider your water.
If you seem to be sensitive to almost all of your clothing, part of the problem could be the water you’re using to wash them.  I need two filters to shower, but four to do laundry, because my clothing is exposed to water much longer than I am.  Remember, cotton is designed by nature to absorb.  It can and does absorb chemical pollutants from your tap water.  The tap water in New York City is so bad that I can smell the pollutants even when my laundry is dry.  Rust from corroded pipes will also remain in your clothing, another possible source of reaction.

Check your detergent.
Another factor to consider if you seem to be sensitive to most of your clothing is your cleaning agent.  It’s possible to tolerate laundry detergents poorly and not know it.  No washing agent is foolproof.  Some people can’t even tolerate baking soda or vinegar.  One alternative for the super-sensitive is food-grade hydrogen peroxide, 1 to 1 ½ tablespoons per load.  You can even use 2 to 3 tablespoons per load as a presoak to eliminate some of the chemical finishes before laundering.  You could also use a tolerated shampoo in a pinch for washing clothes.  Experiment for yourself.  Some people find they can use commercial detergents such as liquid ALL: others report good results with AFM Carpet Cleaner.

It’s helpful to find at least two detergents that you can tolerate and rotate them monthly.  Be aware, too, that the amount of detergent you use could be critical.  You may, for example, be able to tolerate one tablespoon of detergent per load, but not two.  It’s a good rule to use as little detergent as possible, just enough to produce a few suds while the machine is agitating.  If you use too much, it may not wash out completely, and you may react to the residue.

Temperature can make a difference.
For some people, laundering and drying temperature can be important.  Heat is a catalyst for chemical reactions between fibers, dyes, finishes, and detergent.  For that reason, garments washed in cold water and line dried may be easier to tolerate.  (Line dry indoors during pollen season.)

Ironing caveats.
If you are sensitive while ironing, you could be reacting to detergent residues in the fabrics.  You could also be reacting to contaminants in the water you’re using.  Use only tolerated drinking water or distilled water in your steam iron.  That way you also avoid heat-pressuring contaminants into the fabric.

Your problem could be with the iron itself.  Some irons employ a sealing gel in the water chamber that can cause problems for the sensitive when the iron heats up.  Sunbeam TM and Norelco TM irons apparently do not contain this gel.

You may want to remove your commercial ironing board cover and replace it with one made of barrier cloth padded with flannel.  Secure it to the underside of the board with shipping tape.  Let your new iron “steam out” for a day or so before you use it.

One final observation: Remember that exposures you get from wearing and caring for your clothing are part of your total exposure burden.  Reducing chemical exposures from other sources such as air, food, and water may increase your tolerance for fabrics and fabric-related exposures.

Doris Brunza has worked as fashion designer in New York for 20 Years.  She now heads her own small company that designs and manufactures hand made, hypo allergenic clothing.

Reprinted with permission from The Human Ecologist, Fall 1992, P.O. Box 49126, Atlanta GA, 30359-1126, (404) 248-1898.