It was during the 20th Century, when synthetic materials appeared, that children’s clothing ceased to be produced exclusively from vegetable fibres, such as linen, cotton, hemp, and nettle or animal fibres such as wool and silk.
The wool of goats or sheep on the European continent or that of camels or alpacas on other continents, have often been used for the production of children’s clothing because of its exceptional qualities: warm in winter, wool is also tolerated in summer when it is very finely woven thanks to its insulating properties. Today, it is sometimes abandoned in favour of synthetic fibres that offer more “hold” to the garment and better preserve colours.
Silk production, known in China since the Neolithic period, only reached the Mediterranean basin during the 6th century AD. (Byzantine Empire). Since then, silk has been one of the most precious natural fibres because it is expensive to produce. It can be worn in both winter and summer, it attracts the eye with its shimmering texture and constantly regulates the body’s natural moisture. It is rarely used for children’s clothing because its price remains high.
Cotton, particularly fresh and absorbent, is ideal for children’s summer clothing. It is comparable in this respect to linen, which was the most widely used natural fibre in ancient times because it was abundant, solid and insulating.
Natural fibres were gradually replaced during the 20th century by synthetic textiles that were both cheaper and better adapted to the changing requirements of fashion and industrial production, but also less durable and less eco-compatible.
Viscose is a synthetic fibre of vegetable origin because it is derived from cellulose. It has been used since the early 20th century as an inexpensive alternative to silk and is still used in the manufacture of clothing, although it is rarely used in children’s clothing.
Many synthetic fibres are nowadays produced by polymerization from petroleum: mainly nylon, acrylic, or various types of polyester such as Tergal or laminated polyurethane (also called PUL),. The latter is still used to make cloth diapers for babies.
These synthetic fibres have evolved in an unprecedented way over the past fifty years and have now become “technical” fibres that make it possible to achieve often contradictory performances. For example, Gore-tex, which has existed for forty years and is widely used for mountain hiking clothing: it is both waterproof and “breathable”, i.e. it allows the body’s natural moisture to escape, but it is far from being harmless because it is partly composed of Teflon, a material widely recognised as an endocrine disrupter.
Other fabrics named “climatic” regulate body temperature by passively generating a microclimate when in contact with the skin: reversible, they are cool in summer by reflecting UV rays and retain body heat in winter by absorbing sunlight. Some tissues even release active ingredients that are absorbed by the skin.
The current trend is towards natural, preferably organic fabrics such as hemp, linen or cotton certified “GOTS” (Global Organic Textile Standardr). This same trend also favours ecological dyes that comply with Oeko-Tex standards, i.e. colours that do not contain allergens, pesticides or chemical dyes (based on heavy metals).
Is this a return to the tradition, materials and customs of the earliest times?