Reader Request: Shopping for Fiber Sensitive Women

shopping fiber sensitivity

Both Joanne and Victoria e-mailed me requesting resources and suggestions for women with fiber sensitivities. Also, I recently wrapped up an online consult with a woman who has severe pain reactions to many fibers, including most synthetics. Some folks must stick to 100% cotton only, others find certain textures and weaves irritating, so “fiber sensitive” is a bit of a broad net to cast. But I’ll share the resources and solutions I found, bring in another expert, and ask you all to contribute ideas, too.

100% cotton resources

Many folks with fiber sensitivities do well with cotton, but it MUST be 100% cotton. In this spandex-happy age, a true cotton can be hard to find. Here are a few resources:

Alternative Apparel – This vendor has some cute, trendy options, including tees, dresses, and tanks. (So does American Apparel, but since they’re such a skeevy company I’m loathe to recommend them.)

Three Dots – This slightly more upscale/spendy vendor has lots of basics in 100% cotton. Check fiber content for individual garments, though. Other options on Shopbop, Zappos, Nordstrom, and 6pm.

Jeans – Levi’s still makes 100% cotton jeans, as does Wrangler. Gap will also stock the occasional pair as selvage is very trendy, but practically everyone is doing stretch jeans these days.

J.Jill – Currently spotty, but will likely have some 100% cotton offerings for spring and summer.

Zappos – No, really! Just punch “100% cotton” into the search bar. Be sure to check piece by piece, as the search string isn’t always accurate … but there are some adorable options in there.

Gudrun Sjödén – This Scandinavian design house does lots of natural fibers, including cotton, in gorgeous colors and arty cuts.

Land’s End – Great for basics, especially in the warmer months.

eShakti – Although some cottons include stretch, many of their poplin dresses and skirts are 100% cotton.

Texture sensitivities

100% cotton may work well for some textural sensitivities, so the resources above should be helpful to some. But here are some other options:

I HIGHLY recommend checking out Wintersilks. I mostly buy my longjohns from this vendor, but they stock sweaters, skirts, pants, shirts, and undergarments in silk and silk blends. The sweater pictured above is one of theirs, and absolutely darling, no?

My understanding is that Tencel can work for those whose sensitivities are mainly textural. Horny Toad, Athleta, Title Nine, and other athletic clothing companies that manufacture streetwear are good resources for Tencel garments.

Diane Kennedy – This Canadian designer works mostly in bamboo, another fiber that can work for certain texture sensitivities.

Rachel Pally – Although she uses a lot more synthetics than most vendors mentioned here, Rachel Pally’s jersey knits are the softest you’ll ever encounter. They’re magical. Really.

From an expert

My dear friend Trinknitty has fiber sensitivities of her own, so I asked for her input on this question. Here’s what she said:

* * * * *

It is certainly limiting to have to stick to specific fabrics. I have to be really mindful about what I wear due to extremely sensitive skin. Luckily, most of the time I am able to tolerate small amounts of synthetic fibers (2-5% mixed with natural fibers). You might want to experiment to see if you can tolerate minimal blends or other natural/plant fibers. For instance, some modal and tencel fabrics are ok for me as they are plant-based fibers. Hemp, bamboo and linen are all wonderful. Silk is amazing but pricey and harder to find. I have even been able to wear merino wool/silk blends if the merino content is small and of good quality and worn on a less sensitive part of my body (i.e. a hat or socks).

In our cold climate, I have found it is to my benefit to do the bulk of my shopping during the spring/summer. During the rest of the year, the selection on hand tends to favor synthetic fibers and/or have a synthetic lining even if the actual garment is made of natural fibers.

For some specific recommendations: I have had a lot of luck at the Banana Republic outlet store. They sell dress pants that have small amounts of synthetic in them without linings! I have also found structured blazer/jackets there out of cotton with no linings!

I used to shop at H&M, but the last few times I went there, I didn’t have any luck, so I am not up to date on what their current stock is like. I note them because in the past I have gotten linen pants and cotton pants from them.

Surprisingly, I once had a great score at JC Penney. They had a lot of fine gauge sweaters in cotton/modal blends in various styles and colors. Subsequent visits were not so fruitful, so it is likely hit or miss with this store.

Target and Old Navy tend to have the basics in cotton for cheap so I can usually get some good layering items from those stores.

Speaking of layering, I have become a big fan of layering to trick my skin. Sometimes I am able to wear natural fiber layers underneath synthetic clothing as a workaround. Finding a natural fiber slip was a challenge, but has been really useful. (Note from Sally: Try Wintersilks for silk slips!)

One challenging area in which it is nearly impossible to avoid synthetic fabrics is bras. Cotton bras are generally not supportive and have a very short lifespan. I have recently started to sew cup liners for my synthetic fabric bras in order to give my skin a little protection. I make simple liners by cutting out a circle of lightweight cotton fabric with pinking shears and sewing in a bust dart or two for some shaping. Voila! If you need a little more guidance, there are plenty of tutorials available online under “nursing pad liners.” For protecting the skin, you don’t need to add all of those absorbent layers, but the tutorials will give you a general idea of the construction options. I have visions of soft cotton flannel liners for the winter months.

A bit about fabric care: Cotton fiber doesn’t have memory and has a heavy drape, so it is a bit harder to care for. I always wash my clothes in cold water. Most of the time I dry them on low for a little bit and then hang or lay them flat to dry. Using hot water and hot air to wash and dry cotton exhausts the fabric faster and causes the color to fade.

And, of course, it goes without saying, if you make your own clothes, you can make them out of whatever material you want! Much easier said then done, I know. Case in point: it just took me a year to sew a (100% cotton) dress. It is a really great dress, though, so I am not sorry I did it.

 * * * * *

Again, this is hardly a comprehensive list and simply meant to spark conversation. How many of you have fiber allergies or sensitivities? Which ones are your triggers? Do you have any work-arounds? Vendors to recommend? Fibers or weaves that have worked well for you over time? Share links in the comments!

Image courtesy Alternative

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  • Miss T

    I bought a beautiful cotton/linen blend sweater with a ruffled front at JC Penney recently for less than $30; it’s become a wardrobe staple for me.

    I agree that Wintersilks has some wonderful garments. I have purchased several bias-cut silk slips from them, half and whole. Bias-cut, by the way, is the secret to getting stretch without Spandex.

    MANY years ago, I used to shop at Victoria Secret BEFORE they became a chain (i.e., when they had just a couple retail outlets). At that time (early 1980s) they carried many absolutely gorgeous silk bras! They were extraordinary! Back then, they were in the $50 range, which was probably equivalent to $200 today. Looking around, I see that some high-end retailers like Saks and Nieman Marcus still carry silk bras, but the are pricey — $200-300. However, having worn such bras myself, I can say that they are a lovely garment to have, even if you don’t have fiber sensitivities. Silk bras are unlikely to be mass-produced and they generally very well made and not “throw-away” garments. Silk is very strong, and does show wear much at all.

    Being a life-long seamstress from a family of seamstresses, I can also suggest the option of have some important garments — suits, coats, fancy dresses — custom made (or make them yourself if you sew). Suits/coats can be cotton, wool, or silk and lined in silk — there are many gorgeous linings in silk, every color imaginable. It’s usually called China silk and is very thin and lightweight. Silk is a wonderful fabric in general, as it comes in knit and woven fabrics.

    One thing to note: rayon is a *man-made* fiber, as opposed to a “synthetic” fiber. Rayon is made from cotton linters, which are the leftovers from manufacturing cotton fibers, so it’s cellulose (i.e., plant-based). Rayon is quite breathable and it actually wicks moisture better than cotton does (which tends to stay wet). The quality of rayon fabric is sometimes not great — it takes dye well but also tends to lose dye in washing, and is overall not as sturdy as cotton — but it is an alternative for those looking for a breathable plant-based fiber.

  • Susan, the one in Berkeley

    I have a sensitivity to synthetic fabrics. I have a problem with static electricity and wearing/touching synthetic fabrics (carpets, car seats, clothing….) sets off painful shocks. Layering makes it worse so I limit synthetics to mono-fiber tights.

    My silk slips all came from Nordstrom’s. Gap still makes all-cotton t-shirts, and I actually found organic cotton sweat pants at H&M. Buying new is getting harder all the time. Modal works well but only in a thick fabric – otherwise it stretches out of shape too soon.

    I thrift most of my clothes so I can afford natural fibers. I cut out synthetic linings and wear silk slips instead. Trims can also be removed.

    The upside is a smaller wardrobe that fits in my closet!

  • Debi

    I don’t know if I have a sensitivity, I simply prefer natural fibers. Old Navy has many cotton only items. So you can get the trendy stuff without spending a huge amount of money.

    Really Winter silks has bras, panties, sweaters… their products are good quality and I love how wonderful the silk feels.

  • I have a wonderful t-shirt that’s a cotton/cashmere blend, that is so soft and gentle to wear on my skin. It’s by Majestic.

    I also have a few pieces of Smoking Lily (www.smokinglily.com) that are a cotton/bamboo blend – they hold their shape really well (more than 100% cotton does), and are thick and soft.

    Good quality fine wool can be lovely and soft, and I agree about silk – it’s wonderful to wear any time of the year.

    And although it’s not for everyone: leather! It’s soft, breathable and shapes to your body for a personal fit. There are plenty of vintage leather and suede skirts out there – just cut out the synthetic linings. I have a beautiful leather shirt that is unlined and butter soft.

  • SamiJ

    If you don’t mind shopping online, these site offers the option to shop by fabric.

    http://www.chartreusestyle.com/category_s/68.htm

    http://www.ecolissa.com/lilikoi_s/128.htm

    and they feature independent designers.

  • tagatha

    Check out Land’s End: I scored a lovely cotton/cashmere cardigan few months ago, from SALE and PLUS-sized as well!

  • Anne

    Extreme heat,cold and stress seem to aggravate my skin
    .
    I always wear a cotton cami under sweaters and poly blouses.

    Hanro makes lovely cotton bras and underwear. You can buy them through Garnet Hill.

    Maybe everyone already does this:
    I make sure everything I buy gets washed before wearing. Imported clothes get sprayed with all kinds of yucky chemicals before customs.

    My exception to the natural fibers rule is athletic wear. My skin gets very rashy from sweat and there are some great man-made fabrics out there that wick sweat away and dry quickly. It’s much better than sitting in a wet clammy cotton tee.

  • A.B.

    Thank you for commenting on the skeevyness of American Apparel. They do some things right (made in USA, decent wage for its workers) but because of other things I have read about the company I steer clear of them.

    And as someone always on the lookout for breathable cotton, I’m definitely going to take a look at your recommendations.

  • Christina

    I’m in the same boat as a lot of the commenters here – I’m good with cashmere, silk, cotton, and selective rayon and bamboo.
    Thank you SO much for the tip on bras – I’ve been having an extremely hard time finding well fit bras that aren’t just the cotton ones from VS that are wearable – this tip will definitely make those nice bras more comfortable.

    I’ve found that even very fine gauge merino will irritate my skin, so I’ve cut all of that out from my wardrobe and have stuck to cashmere knits. In the fall and spring, I find that Zara, Uniqlo, and Joe Fresh will carry a lot of the cashmere/silk/cotton knits that are light, warm, and spectacularly easy to wear and wash – which is always a hard barrier when it comes to wearing natural fiber clothing. I hand wash my silk and cashmere the same way I do my cotton bras, a quick soak in cold water and baby shampoo, a quick rinse and soak in clean water for 10 minutes, and then lay out to dry. It’s a little time consuming, and I sort by colors so that nothing runs, but in my opinion, is 100% worth it as I have enough clothing in the right fabrics to last well into the next decade or two.

    I will have to check out Wintersilks for the slips – I have a hard time finding non synthetics slips that have any stretch at all.

  • Jean

    Not to be a freak, but fabric sensitivity is mostly an issue on the lady parts here … though I absolutely cannot tolerate wool. I feel the feminine issue thing needs to be mentioned….. I am not 100 percent sure what it is I’m allergic to, as it pops up with fabrics that appear to be 100 percent cotton.

  • nancy

    Try BlueCanoe.com . Everything is natural fibers – even undies. You’ll love the products – they last forever. Colors change with the seasons.

  • I have great luck at thrift stores for silk tanks and slips (though not half slips) and cashmere sweaters.

  • kt

    Practical Goods is a small vintage/consignment/thrift shop at Randolph & Snelling that seems to emphasize natural fibers. I’ve gotten some basic pieces there (linen skirt, wool jacket, etc).

    Just wanted to throw out too that for some people sensitive skin can be related to a dietary trigger as well as a contact allergy. Eczema, for instance, has a dietary trigger in some people. The problem is that there are no scientific studies showing that all eczema is related to a particular food for all people — eczema just doesn’t work like that. Sometimes worth an experiment though.

  • Vildy

    I don’t have any solutions but I don’t think anyone mentioned being on the lookout for polyester and nylon threads. Also remove labels and tags. I’m mostly not bothered by fabric – except linen, go figure – but the tags make me redden and itch. Also, they used to use nickel in bra findings. And a lot of green dye is toxic/irritating in some way.

  • Margaret

    While I do not have fabric sensitivity, I do have preferences and wanted to note that H&M has an organic line which I have had a lot of luck with: 100% organic cotton blouses and Ts, not really workwear, more on the casual side. They are also very “natural” prints ie botanical etc perhaps in line with their idea of “organic”!

  • My skin doesn’t do well with rayon, nylon, etc. And of course polyester is of the devil. I don’t mind a tiny bit of spandex but it must be mixed with cotton, not a blend. I was 50 years old before I discovered WHY I tend to wear some clothes over and over, and not others. Life is too short to wear things that make you itch.

  • Krysta

    I’m sensitive to wool and alpaca… I’ve never tried cashmere, but I’ve heard some things about the industry that makes me stay far away from it anyways. With wool and alpaca, I limit items in those fibers to handknits, mostly wool socks (and I have to use soft wools for socks), or shawls/scarves… Sometimes tops, if there’s something between the wool layer and skin (and again it has to be merino or other similarly soft breeds).

    I also try to stick to fabrics that are most-to-all natural (or at least plant-based, like rayon) fabrics for my clothes in general. There’s just something about the feel of polyester and the like that feels plain WEIRD when I touch it, so those go back on the racks anyways.

  • Meg

    Hi Sal, would you mind sharing your experience with WinterSilks sizing?

    Are they true to size guide?

    Many thanks! Great post.

    • Meg, yes! Though I’ve only bought silk longhjohns from Wintersilks, Husband Mike buys their PJs and both of us find that their sizing is true to their size guide and align pretty well with mall store sizing. So as an 8/10, I’m a medium. Hope that helps!

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