Shopping for Fiber Sensitive Women

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:

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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.

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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 Wintersilks.

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