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The best sustainable materials for your face mask

by | May 28, 2020

Since face masks have become a mandatory wardrobe staple in South Africa, the clothing industry has been rapidly fashioning face masks out of all kinds of material from pillowcases, old jeans to coffee filters. But do we know what is the best fabric to use?

The two main requirements are for the fabric to be dense enough to capture viral particles, and breathable enough so that the masks can be comfortably worn.

A 2013 study “testing the efficacy of homemade masks” published in the journal of Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness, found that specialised surgical masks called N95 respirators and surgical masks were best for filtering coronavirus-sized micro-particles, and for breathability. However, there is limited access to these and, more importantly, they should be reserved for medical use and for frontline health workers. They are also expensive, and since they are often single-use, they are environmentally unsustainable.

For the best fabrics to use for making your own masks, Twyg did some snooping. We reached out to local, sustainable clothing businesses, a garment technician and referred to published research.

The most commonly given advice for when you’re choosing a fabric is to apply the light test: Hold the fabric up to the light and the tighter the weave, the less light you’ll see, and the more protection you’ll get. You should still be able to breathe through it. Before you start sewing, Annette Pringle-Kölsch of The Fashion Agent suggests soaking materials in a hot saltwater mixture in a bucket to help preserve colours and rinse in clean, cold water.

In the studies social enterprise and certified B-Corp, Smart Air conducted, material made from natural fibres were found to make for effective homemade face masks due to their roughness and irregularity in thread make-up. “The irregularity of natural fibres is likely to make them better at capturing tiny particles.” It’s also been found using hybrid combinations (layering) of fabrics is better than just using one type of fabric. According to this article on Forbes, scientists believe the high efficiency of hybrid fabrics is due to combined mechanical and electrostatic filtration.

From a sustainability and health perspective, these are the top performing natural fibres to use for making masks:

Cotton

Technical manager at Cotton SA Annette Bennett says that cotton is a great option because it is versatile and durable. It’s grown locally, so it’s easily available, she adds.

A double layer of 100% cotton T-shirt material was found to be a suitable household material according to the Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness journal and Smart Air because of its combination of breathability and filtration. However, a garment technologist working in South Africa who prefers to remain anonymous said she had recently been working on a cotton knit to make masks. “Our investigation had shown that some of the cotton knits were giving off dust resulting in people either complaining of itches or cough and sneezing.”

The New York Times reports that tests by the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine in Winston-Salem, N.C showed the best performing masks were made from “two layers of high-quality, heavyweight quilter’s cotton, a two-layer mask made with thick batik fabric, and a double-layer mask with an inner layer of flannel and outer layer of cotton”.
Annette Pringle-Kölsch adds that, “Cotton is a natural plant fibre. It feels comfortable, has a natural absorbency and is truly trans-seasonal.”

Hemp

The garment technologist told us that hemp, another natural plant fibre hemp is gaining popularity for its antibacterial, anti-fungal properties. The plant grows easily and quickly in the right environment which ensures sufficient stock, but is not grown for its fibre in South Africa – yet.

“Hemp textiles are a great choice because they are strong, durable and long-lasting. They are hypoallergenic and have natural anti-bacterial properties. Compared to masks made from synthetic fibres, hemp masks are much more sustainable as the hemp we use is grown organically and they are re-usable and biodegradable,” says marketing manager of Hemporium in Cape Town, Shale Tinkler.

Linen

Linen is normally worn for its light airy feeling and is a strong and durable, natural fibre. Mungo Mill in Plettenberg Bay is using hundreds of meters of Bucatto Blue linen that was in storage. According to the mill, linen wins in areas like absorption of moisture, temperature regulation, is lint-free and hypoallergenic (i.e. perfect for those with sensitive skin). Womenswear brand, Hannah Lavery is using offcut linen too [see video below].

…and if you were thinking about wool and cashmere

While wool is great for breathability, various studies show that filtration efficacy is low. According to a study done by Smart Air, 100% merino wool and 100% cashmere materials score low in capturing virus-sized particles.

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Watch Hannah give us a short explanation on the design and wearability of our face masks! 😷 True to our nature, these masks are designed #WithEase in mind. The design is aimed at fitting your face comfortably and as effectively as possible. Please note these are non-medical grade masks and are for private use only. Fabric masks will not replace the surgical masks that are used by medical staff in hospitals but will help reduce the risk of infection. For more information please visit our online store or send us a message with any questions which you may have. #hannahlavery #masktutorial #maskdesign #naturalfibres #stayhome #southafricandesign #lovezabuyza #local #minimalist #withease #facemask

A post shared by Hannah Lavery (@hannahlavery.sa) on

  • For more information on mask care, read Twyg’s story here
  • Read more about Twyg’s #GiveToMake mask campaign and how you can support here
  • Image credit: Vintage protective suit via Rawpixel 

*Take note, wearing a mask is not a primary preventative measure and should not provide a false sense of protection that leads to a misuse of masks. COVID-19 preventative measures include the exercise of good hand hygiene and physical distancing. – The NICD

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