Bamboo has garnered a lot of attention in the fashion industry as well as for everyday textiles for sheets, towels and robes. The attention is due to its potential environmental friendliness combined with its luxuriously soft feel, flowing drape and many other properties.
What’s So Great About Bamboo?
There are more than 1,000 bamboo species. This diversity makes it more adaptable to different climatic zones than most other softwoods. It can grow over approximately 70% of the earth’s land area. Bamboo is one of the most renewable resources on Earth.
Bamboo is abundantly available in many rural areas where economic development is limited so it can offer a social benefit as well. Through research and development of more ways to utilize bamboo, rural areas are afforded an opportunity to maintain their culture and lifestyle while lifting their economic situation. Bamboo is an extremely versatile plant as evidenced by its use for income, food and housing.
Different species are used for different purposes including food for Pandas, edible food for humans, feed for livestock, woven handcraft products such as baskets and mats, textile products such as yarn, linens, and clothing, ingredients for Chinese medicines, and construction for flooring, fences and roofing.
Bamboo for Clothes?
Bamboo makes a wonderful clothing material. Due to its hollow fiber, bamboo has unusual breathing capabilities. The fiber is filled with micro gaps and micro-holes which allow for better moisture absorption and ventilation than other fibers. Bamboo fiber absorbs and evaporates perspiration quickly.
Comfort. Bamboo apparel is comfortable, very breathable, moisture-wicking, fast drying, and thermal regulating. Bamboo fabric is anti-static so it doesn’t cling. Bamboo is often described as having the “ultra softness of cashmere and the sheen (luster) of silk.” It feels simultaneously luxurious and practical.
Bacteria (Odor) Resistant. Bamboo is naturally resistant to bacterial growth due to a bio-agent called “kun” which resists the growth of bacteria on the fiber. This is normally carried through to the finished product allowing it to also resist the growth of bacteria that causes odors even after numerous washings.
This eliminates the need for anti-bacterial chemical treatment which is known to cause allergic reaction and is environmentally unfriendly. When you perspire, your clothing will not pick up the odor of your perspiration as readily as other materials. Washing less often saves energy and makes clothes last longer.
Thermal Regulating. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a fabric that makes you feel cooler in hot weather and warmer in cool weather? Sounds like a paradox, doesn’t it? Bamboo does this.
Superior Wicking Capability. Bamboo is highly absorbent, much more so and faster drying than cotton. In warm, humid and sweaty weather, bamboo clothing doesn’t stick to the skin. It keeps you drier, cooler and more comfortable.
Hypoallergenic. Bamboo is naturally hypoallergenic which means it’s less likely to cause an allergic reaction in sensitive individuals.
Wrinkle resistant. Bamboo clothing is naturally more wrinkle-resistant than cotton. While it might still require ironing after washing, bamboo fabric can be ironed at a lower temperature than cotton. Shrinkage during washing and drying should be minimal at warm temperatures. One technique to reduce or practically eliminate wrinkling, which could also apply to cotton and other fabrics, is to put clothes in the dryer for just two to five minutes to get out the wrinkles induced by the spinning of the washing machine. Then, and this is key, immediately take them out of the dryer and hang dry.
Colorfast. Bamboo accepts organic and natural dyes more rapidly and thoroughly, with less dye use, than cotton, modal or viscose (Rayon). The color is much more vivid. Bamboo fabrics don’t need to be mercerized to improve their luster and dye-ability like cotton requires.
Easy Care and Energy Efficient. Bamboo is machine washable in cool water. Fabric softeners are not needed or recommended.
Bamboo farming is typically a very environmentally responsible, renewable, and sustainable practice. Practically all bamboo comes from China. China has often had a “bad rap” for unfair labor and environmentally destructive practices. However, like anywhere else, it depends on the individual circumstances, people, and factories that are producing the goods.
If the company that is having their clothing made in China has requirements for protecting the environment and fair labor, they can find the contract manufacturing businesses to satisfy these concerns. Third party certification can be utilized as a more certain level of verification.
Environmentally Responsible. Chemical pesticides and synthetic fertilizers are not needed in the growing of bamboo as it is seldom eaten by insects or infected by pathogens. In addition to this reduced consumption and impact of petroleum based chemicals, there is the secondary effect that petroleum consuming and polluting tractors are not used nearly as much as with other crops.
Bamboo also has relatively low water needs especially compared to cotton and most other crops. Bamboo does extremely well in impoverished soils. Bamboo roots help retain water in a watershed area due to their tight hold on the soil. It’s been reported that compared to an equivalent stand of trees, bamboo takes in more carbon dioxide, removing this green house gas from the atmosphere, and produces 35% more oxygen than trees.
Renewable and Sustainable Resource. The entire plant is never harvested and re-growth occurs naturally and rapidly. Bamboo is one of the fastest growing plants in the world. It can grow to its full height in three months and then be ready to harvest in three to four years as its thickness fills out. In fact, it’s hard to stop it from spreading as anyone knows who’s planted it in their back yard. Bamboo is one of the world’s most naturally renewable and sustainable resources.
Bamboo is increasingly plantation-raised to fulfill the growing demand for it. Plantation grown may be beneficial or detrimental depending on how it’s done and the wages paid that create social value or social detriment.
Biodegradable. Bamboo fiber and fabric, as a natural cellulose fiber, is biodegradable in soil by microorganisms and sunshine. The decomposition process doesn’t cause any pollution to the environment. A problem may arise if blending bamboo with a synthetic elastic such as Lycra®
Bamboo Processing – Here’s the Tricky Part
Although bamboo farming is wonderfully sustainable, bamboo fabric has other considerations. There are two basic means of processing bamboo to make the plant into a fabric: mechanically and chemically. One mechanical method crushes the woody parts and uses natural enzymes to break the bamboo stalks into a pulp so the natural fibers can be mechanically combed out and spun into yarn.
Another mechanical method crushes the woody parts of the bamboo plant into a powder which is mixed with water. Either mechanical process is more labor intensive and costly than the chemical process so they aren’t used very often.
In the chemical process, a harsh chemical is often used to break the bamboo stalks into a pulp. This can be more or less environmentally friendly depending on whether the chemical is captured and re-used. In other chemical processes, a non-toxic chemical may be used and it also may or may not be recovered and re-used.
Often the chemical process that is used is the same process used to make rayon. Rayon is also called viscose especially in Europe. The rayon process is an environmentally unfriendly process and may introduce some heavy metals into the fiber.
There is an environmentally friendly chemical process called lyocell. One brand name for the lyocell process is Tencel®. There’s no reason that the lyocell process can’t be used to convert bamboo into a fiber. The only impediment is the cost of creating the factories. This process will eventually be used and become common as more demand is created for environmentally friendly clothing from farming through manufacturing.
Regardless of which mechanical or chemical process is used, the bamboo slurry that’s created is extruded through a shower head-like device to create the fiber. Fiber manufactured in this manner, as slurry that is forced through an extrusion process to create a fiber, is called a “human-made, regenerated” fiber.
There are three classifications of fibers:
- Natural fibers originating from plants or animals such as cotton, wool and silk. Cotton is also referred to as a “vegetable” fiber.
- Synthetic fibers derived from petroleum such as polyester, polyamide and acrylics.
- Human-made fibers based on natural sources of cellulose such as beech wood (as in the case of rayon and modal), eucalyptus (as in the case of Tencel® which uses the lyocell process), and bamboo.
Since bamboo fiber is classified as a “human-made, regenerated” fiber, there has been some concern and discussion about the proper way to label it in clothing and other textiles.The concern centers around identifying the manufacturing process used to create the fiber from the bamboo plant.
The FTC (Federal Trade Commission) has regulations for the proper labeling of bamboo. Correctly labeled bamboo products are as follows, as appropriate to the actual process used: “rayon of bamboo”, “rayon made with bamboo”, “viscose of bamboo”, “viscose made with bamboo”, “lyocell of bamboo”, or “lyocell made with bamboo.”
There are a variety of incorrect labels according to the FTC, unless the mechanical process was actually used to break down the fiber, for example, “bamboo” or “100% bamboo” or any label that does not start with the process used if the process is a chemical process.
Some bamboo is certified organic at the farm level. In this case it can be labeled, as appropriate, “rayon of certified organic bamboo”, “rayon of organic bamboo”, “viscose of certified organic bamboo”, “viscose of organic bamboo”, “lyocell of certified organic bamboo”, or “lyocell of organic bamboo.”
Ideally, we want bamboo textiles, such as clothing, towels, and sheets, that are certified organic, or equivalent from an environmental viewpoint, from farming through manufacturing. Until the standards exist that cover this entire process, there are other options to be confident in the purity of the finished product. One option is to have the finished item certified to the Oeko-Tex Standard 100. This is labeled as: “Confidence in Textiles. Tested for Harmful Substances according to Oeko-Tex Standard 100.” The list of criteria contains over 100 test parameters for harmful substances to assure that the textiles are not harmful to health.
One important consideration is that even though the manufacturing process may not be where we want it to be yet, the entire process, if conducted with an awareness to its environmental impact, may still be better than most non-organic fibers and fabrics with all their chemical, synthetic, and water intensive processes in farming through manufacturing.
Evolutionary Process of Fiber Development
With growing concerns for personal health and the environment, we will see continual development in the evolution of organic, environmentally friendly, and sustainable farming and manufacturing practices and processes of fiber development.
Therefore, it is up to the concerned consumer to inquire about the entire process from farm to finished good, or be confident that the retailer has evaluated their suppliers, to be sure that the finished goods are healthy to both people and planet.
Ed Mass is President and Founder of Yes It’s Organic (YesItsOrganic.com), an online store for Organic, Fair Labor, and Eco Friendly goods including adult to baby clothing, bedding, towels, mattresses, sustainable furniture, organic logo wear and promotional products for organizations wanting to improve their environmental footprint, and more. After being an environmentalist for over 40 years, including designing solar energy systems in the 1970s, he decided to participate more directly in growing the organic, fair labor and eco friendly industries by educating consumers and influencing their buying habits.
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