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Suzanne Lee: grow your own clothes

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Bamboo fabric: what, why, how

Silky, luxurious and surprisingly versatile, bamboo has been fast gaining popularity as a common choice of cloth for increasingly mainstream fabric. No doubt that it looks – and feels – great. But does it deserve its much-paraded eco label?

Botanically categorised as a grass rather than a tree, bamboo is a wonderfully sustainable product that can grow at rates of over a meter a day. It matures quickly and is ready for harvesting in just four years. Its vast roots network continually sprouts new shoots, preventing the need for re-planting. In short, bamboo has the capacity to grow before your eyes without the need for ploughing, fertilising or poisonous pesticides.

However, whilst bamboo itself is a wonderfully sustainable plant, the fiber is more difficult to categorise. Essentially, there are two ways to convert bamboo to fabric: mechanical and chemical.

The mechanical way involves crushing the plant and using natural enzymes to break down the woody mass to natural fibers than can be spun out to a yarn to form what is sometimes called bamboo linen.

Mechanical manufacturing of this kind is labour intensive and costly, which is why most bamboo fabric is produced chemically to create a fiber that is similar to rayon or modal. In this process, the bamboo leaves and shoots are ‘cooked’ in a chemical concoction using solvents in a process called hydrolysis alkalisation along with multi-phased bleaching. The two main chemicals, sodium hyprodixe and carbon disufide, have been linked to a variety of health concerns, with carbon disufide being a particularly toxic nerve poison.

Given how chemically intensive hydrolysis alkalisation and multi-phased bleaching are, there have been some newer processes and nano technologies that have attempted to make the process more benign. Examples include the lyocell process, where the bamboo cellulose is dissolved into a viscose solution using N-methylmorpholine-N-oxide, a member of the amine oxide family (a group of weak alkalines). N-methylmorpholine-N-oxide is supposedly non-toxic to humans and the chemicals used in the lyocell process are up to 99.5% closed-loop, which means they can be used again, leaving only traces of waste.

In another example, Boston start-up Greenyarn is making ‘Eco-fabric’ from bamboo charcoal, which it claims is made without harmful chemicals and the company also proclaims to be highly environmentally aware in its production process.

Whether chemical or mechanical, bamboo fabric maintains a number of significant positive advantages, including:

  • Easy to launder
  • Anti-bacterial and anti-fungal and does not smell
  • Hyper-allergenic
  • Absorbent
  • Breathable
  • 100% biodegradable
  • Bamboo itself grows very rapidly without pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers
  • Growing bamboo improves soil quality
  • There are no GMO versions of bamboo known to date
  • It is possible to manufacture bamboo fabric without harmful chemicals

The bottom line? The growing of bamboo is an environmentally friendly practice but there are valid health concerns about the chemical broth used to cook the bamboo plant. Manufacturing facilities in developing countries are unlikely to have stringent health and pollution controls to mitigate the risks of working with these chemicals, opening a bag of environmental, health and ethical concerns.

Even ISO 9000 and 14000 standards do not regulate how the company regulates its industrial and commercial standards, and is more a generic summary of standards than a thorough checklist.

Independent certification bodies such as Oeko-Tex or Soil Association are other useful standards for fabric quality and harmlessness to the consumer, although they cannot vouch for the manufacturing process.

Right now, bamboo is only at the beginning of its journey as a textile fiber – and it’s a good place to start.

Further Reading:

Bamboo: Facts behind the Fiber

Material Guide: is bamboo fabric sustainable?

Bamboo fabric: how it’s made

Pandering to the green consumer