Bamboo Textiles: Green, Luxurious and Practical
by Ed Mass
Bamboo has garnered a lot of attention in the fashion industry as well as for everyday textiles like sheets, towels and robes. The attention is due to its potential environmental friendliness combined with its luxuriously soft feel, flowing drape and many other positive 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 percent of the earth’s land area. And it is a 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 improving their economic situation.
Bamboo’s versatility is evidenced by its use for income, food and housing. Different species are used for different purposes, including food for Pandas, humans and livestock, woven handcraft products such as baskets and mats, textile products, ingredients for Chinese medicines and construction of flooring, fences and roofing.
Bamboo for Clothes?
Bamboo makes a wonderful clothing material. Due to its hollow fiber, it 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.
- Comfort: Bamboo apparel is comfortable, very breathable, moisture-wicking, fast drying and thermal regulating. Bamboo fabric is anti-static so it doesn’t cling. It is often described as having the “ultra softness of cashmere and the sheen (luster) of silk.”
- Antibacterial: Bamboo is naturally antibacterial due to a bio-agent that the Japanese have called “kun,” which resists the growth of bacteria on the fiber. This is normally carried through to the finished product, allowing it also to resist the growth of bacteria that causes odors even after numerous washings. This eliminates the need for anti-microbial chemical treatment, which is known to cause allergic reaction and is environmentally unfriendly. This also means that the garment will have to be washed less often, saving energy and making 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 fiber is highly absorbent, much more so and faster drying than cotton. In warm, humid 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 to 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, as is required by cotton.
- Easy Care and Energy Efficient: Bamboo is machine washable in cool water. Environmentally unfriendly and unhealthy 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 reputation 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.
- Water Conserving: 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 percent 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 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 to workers.
- Biodegradable: Bamboo, as a natural cellulose fiber, is biodegradable in soil by microorganisms and sunshine. The decomposition process doesn’t cause any pollution to the environment. However, a biodegradability problem may arise if bamboo is blended 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 or not the chemical is captured and re-used. Non-toxic chemicals may be used and also may or may not be recovered and re-used.
Often, the chemical process that is used is the same one used to make rayon, which is also called viscose, especially in Europe. The rayon process is environmentally unfriendly 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. I am confident that this process will eventually be used and that it will become common as more demand is created for environmentally friendly clothing.
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®) 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 textiles. Therefore you will see labels that say: “bamboo,” “rayon bamboo,” “rayon of bamboo,” “viscose of bamboo” and others. Other than just “bamboo,” these labels mean the rayon process was used to create the bamboo fiber. If the label just says “bamboo,” it is unknown which particular process was used.
Until we have bamboo textiles, such as clothing, towels and sheets, that are certified organic from farming through manufacturing, there are other options for being confident about 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 is still usually better than most non-organic fibers and fabrics with all their chemical, synthetic and water-intensive processes in farming through manufacturing.
Suggest Bamboo When You Travel
The hotel and spa industry is one that could particularly benefit from the properties of bamboo, especially its antibacterial property. Some hotels and spas have been “greening” their operations to make them environmentally friendly. This includes energy- and water-saving designs and devices, plus reducing laundering of towels and sheets. Many facilities now use guestroom towel-rack hanger cards and sheet-changing cards which encourage guests to consider not having towels and sheets changed every day. After all, we don’t launder our towels every day at home so daily laundering shouldn’t be necessary at a hotel either.
Bamboo sheets and towels can offer a better alternative to cotton for hotels and spas, since they resist bacteria-causing odors. This means it takes longer before they would have an “unclean” smell. Lodging guests won’t feel like they’re sacrificing anything in the name of conservation and increasing their environmental friendliness.
Because bamboo sheets and towels don’t need fabric softeners, there are additional savings to commercial users through eliminating this cost. By not needing to wash as often, these users also achieve energy, water and labor savings. There’s also a reduced load from the detergent waste water going through water treatment systems. All of this should add up to longer lasting sheets and towels for lower replacement costs. Of course, all these same benefits apply at home with your own sheets and towels.
When using bamboo, as well as organic cotton, towels and sheets, a lodging facility can also cater to the increasing population of chemically sensitive individuals.
So when filling in the guest card at a hotel, remember to suggest the antibacterial benefits of bamboo. When facilities hear it from enough people, they’ll eventually do something about it.
Fiber Development Is Evolving
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 for fibers.
Therefore, it is up to the concerned consumer to inquire about the entire process from farm to finished good, or to be confident that the retailer has evaluated their suppliers to be sure that the finished goods are healthy to both people and planet.
Bamboo Clothing Caution
Bamboo blended with non-organic cotton just doesn’t make sense to me. Bamboo in clothing, sheets and towels is being promoted as a sustainable resource. The farming and manufacturing are typically carried out organically, even if not certified, or at least in an environmentally-friendly manner. However, there is another important concern. Bamboo is being blended with many other fabrics to achieve varying characteristics of the finished item. But when it’s blended with non-organic yarns like cotton and synthetics, which are very environmentally destructive to our air, water and soil as well as the farm workers, it really doesn’t make sense. Possibly the only argument that can justify these types of blends is one that says, “Well, it’s better than 100 percent non-organic cotton.” Is the glass half full or half empty? It may not be better if it creates a sense of accomplishment that derails the real objective of creating clothing that’s friendly to both people and planet. So it’s important for you to be knowledgeable of the issues when evaluating bamboo blends and when the item is being promoted as eco-friendly, sustainable and “green.”
In mid-2009, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission expressed some concerns about the labeling and claims being made about fabric made from bamboo fibers. There concerns seemed to center around the processing, which can often be the same one to make rayon, and can be environmentally unfriendly. In reality, “bamboo rayon” is very different from “traditional rayon,” as is described above. The FTC was also concerned about claims that bamboo is antibacterial, although there are a handful of studies that back-up the claim. The bamboo fabric industry notes that the American system for characterizing fibers dates back almost a century and changes slowly. As a result, it takes a great deal of time and money before a new classification for new fibers like bamboo. Until that happens, the fibers are grouped into the next closest thing, which for bamboo happens to be viscose.
Ed Mass is President and founder of Yes It’s Organic, an online store for organic, fair labor, and eco- friendly goods. After being an environmentalist for over 40 years, he decided to participate more directly in growing the organic, fair labor and eco-friendly industries by educating consumers and influencing their buying habits.