As a UGA grad, I am a die-hard SEC football fan...Go Dawgs! I also love the NFL and basically any other football game I can find on tv. I love to camp, scrapbook, read, watch movies, hike, take pictures, and hang out with friends. I'm a little bit girlie-girl, a little bit tomboy, a little bit southern belle and probably a little bit redneck... does a pink camouflage ball cap from Bass Pro Shops qualify me as redneck?
That is the question. Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the stings and chemicals of fabric processing, or to take arms against a sea of industries, and by opposing end them? The Bard I'm not, but I do ask the same time-honored question.
When I started to write this blog, it was to tout the comfort and softness of my new favorite socks (which are bamboo), and revel in my self-righteous purchase of a more sustainable fabric product. As I started to research bamboo fiber, however, I discovered that my righteousness may be premature and there is more to this bamboo phenomenon than meets the eye. While the eco-friendly nature of bamboo has been widely publicized, the debate about its processing is a lesser known trend.
Botanically categorized as a grass and not a tree, bamboo just might be the world’s most sustainable resource. It is the fastest growing grass and can shoot up a yard or more a day. Bamboo reaches maturity quickly and is ready for harvesting in about 4 years. Bamboo does not require replanting after harvesting because its vast root network continually sprouts new shoots which almost zoom up while you watch them, pulling in sunlight and greenhouse gases and converting them to new green growth. And bamboo does this the natural way without the need for petroleum-guzzling tractors and poisonous pesticides and fertilizers.
Recent heralding of bamboo as the latest and hottest sustainable eco-fabric has ushered its arrival into current fashion, being seen on runways in New York, Milan, and Paris, as well as in the lines of today’s top designers. And some of the hoopla is justified. Growing bamboo is a wonderfully beneficial plant for the planet and most is naturally organic bamboo. The manufacturing processes where bamboo the plant is transformed into bamboo the fabric are where the sustainability and eco-friendly luster of bamboo is tarnished because of the heavy chemicals, some of which are toxic, that are often required. Here’s the scoop.
Bamboo, the plant, is wonderfully sustainable; bamboo, the fabric, isn’t so easy to categorize. There are two ways to process bamboo to make the plant into a fabric: mechanically or chemically. The mechanical way is by crushing the woody parts of the bamboo plant and then use natural enzymes to break the bamboo walls into a mushy mass so that the natural fibers can be mechanically combed out and spun into yarn. This is essentially the same eco-friendly manufacturing process used to produce linen fabric from flax or hemp. Bamboo fabric made from this process is sometimes called bamboo linen. Very little bamboo linen is manufactured for clothing because it is more labor intensive and costly, and let’s be honest…hemp and flax linens aren’t well known for their comfort.
Most bamboo fabric that is the current eco-fashion rage is chemically manufactured by “cooking” the bamboo leaves and woody shoots in strong chemical solvents such as sodium hydroxide (also known as caustic soda or lye) and carbon disulfide. This is basically the same process used to make rayon from wood or cotton waste byproducts. Ay, there’s the rub. Does the chemical processing of bamboo, which yields the soft, smooth fibers for which bamboo is known, decrease its viability as an environmentally-friendly fabric alternative?
I found substantial research to support both “yes” and “no” answers. The most compelling information, at least for me, was the fact that sodium hydroxide is one of the most widely used chemicals in the world. It is used in food production, soap making, manufacturing of bio diesel, production of paper, and is used on nearly all cotton fabrics, including organic cotton, during wet processing. Bamboo fibers also go through a bleaching process, which most often uses hydrogen peroxide. Perhaps the real clincher for me is that caustic soda and hydrogen peroxide are both approved for use on textiles under the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS). My educated guess is that if we delve deeply enough into textile processing, we may find more than we ever wish to know about fabric processing…enough, in fact, that we might consider naturism as THE most earth-friendly clothing option.
For now, I still have a firm conviction that bamboo is a great alternative for fabric and wood products. While there are some unanswered questions about processing, I think we’ll find that’s the case with polyester, rayon, and nylon as well. Plus, those fabrics don’t have the intrinsic qualities that make bamboo such a wonderful material. Bamboo fabric is absorbent, breathable, and naturally antibacterial and antifungal. And did I mention that it is soft? I mean "puppies on a cloud of cotton balls" soft.
The bottom line is that there may be room for improvement in the processing of bamboo fabric. But, isn’t that case in almost every industrial endeavor? I’m drawn to natural fibers in general because they aren’t petroleum-based products like their synthetic cousins. When combined with the human health and sustainability of bamboo, I guess my socks ARE perhaps the eco-jewel I originally suspected they were. I think bamboo is a great, sustainable material. I’m hoping that as demand for these materials increases, the regulation of their processing will too. For now, I’ll just be content that my socks are soft and cozy, which is the really desirable characteristic for things we put on our feet, right? So, having mentioned the words “feet” and “rub” in the same blog, I’m off to find someone to pay the appropriate attention to my overworked tootsies. Ay, there’s the (real) rub…