More people than ever before are looking to replace synthetic products with natural alternatives in their daily life.
So it’s not surprising that the global eco-textile market reached a whopping $40.58 billion in 2019. And it’s expected to grow by 4.6 percent year-on-year to 2027.
One of the most popular natural textile materials today is bamboo. Yes, that’s right–the stuff pandas eat. Like other natural fibers like cotton, linen, or silk, manufacturers transform bamboo into everything from bolts of bamboo fabric to bedsheets and socks.
But exactly how are bamboo textiles made? While the material itself might be natural, there’s some controversy surrounding its manufacture. Read on for an insider’s look at the production process.
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About the Bamboo Plant
Believe it or not, but bamboo is actually a giant grass plant! It’s also the fastest growing plant on Earth, with sea kelp making it to second place. Because it proliferates, it can be harvested multiple times in a decade–unlike a tree which takes decades or even centuries to mature.
Bamboo also has a robust root system that sends up new shoots every year. Growers harvest most other plants once, and then they need to sow or plant them again. A bamboo forest also helps reduce soil erosion and improves the water table wherever it’s farmed.
Finally, bamboo is incredibly hardy. It can survive in areas with low rainfall and is naturally pest resistant. This means farmers don’t have to invest in environmentally harmful chemical fertilizers and pesticides. In addition, a single mature stand of bamboo is an effective carbon sink, and it produces about 300 kilograms of oxygen a year.
Bamboo is predominantly grown in temperate to tropical zones. Most commercial bamboo coming from Southeast Asian countries and China.
However, there are concerns about bamboo monoculture plantations. They replace primary forests in these areas, leading to irreversible habitat loss.
Manufacturing Bamboo Textiles
How do those hefty sticks of bamboo become the best bamboo clothes and other fabric products? Manufacturers use two different methods: mechanical and chemical processing.
Each technique has its downsides and benefits, particularly when it comes to cost, efficiencies, and environmental harm.
This manufacturing process borrows techniques from ancient textile-making practices.
The woody part of the bamboo plant is crushed into fine splinters. These fragments are then soaked in water, and in a process called retting, natural enzymes break down the cellular material to create a soft pulp.
Manufacturers separate the fiber and spin them into yarn using specialized machinery. Yarn produced through mechanical manufacturing is usually colored with natural dyes. This ensures the production process is as eco-friendly as possible.
The yarn is then woven into bolts of fabric, just as you would with any other textile.
The mechanical manufacturing of bamboo fabric is time-consuming, labor-intensive, and thus, expensive. As a result, today, very few manufacturers choose to create textiles in this way, at least on a large scale.
Most cute bamboo outfits start out as spun fiber made using a chemical manufacturing process.
The benefit of chemical manufacturing is that it uses every part of the bamboo plant. First, the leaves and shoots are boiled in solvents like carbon disulfide or sodium hydroxide. Then, the resulting pulp is forced through a spinneret into a vat of sulfuric acid.
The pulp hardens into fibers, which are washed, bleached, and spun into rayon yarn. This type of bamboo textile is typically called “rayon from bamboo” on product labels.
Most bamboo fabric producers opt for chemical manufacturing because it’s cheaper and faster than mechanical manufacturing. However, the process is no stranger to controversy. The chemicals can damage the health of factory workers and the environment surrounding factories.
Researchers have been developing less toxic processing chemicals and processing methods in recent years–like applying lyocell (wood cellulose) production technology to bamboo. Manufacturers are also investing in closed-loop systems, where the chemicals are recycled.
Types and Benefits of Bamboo Fabric
Today, there are four popular types of bamboo fabric on the market. While they come from different processes, they’re all promoted similarly: soft, breathable, and sustainable.
These types include:
- Rayon (rayon from bamboo)
- Bamboo linen
Bamboo linen and cotton-bamboo blend fabrics are the most eco-friendly options, but they tend to wrinkle easily and are more expensive (due to more difficult production processes).
Rayon from bamboo is the most commonly used of these products. You’ll find it in everything from sustainable clothing to beach towels. However, Lyocell is gradually gaining traction.
Labeling and Certification
Are you looking for guilt-free comfortable clothing? New labeling and certification laws might give you the peace of mind you need to choose bamboo.
In recent years, the United States Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has taken steps to reign in eco-friendly claims. They’ve charged companies with attempting to “bamboozle” customers. They’ve also charged them with making false or exaggerated claims.
This has ushered in a new era of consumer protection. To sell their products to US companies, bamboo manufacturers need factory certifications verifying product quality and production practices–from Oeko Tex Standard 100 to the ISO and SA certifications.
Buying Bamboo Fabric Products
Now that you know how the bamboo fabric is constructed, will you start adding eco-friendly clothing and other bamboo products to your home?
Bamboo is a sustainable material if manufactured responsibly, so using it is a smart move for consumers. Just be sure to do your homework on each brand to make sure you’re buying from a company that cares about its workers and the Earth.
For more advice on living an eco-friendly life, head back to our blog to read other articles.