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What Are Some Alternative Natural & Sustainable Fabrics?

Ting-Yi Shih

As far as sustainable fabrics are concerned, organic cotton is definitely tops. It’s absorbent, soft to the touch, and it breathes well. In fact, organic cotton production is doubling each year. They may not get the same buzz, but there are other eco-friendly fabrics to choose from. Let’s take a look at bamboo, hemp, silk, Tencel, linen, and wool.            

                                    

Bamboo 

Bamboo makes the list as a sustainable option because it’s naturally antibacterial, so it requires no pesticides. It also needs very little water, and it’s the fastest growing plant in the world! Once a new shoot emerges from the ground, the new cane will reach its full height in just eight to ten weeks—growing up to 4 feet a day! Bamboo fabrics are also very breathable, cool to the touch, and super soft.

However, bamboo is also controversial. Many "bamboo-made fabrics" are most commonly known and labeled as rayon in the States, and rayon fibers are not considered natural or artificial. Bamboo fiber must be broken down with a solvent, becoming something called cellulose. This liquid is eventually hardened and spun into fibers to create bamboo-made rayon. Harmful chemicals may be used in the dissolving process, making it toxic to the environment and non-sustainable.

If bamboo is your thing, your best bet is to look for OEKO TEX certified bamboo fabrics. This certification means that products are produced in a closed-loop system to reduce pollution and waste—the best way to ensure quality and shop ethically.

Hemp

Similar to bamboo, hemp is another plant that grows in abundance without much care. It doesn't need pesticides or insecticides, it’s drought resistant, and it grows rapidly in many different climates. The hemp plant even supplies nutrients to the soil to keep it fertile. It’s also naturally hypoallergenic because its protein structure defends against bacteria, and it’s even compost-friendly. If you have a compost heap at home, when you have an irreparable piece of hemp clothing, you can simply toss it right in.

Unlike bamboo, no toxic chemicals are needed to process hemp, and it doesn't require advanced technology to produce it. That’s why hemp was one of the first plants to be spun into usable fiber approximately 10,000 years ago. In addition to textiles, it can be made into plastics that are biodegradable, non-toxic paint, biofuel, food, animal feed, and even used as insulation in buildings and houses.

The one disadvantage is that hemp clothing can feel scratchy. But that’s changing. The hemp clothing industry today has a new way of processing to produce Viscose Hemp, which results in extremely soft hemp clothing, in contrast to the traditional Mechanical Hemp method.

Silk

A natural fiber that’s harvested from cocoons and produced by silkworms, silk is one of the most luxurious fabrics in the world. Silk is the protein fiber spun by silk moth larvae, so it’s natural and biodegradable. It also means it’s renewable because it can be harvested over and over.

The conventional method of harvesting involves killing the moth; however, a new and humane way of harvesting the silk has been developed. Ahimsa silk, also known as peace silk, is a type of silk that allows the moth to leave its cocoon before harvesting.  

Something to consider when shopping for silk, silk moths are not native to the US and silk fabric is not locally produced. Most silk is harvested and produced in India and China, meaning silk in America travels far and creates a deeper carbon footprint on the Earth.

Tencel

I have purchased dresses made with Tencel, and absolutely loved its breathability and softness. What we know as Tencel is actually lycocell, Tencel is the brand that created this fabric. This human-made and non-toxic textile is produced by first dissolving wood pulp, and then drying it through a special closed-loop spinning process to minimize toxic waste.

LIke all other natural or human-made fabrics, there are positive and negative aspects of Tencel. The major downside is the use of a chemical solvent to dissolve the wood pulps. However, it does not require a lot of it, and by implementing a closed-loop manufacturing process, the majority (98%) of the solution is actually recycled, therefore toxic waste is minimized. If you’re interested, you can learn more about how Tencel is produced on Good On You, a site I introduced in my last blog.

Tencel (lyocell) shares many similar characteristics with other fabrics, like cotton, linen and viscose rayon. It’s soft and absorbent, very strong, and resistant to wrinkles. It’s also very versatile, it can be either machine washed or dry cleaned, and can be easily dyed many different colors. Tencel can even simulate other fabrics like suede, leather and silk. It’s definitely one of the most versatile eco-friendly fabrics out there. 

Linen

Linen is a natural fabric made from the flax plant, and one of the oldest fabrics known to humans, with origins in Europe and Central Asia. There are many reason to like linen. It doesn’t require any chemicals in production. Linen is also a natural insulator, keeping us cool in the summer months and trapping in warmth in the colder months. It’s long-lasting and softens with age, so it's pretty phenomenal.

Under the right weather conditions, Linen can be grown and cultivated without fertilizers. European linen is generally safer because it is less likely that toxic pesticides are used to grow the crops. Linen produced in China, for example, is more likely to contain harmful chemicals. When shopping for it, be sure to seek out organic linen whenever possible.

Wool

A lot of us love wool clothing. Cashmere anyone? It’s soft and keeps us toasty in those winter months. Wool is sustainable because its renewable—harvested from sheep. However, we need to pay attention to where the sheep come from. Only some farms exercise humane practices—namely, organic farming. When sheep are treated kindly and decently, they are less likely to have diseases and parasites, which creates a better agricultural product. Organic wool is also naturally hypoallergenic. Surprisingly, it’s usually the chemical dyes that induce skin problems. I'm one of those people who’s allergic to conventional wool. Having learned this, I think I’ll keep an eye out for organic wool next time and give it another try. Perhaps I can finally wear wool, and autumn has just arrived.




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