Bamboo, the Wonder Fiber
by Stacy Williams
Because of its luxurious softness, smooth hand, flowing and gentle drape, and easy price – at least compared with silk and cashmere – and eco-friendly cachet, bamboo has gained entry throughout the fashion industry. Designers such as Diane Von Furstenberg, Oscar de la Renta, and Agnes B have used this fabric for years now. 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 there are multiple ways of manufacturing this fiber and some of them include the use of the heavy chemicals, some of which are toxic. I make sure to only use bamboo fabrics that are made with the most ethical of manufacturing processes. Here’s the scoop.
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.
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. This is the process that is used to make the bamboo jersey fabric that I use.
Bamboo rayon has some wonderful properties which are adored by conventional and eco-aware designers and consumers:
- Bamboo fabric has a natural sheen and softness that feels and drapes like silk but is less expensive and more durable.
- Bamboo clothing is easy to launder in the washer and dryer.
- Bamboo clothing is soft and non-irritating, even to sensitive skin.
- Bamboo is naturally anti-bacterial and anti-fungal supposedly because of a bacteriostatis agent unique to bamboo. Thus bamboo fabric stops odor-producing bacteria from growing and spreading thus allowing bamboo clothing to be more hygienic and to remain fresher smelling longer.
- Bamboo clothing is hypoallergenic.
- Bamboo is highly absorbent and wicks water away from the body 3 to 4 times faster than cotton. In warm, humid and sweaty weather, bamboo clothing helps keep the wearer drier, cooler and more comfortable and doesn’t stick to the skin.
- The structure of bamboo fibers make bamboo fabrics more breathable and thermal regulating than cotton, hemp, wool or synthetic fabrics.
- Bamboo clothing is naturally more wrinkle-resistant than cotton, and while it might still require ironing after washing, bamboo fabric can be ironed at a lower temperature than cotton. Shrinkage during washing and drying is minimal at warm temperatures.
- Bamboo fibers and fabrics absorb dyes faster and more thoroughly than cotton, modal and viscose with better color clarity.
- Bamboo the plant and also bamboo the fabric can rate high as an environmentally friendly and renewable resource:
- Bamboo clothing (both mechanically and chemically manufactured) is 100% biodegradable and can be completely decomposed in the soil by micro-organisms and sunlight without decomposing into any pollutants such as methane gas which is commonly produced as a by-product of decomposition in landfills and dumps.
- Growing bamboo improves soil quality and helps rebuild eroded soil. The extensive root system of bamboo holds soil together, prevents soil erosion, and retains water in the watershed.
- Bamboo grows naturally without the need for agricultural tending and large diesel exhaust-spewing tractors to plant seeds and cultivate the soil.
- Bamboo plantations are large factories for photosynthesis which reduces greenhouse gases. Bamboo plants absorb about 5 times the amount of carbon dioxide (a primary greenhouse gas) and produces about 35% more oxygen than an equivalent stand of trees.
- Bamboo fabrics and clothing can be manufactured and produced without any chemical additives.
- Currently, there are no known genetically modified organisms (GMO) variants of bamboo. Let’s hope it stays that way.
Designers such as Kate O’Connor use bamboo fabric as an eco-friendly replacement for silk. She calls bamboo fashion “so much cheaper
The bottom line on bamboo. The growing of bamboo is environmentally friendly; the chemical manufacturing of bamboo into fabric is not, but the mechanical manufacturing of bamboo is. That is why I use bamboo fabric made with the mechanical manufacturing process for my collections. Bamboo is an all around wonderfully sustainable and beautiful fiber that should be a part of everyone’s daily wardrobe!
Stacy Williams is the owner and designer of the Aesthetik. After many years of working in the NYC fashion industry, she relocated back to her home state of Texas and is now a professor of fashion. She lives in a quiet Houston suburb with her husband, a naked dog, a buff colored tabby cat, and lots of plants.