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The EcoVibe Guide to Sustainable Fabrics

by ecovibe on January 30, 2012

Many people wonder why they should choose sustainable fabrics, especially when most clothing is not made out of natural fibers or comes from conventionally grown cotton. While eco-friendly fabrics can often be more expensive, they are definitely worth the price. Fabrics made in a sustainable way cause much less damage to the environment because they don’t pollute the earth with chemicals and pesticides. They are also better for our health. Chemical residues from conventional fabrics are constantly rubbing on your skin and over time can be absorbed by your body. The solution to avoiding this? Try out some healthier fabrics! Here are some of your options…

ORGANIC COTTON

We previously did a more detailed post on organic cotton here. But in short, conventional cotton is extremely detrimental to the environment so it’s crucial that we support organic cotton whenever possible. The excessive amount of chemicals dumped on cotton is polluting our soil, water and air. Growing cotton organically is a great solution to this and even uses less water and can produce a better quality fabric.

The recent increase in organic cotton available is largely due to advances in organic farming. Farmers use natural fertilizers, compost, soil amendments and natural pest control, such as ladybugs, to kill off other pests. It’s hard to remain true to the organic standards with dyes though. But a lot of organic cotton products are offered in natural shades that aren’t dyed. Now colored cotton can actually be grown on the stem to produce browns, reddish-brown, greens and yellows without the need for dyes. Plus they have a softer texture and the color actually deepens with washing, rather than fading! Organic cotton is becoming increasingly popular worldwide and more products will be produced as long as consumers continue to support it by choosing clothing made with it.

BAMBOO

This versatile and self-replenishing plant yields a luxuriously soft fabric that is loved by many and is one of the most popular eco fabrics, providing a wonderful alternative to petroleum-based nylons, rayon and polyester.

The concept of whether or not bamboo fabric is truly an eco-friendly product has been recently brought to people’s attention because of the chemical processing it often goes through to break it down into a fiber that can be used for clothing. Similar to hemp, bamboo can be processed into fabric in two ways, mechanically or chemically. Most manufacturers choose the chemical way because it is so much faster and cheaper and produces the soft, flowy rayon-like fabric that so many people love.

Bamboo itself is a very sustainable plant. It is technically a grass and the fastest growing grass at that with the capacity to grow up to a yard a day! After harvesting it doesn’t need to be replanted, the roots shoot up new sprouts almost immediately. And bamboo is extremely hardy and requires no pesticides to grow. Only a very small amount of bamboo fabric is produced mechanically, and therefore is truly organic and sustainable. When purchasing bamboo look for an organic certification from a reliable, independent certification company. It is also often blended with organic cotton. Please read our previous post for more details on bamboo fabric here. And visit this site for a thorough analysis of bamboo processing.

HEMP

Hemp has become a very controversial plant, especially here in the U.S. But it has been the most useful plant to many civilizations around the globe for thousands of years; it’s actually the oldest cultivated fiber plant known. And it is arguably the most sustainable plant there is. It’s not just easy on the planet; it also makes the strongest fabric known, up to three times stronger than cotton. It’s also more absorbent, warmer and lasts longer. Hemp also needs no herbicides or pesticides to grow as it is extremely resistant to disease and insects and it grows so densely that weeds have no room to sprout. Hemp is also much gentler on the soil then any other crop. It has a deep root system that helps prevent soil erosion, aerates the soil, removes toxins, and gives a disease break to future crops.

Raw hemp has a rougher texture and more natural look, but it can be easily blended with other fibers like organic cotton, bamboo or silk, that gives it a much softer hand. Hemp has been manufactured into fabric mechanically for thousands of years and doesn’t need to be broken down chemically like bamboo. But some manufacturers are deciding to use chemical processing because it’s faster and requires less labor. For detailed information on these two processes check out this site. Try to buy hemp whenever you can to support this sustainable plant!

FLAX/LINEN

The flax plant has been used for thousands of years, especially by the Egyptians, to produce linen. Flax is a very finicky plant whose production and quality depends on how it is grown. The linen fabric is manufactured by crushing the flax stalks and pulling away the longest fibers. Linen has only continued to increase in popularity in recent years and is used mainly in household things like towels, sheets and tablecloths. It’s stronger and more absorbent then cotton, but has a rougher texture. It’s also more durable and lightweight which makes it useful for clothing. Linen is also biodegradable and recyclable. It has been used in bandages by doctors for thousands of years and has antibacterial properties. It’s also been known to be beneficial to the skin and can heal rashes as well as protect from UV damage.

SOY

Soy is a fabric that hasn’t been quite as popular as other sustainable alternatives but is beginning to be seen more and the demand for sustainable fabric increases. It is made from the hulls of soybeans and is a great use for food waste from the large production of soy. It is soft and requires less dye then most fabrics because it absorbs color so easily. It’s also completely biodegradable and is a sustainable crop. But there’s another side to that story as well because the over-production of soy as an agricultural crop is comparable to corn and has been argued to be not very environmentally friendly because it is grown so extensively and is often genetically modified. But soy still makes a great fabric and has been called the “vegetable cashmere” because it is so soft and drapes well. It is also absorbent, antibacterial and protects from UV rays and is often blended with organic cotton to provide strength and durability.

LYOCEL/MODAL/TENCEL

Lyocell includes a range of soft fibers comprised of plant cellulose fibers, usually from tree pulp, a bi-product of the wood industry. Also known as Tencel, seacell (using seaweed) or modal (from beechwood pulp). While it is a natural, 100% biodegradable fiber that utilizes an industry bi-product that would otherwise be wasted, it still is subjected to chemical processing. However the required solvent is 99.5% recycled back to  into the production cycle so there is very little waste or chemical run-off. It has cotton-like characteristics and because of this has been called “the sustainable alternative to cotton”. It is comfortable to wear and has a pleasantly cooling effect so it works well for lighter garments.

SILK & PEACE SILK

Silk is one of the most ancient fabrics originating in China and delivers elegant effects when used alone or combined with other fibers. This durable protein fiber is obtained from the cocoons of silk worms, harvested before the caterpillar metamorphoses into a moth. Conventional silk is made by boiling the intact cocoons and thereby killing the silk worms, after which the single silk strand is unwound onto reels. Wild silk, also known as Peace Silk or Cruelty-Free Silk, waits for the silkworm to emerge from their cocoons to live out their full life cycle. The silk is then degummed and spun like other fibers, instead of being reeled. The resulting yarn is soft, light and luxurious.

RECYCLED PET & UPCYCLED FABRIC

PET, or polyethylene terephthalate, accounts for almost all of the rigid plastic packaging consumed in the United States. It’s used to make water bottles, peanut butter jars, detergent jugs, and countless other containers. Most of this waste is unfortunately dumped into landfills each year. New technology in the textile industry now allows companies to clean, shred, melt, and recycle this waste plastic – converting it into polyester yarn and giving it new life as fleece and other fabrics that rival the best virgin polyester for softness, comfort, and durability.

By using one pound of recycled yarn instead of virgin poly yarn, we save almost half a gallon of gasoline, and 50,000 BTUs of energy. So we’re using fewer resources to start with and polluting less along the way. Some companies are also recycling cotton and other fabric waste from the textile industry that would otherwise end up in landfills, then cleaning and reincorporating the fibers into new fabric. This concept, often called “upcycling” is another great option that we are seeing more and more of as the demand for eco-friendly fabrics increases.

 We hope you find this to be a helpful and informative guide. These are some of the main fabrics we look for when seeking merchandise for EcoVibe Apparel. Your comments and feedback are welcome!

 

Sources:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/bness/28709240/sizes/l/in/photostream/

http://www.flickr.com/photos/amberritchie/5102654931/sizes/o/in/photostream/

http://www.flickr.com/photos/kammann/3805259174/

http://www.patagonia.com/us/patagonia.go?assetid=2077

http://eartheasy.com/wear_orgcot_clo.htm

http://www.nyfashioncenterfabrics.com/linen-fabric-info.html

http://www.purelinen.com.au/Linen-Facts/default.shtml

http://www.the-eco-market.com/soy-fabric.html

http://www.intertwineddesigns.com/cw/pages/fabricinfo.php

 

 

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