NATURAL FIBERS – THE ULTIMATE COMFORT
Surrounding ourselves with natural fibers is like comfort food – inviting and comfortable in so many ways – cotton, wool, soy silk, flax/linen, ramie, bamboo, tencel, corn, jute and hemp all-natural fibers with less embodied energy than their petroleum-based counterparts.
Naturally (pun intended) they have environmental impacts. As noted within Green Building Advisors Product Guide http://www.greenbuildingadvisor.com/product-guide/cat/natural-fiber-fabrics conventional cotton is grown with significant chemical fertilizer and pesticides. Wool and silk –animal products imported from overseas sources – are typically treated with chemicals to ward off moth infestation and microbial growth. Hemp and jute, also primarily from oversea sources, are fairly resistant to pests, both as plants and after manufacturing into fabrics.
As a rule of thumb, natural fibers tend toward minimal processing prior to manufacturing reducing their environmental impact over the entire lifecycle. Eco-characteristics generally include the minimum use of chemicals and pesticides; responsible land management and sustainable ranching/farming practices; certifications; and fair trade practices. Take into account the raw material selection, production, dye process, usage and disposal in addition to the consumption of energy, water and chemicals.
An eco-nerd at heart I love researching and reading up on products. Here is what I’ve found when sourcing sustainable natural fibers for fabrics and rugs.
Organic cotton is grown without pesticides, herbicides, insecticides and chemical fertilizers. By using sustainable agricultural methods it reduces/eliminates pests, enhances growth, maintains soil qualities and protects cotton harvesters. When grown organically damage to the soil, environment, or human health is significantly less plus the fiber is stronger because of no chemical processing.
On the flip side, organic cotton uses large amounts of water; when possible look for crops that come from fields that receive sufficient rainfall to irrigate the crops.
Biologist, Sally Fox, developed ‘colored’ organic cotton http://www.greenbuildingadvisor.com/product-guide/prod/foxfibre-colorganic-fabric with fibers long enough to be spun into thread. It grows naturally in shades of green, brown and natural with the added benefit of being fade resistant.
Organic cotton is rapidly-renewable, minimally processed, absorbs moisture, reusable, recyclable and ultimately biodegradable.
Wool harvested by sustainable ranchers is a strong, beautiful fiber with few limitations plus amazing longevity and durability. Its naysayers debate that sheep put out high levels of carbon dioxide and abuse the land. Wool also needs to be scoured which uses significant amounts of water and leads to polluted wastewater.
Ensure that the wool is unbleached or bleached with ozone-based products and dyed with responsible eco-friendly methods rather than heavy, metal dyes.
Organic wool is rapidly-renewable, minimally processed, absorbs moisture, is inherently fire retardant, stain resistant, reusable, recyclable and ultimately biodegradable.
Legend has it that Henry Ford wore a suit made of soy silk in the 1940s and Ford cars sported soy fiber for upholstery.
A by-product from the tofu-making process, soy silk is the liquefied soy proteins extruded into fibers which are then spun into soft and lustrous textiles. Because of the high protein base it takes to natural dyes well.
I’ve yet to find upholstery fabrics made from soy silk – let me know if you come across a source – but they are around the corner. I’ve knit with skeins of soy silk yarn and love the soft, luxurious texture.
FLAX (aka Linen)
Linen is created by processing, spinning and weaving flax fibers (from the plants stem) into a strong, durable cloth. Linen keeps you cool and dry absorbing moisture before feeling damp and gets softer and stronger the more it is used. Another plus is that it is colorfast and non-allergenic.
Flax is rapidly-renewable, requires little water and fertilizers, minimally processed, absorbs moisture, reusable, recyclable and ultimately biodegradable.
China Grass is a flowering plant native to Asia better known as ramie. It is one of the strongest fibers, highly absorbent, and naturally resists stains.
Ramie is often blended with other fibers such as cotton and hemp to produce fabrics with enhanced durability.
Ramie is rapidly-renewable, grows with little water and fertilizers, minimally processed, absorbs moisture, reusable, recyclable and ultimately biodegradable.
Bamboo is a renewable grass which classifies it as eco-friendly. It has natural antibacterial properties and is hypoallergenic plus it drapes like silk but is more durable and less expensive.
“Panda Friendly’ bamboo plants are a must! Bamboo plants grow quickly without fertilizers or pesticides and require minimal amounts of water. The grasses also release 35% more oxygen into the air than an equivalent stand of trees. Bamboo fabric is created from the pulp of the stalk, readily accepts dyes and there is no need for chlorine bleach.
The negative aspect of the process comes from the sulfuric acid used in the processing of the pulp. Contributes minimally to air pollution and the wastewater must be neutralized with bacteria before it is returned to the ecosystem.
Bamboo is rapidly-renewable, grows with little water and fertilizers, absorbs moisture, reusable, recyclable and ultimately biodegradable.
A newer fabric made from wood pulp cellulose, Tencel is a branded lyocell fiber that comes from eucalyptus trees yielding a high quality fiber with less amounts of water from a fast-growing tree. For an even greener product look for trees that are certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).
A non-toxic organic solvent is created from the wood pulp which is than reclaimed and recycled in a closed-loop spinning process conserving energy and water. Statistics show that up to 95% of the solvent is recovered and reused. Look for tencel that does not utilize harmful chemicals (like formaldehyde) to treat the fibrillation of the fibers.
One of the drawbacks of Tencel and lyocell based fabrics is that that they don’t take well to dyes. This may lead to the use of a chemical based dye process or other treatments that not eco-friendly.
Tencel is rapidly-renewable, requires little water and fertilizers, reusable, recyclable and ultimately biodegradable.
Jute comes from a flowering vegetable plant that grows to 10 feet tall and historically the fiber has been used to make rope, twine, carpet and rugs. Inherently a strong fiber, jute it is one of the cheapest natural fibers available. It has also been used to make paper, geotextile (a fiberglass alternative) and particleboard.
More good news! Jute improves soil quality, is carbon dioxide neutral and 100% recyclable and biodegradable without causing environmental hazards.
Jute is rapidly-renewable, grows with little water and fertilizers, minimally processed, absorbs moisture, reusable, recyclable and ultimately biodegradable.
INGEO™ CORN FIBER
Ingeo™ is a man-made fiber made out of corn through a joint venture with Cargill and Teijin. By extracting the starch and sugars from corn they can process them into a fiber which is spun into yarn or woven into fabric – an innovative material emerging as an eco friendly alternative.
A trademark of Natureworks LLC http://www.natureworksllc.com Ingeo claims it is the world’s first man-made fiber derived from 100% renewable resources. They describe the fabric as follows: Ingeo fiber combines the qualities of natural and synthetic fibers in a new way. Strength and resilience are balanced with comfort, softness and drape in textiles. In addition, Ingeo fiber has good moisture management characteristics. This means that Ingeo fiber is ideally suited to fabrics from fashion to furnishings.
The fabric is stain and fade resistant, absorbs odors, hypoallergenic but doesn’t retain moisture.
Last but certainly not least let’s take a look at one of my favorites – cannabis – cultivated for non-drug usage into industrial hemp. Hemp is a multitalented, natural fiber with remarkable benefits and attributes. Its long strands of fiber are suitable for spinning with minimal processing creating the strongest of the natural fibers. Hemp is gaining status as an environmentally friendly alternative with a beautiful hand, feel and drape. It grows quickly and densely eliminating the need for herbicides, pesticides and artificial fertilizers and needs no irrigation flourishing on the average rainfall.
Hemp comes in an assortment of textures and weights – woven or knit fabrics, ropes, belts, area rugs and carpets all made from this versatile plant plus it is insect and mildew resistant.
Currently imported from China hemp is still illegal to grow in many areas of the world being confused with the marijuana plant. Advocates and stakeholders are working with legislation toward changing current laws.
Hemp is rapidly-renewable, grows with little water and fertilizers, minimally processed, absorbs moisture, reusable, recyclable and ultimately biodegradable.
IT’S A WRAP
A few additional thoughts to take into consideration:
To Dye or Not-to-Dye
Best practice is using natural, un-dyed fabrics but who wants to live in a colorless world! Look for natural dyes without the use of heavy metal dyes. Another eco-friendly option is a closed loop system using low impact reactive dyes.
Rather than using chlorine bleach which is polluting and toxic, look for ‘next-to-skin’ comfort choosing oxidizing chemicals such as ozone or hydrogen peroxide, which break down into oxygen and water.
Work with companies that restrict the use of flame retardants. Flame retardants are man-made chemicals made from Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers (PBDE). PBDEs are often added to foam padding, plastics or fabrics so they won’t catch on fire or burn as easily when exposed to flame or high heat. They do not breakdown quickly and remain in the environment for an indefinite period. If flame retardants are necessary specify that they be free of hazardous chemicals.
O Ecotextiles’ uses finishes made of bees wax, aloe vera and Vitamin A…what a great role model to follow!
For quick reference, here’s a short list of the sustainable characteristics for natural fiber sourcing:
- Made from rapidly renewable and sustainable resources
- Made with minimal ecological footprint; land, energy, water, resources, waste, etc…
- Minimal processing toward end product
- Non-toxic chemicals
- Made with a closed loop cycle
- Reusable, recyclable and biodegradable
- Certified products by Organic Trade Association (OTA), U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (iFOAM), SKAL, Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), etc…
I love supporting textile industry eco-preneurs – O Ecotextiles, Q-Collection, Foxfibre Colorganic, Organic Plus and F. Schumacher & Co. – who create beautiful and eco-friendly materials that are non-toxic, sustainable and ethical. Enjoy exploring the wide variety of natural fibers that meet the environmental characteristics outlined above and help to restore a natural balance inside our homes and on our planet!
And if you know of any great sources, please share them with us!