Breaking Down Bamboo Fabric: How it's Made and What are the Pros & Cons
Updated: Nov 30
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Most of the people who are interested in sustainable living are probably familiar with bamboo fabric. Bamboo fabric was supposed to become an all-around better alternative to cotton. And why wouldn’t it? Bamboo grows fast, isn’t very picky about the climate it grows in and the fabric itself is supposedly very soft, breathable, and hypoallergenic.
As usual, the reality is a bit more complicated. While bamboo farming can be a very sustainable process, it isn’t always like that. Besides, there are different types of bamboo textiles with some being much less eco-friendly than others.
The Origin of Bamboo Fabric
The first aspect that should be taken into consideration when analyzing a material’s sustainability is its origins. So where does bamboo come from? Of all the forests around the world, only about 1% is bamboo, and even though most forests are disappearing fast, the number of bamboo forests increased by 3% in the last 3 years. Bamboo is a very low-maintenance plant and can grow pretty much everywhere, the vast majority of it comes from China. There are various reasons for that. Firstly, bamboo has been a part of Chinese culture for centuries, so it’s natural that the country exports so much bamboo fabric.
What makes bamboo very special is that it can absorb much more carbon dioxide and can produce up to 35% more oxygen than many tree species.
However, a long-standing tradition isn’t the only thing that makes China the world’s biggest bamboo exporter. Unlike many other countries, China has yet to create strong incentives for manufacturers to make their processes more sustainable and less damaging to the environment. That, of course, makes fabric production much more affordable, so many companies choose manufacturers from China.
How is bamboo fabric made?
Cotton can be turned into canvas, denim, flannel, muslin, Terry, etc all using the same plant. This is true for bamboo. Not only do they differ in terms of fabric properties and prices, but also in the amount of environmental damage they cause. Let’s take a closer look at the most common types of bamboo textiles.
Bamboo Viscose and Bamboo Rayon
These types of bamboo fabric are the cheapest and the most common type of bamboo fabric. It is used by hundreds of companies to make clothing, bed linen, and other household items. Thanks to bamboo’s antibacterial properties, the material can also be used for sanitary and medical supplies.
In general, viscose is a type of rayon that began to be used in the 20th century and was meant to become kind of a low-cost silk. At first look, it may seem like a perfect option: the customers get all the beneficial properties of bamboo without having to pay a lot. Unfortunately, it couldn’t be further from the truth. Although bamboo viscose and rayon are very affordable, bamboo’s unique benefits get lost in the manufacturing process which is also very harmful to the environment.
Rayon and viscose are two distinct types of fabrics, with the primary difference being their properties. Rayon is a slightly more eco-friendly and affordable option, with a greater ability to absorb moisture. Viscose, on the other hand, is softer and more durable than rayon. However, their production process is rather similar.
Just like any other type of viscose, the production of bamboo viscose starts with extracting cellulose from the wood pulp. Small pieces of wood get in contact with diluted caustic soda that helps remove the cellulose from the wood. Afterward, the cellulose gets pressed into sheets, and chemicals are added. To make strands out of cellulose, the cellulose is put into a spinneret. Finally, the strands get immersed in sulfuric acid, which aids the formation of fibers that are then spun into yarn.
Both Bamboo Rayon and Bamboo viscose have a similar production process. The difference is the chemicals used. For bamboo rayon, a cellulose immersion process is used using caustic soda while for bamboo viscose the cellulose xanthate process is used. The latter uses carbon disulfate, sodium sulfate, and zinc sulfate as chemicals.
The law in China doesn’t protect the workers meaning many of them are risking their health to make fabrics for your garments.
Bamboo viscose and bamboo rayon are just a feel-good marketing ploy. Since bamboo is so cheap and easy to grow, manufacturers use it to create items that they label as “sustainable”. However, with all the chemicals involved, the plant loses all of its beneficial properties by the end of the production cycle, not to mention all the harm these processes do to the environment and human health.
Bamboo modal goes through the same process as bamboo viscose meaning the same chemicals are used for its production. Modal is often mixed with other materials like cotton or spandex to enhance the properties of the fabric. Modal is often stronger, lighter, and more breathable compared to bamboo viscose.
Luckily, viscose is not the only kind of textile that can be made from bamboo. Although they are more expensive, there are also ways to create bamboo fabric in a closed-loop production process. In this case, the structure of cellulose isn’t altered by any chemicals and the fabric can be considered fully organic.
High-quality bamboo fabric doesn’t involve cellulose extraction or toxic solvents. A natural enzyme gets added to crushed bamboo wood fibers, which are washed and spun into yarn afterward. Since no toxic chemicals are used, such products are much safer for the factory workers and the environment. Besides, it’s the only production method that keeps the special properties of bamboo until the very end of the production cycle.
This kind of bamboo fabric truly is breathable, comfortable, durable, and antibacterial. That’s why many high-end clothing brands use it for apparel and undergarments.
The last type of bamboo textile is bamboo lyocell. Although the fabric itself is quite similar to viscose, the manufacturing process is much more sustainable. No toxic chemicals are involved in lyocell production. Amine oxide, a non-toxic solvent, is used to break down the pulp for lyocell production. This method allows the manufacturer to use a closed-loop process in which they reuse up to 99% percent of the solvent and water, which minimizes the amount of waste created and water used. Since bamboo lyocell consists of mostly organic ingredients, it is biodegradable and can break down in industrial facilities in about 8 days.
Such production methods don’t only make the manufacturing process very sustainable, but it also lets bamboo retain its unique qualities, so bamboo lyocell is a very soft and light fabric. While bamboo lyocell can be used to make clothing, the most common industry where it can be found in bed linen. Lyocell sheets are very soft, breathable, and hypoallergenic, which makes them perfect for a good night’s sleep.
Is bamboo better than cotton?
Bamboo and cotton are two popular materials used in the textile industry. Bamboo has gained popularity in recent years due to its supposed eco-friendliness and sustainability. Compared to cotton, bamboo requires less water, pesticides, and fertilizers to grow. Bamboo fibers are also naturally antibacterial and moisture-wicking, making them a good choice for activewear and undergarments. However, there are different types of bamboo fabric and some are very polluting to make which completely nullifies its eco-friendliness. Cotton is still a widely used and versatile material that is soft, breathable, and comfortable to wear. It is also more affordable and widely available than bamboo.
Which one is more sustainable completely depends on the type of bamboo fabric you choose where bamboo linen and lyocell are more sustainable choices compared to cotton.
What are the advantages of bamboo fabric
Bamboo fabric has several advantages over other fabrics:
Softness: Bamboo fabric is incredibly soft and comfortable to wear, making it ideal for clothing, bedding, and other textiles.
Moisture-wicking: Bamboo fabric is naturally moisture-wicking, meaning it pulls moisture away from the body and evaporates it quickly, keeping you cool and dry.
Breathable: Bamboo fabric is highly breathable, allowing air to circulate and preventing overheating.
Hypoallergenic: Bamboo fabric is naturally hypoallergenic, making it a great choice for people with sensitive skin.
Antibacterial: Bamboo fabric has natural antibacterial properties that help to resist the growth of bacteria and odor, even after multiple washings.
Sustainable: Bamboo is an easy crop that doesn’t have a lot of requirements regarding climate, pesticides, or fertilizers.
Biodegradable: Bamboo fabric can be biodegradable, meaning it can be broken down naturally without harming the environment.
What are the disadvantages of bamboo fabric?
While bamboo fabric has many advantages, it also has a few disadvantages that should be considered:
Chemical processing: The process of turning bamboo into fabric often involves the use of chemicals such as sodium hydroxide and carbon disulfide, which can be harmful to the environment and workers in the manufacturing process.
Environmental concerns: As the demand for bamboo increases, more land area is required to grow these plants.This results in deforestation in areas where bamboo is cultivated.
Monocropping: Bamboo is a type of grass. Grasses thrive in monocultures. However, this causes soil degradation as bamboo takes up only the nutrients it requires which also means these need to be supplemented by fertilizers.
Durability: While bamboo fabric is soft and comfortable, it may not be as durable as other fabrics such as cotton or polyester. This means it may not hold up as well to wear and tear over time.
Overall, while bamboo fabric has many advantages, it is important to consider its potential drawbacks as well when deciding whether to use it for clothing or other textiles.