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Bamboo is a plant of all trades, it can be eaten, used for building sturdy structures and furniture, beaten to a pulp for paper and even woven into an incredibly soft wearable fiber. In recent years, we have seen an influx of brands and various versions of bamboo fabrics available on the market in every form from kitchen scrubbies to high-count bed sheets to high-performance and luxury clothing.
It has been steadily gaining popularity as the world becomes more environmentally conscious and turns its focus towards sustainable clothing, living and farming. Here, we explore the benefits of the fiber, how it is created, and how it easily fits into the Printwear closet.
|Once broken down from its rigid natural form, bamboo becomes a luxurious wearable fabric. (Image courtesy Alo)|
From the ground up
Bamboo is the fastest growing plant on earth," says Ash City's Debbie Wareham, who also notes that it is botanically categorized as a grass, though there is some debate on whether or not it is actually a noxious weed. Pushing out any botanical traitors, i.e. anything not of the bamboo variety, it easily repopulates itself, creating dense forests along riverbanks and marshy areas.
Professor Ian Hardin of the University of Georgia's Textile department adds that the plant can be found naturally in tropical to mild temperate regions of Asia and the islands of the Indian and Pacific oceans. Reaching maturity quickly, it can be harvested about every four years, according to Wareham, as opposed to cotton's annual harvesting schedule.
But, even with a longer period between harvests, bamboo's crops boast several advantages. The first, as Wareham explains, is that it is naturally-regenerating and does not require reseeding or soil cultivation. Sandra Marquardt, On the Mark, a public relations firm that specializes in organic and sustainable companies, and spokesperson for the Organic Trade Association, adds that it is also a low-to-no pesticide and fertilizer crop, while maintaining relative pest resistance. With what Hardin estimates as some 1,000 species of bamboo found worldwide, ranging in size from about 4" to 130 ft., it seems there are plenty of shirts to be made.
It feels quite counter-intuitive that this stiff plant, used for scaffolding in Asian architecture and for other rigid goods, can become one of the softest fabrics on the market. Between a tough exterior and the fact that most plants are around 50 percent cellulose, the component that makes fibers pliable, a great deal of chemistry is needed to make it into a garment. Scientific advancements have produced several ways to manufacture the plant into a fiber, most notably through chemical, mechanical and nano-technology processes.
In the chemical process, Hardin states that four or five different chemical processes must take place. First, the node and thin bark of the stalk are removed, after which the leaves and stems are soaked in a chemical bath for three days and bleached. The remaining fibers are then beaten and scrapped and the resulting syrupy solution is spun into what becomes a recognizable fiber.
This produces a version of the fiber known as bamboo rayon. Due to its chemical processing, this composition fits within the FTC definition of rayon as "a manufactured fiber composed of regenerated cellulose." Because of this, it is now legally required that all bamboo fibers created in this manner must be labeled as bamboo rayon or rayon from bamboo pulp as opposed to simply being labeled bamboo.
To create bamboo fiber mechanically, as described by Wareham, the woody parts of the plant are crushed using natural enzymes to break the walls into a "mushy mass" so that the natural fibers can then be combed and spun into yarn. This version, as she notes is sometimes called "bamboo linen." However, as Marquardt explains, this is a pricey and labor-intensive process, leaving chemical processing as the most popular choice.
The last and least commonly-used version of bamboo's tactile creation is nano-technology to produce what Wareham refers to as bamboo charcoal. In this process, bamboo is dried, burnt and reduced to charcoal. The charcoal is then processed into nano-particles and embedded into cotton, polyester or nylon fibers.
Through one of the aforementioned processes, the rigid bamboo plant becomes a fabric often compared to both silk and cotton, with the benefits of synthetic fabrics. "I don't have this information from a technical standpoint," says Marquardt, "but when I wear bamboo, it feels like melted butter." A somewhat surprising quality amongst others including a natural sheen and softness.
"It tends to drape incredibly well," adds Steffenie Zorner, Bella + Canvas. She continues that some suggest it even tends to hold its shape better than a majority of its competitors, which helps to make bamboo as versatile and comfortable as a favorite worn-in T.
Bamboo is as easily launderable as cotton, being a wash, dry and wear garment, and, Warhem adds that it shows indications that it may be naturally more wrinkle resistant.
Besides it's sexy hand, as Marquardt puts it, part of what makes bamboo such a desirable fabric is its inherent attributes that differentiate it from other fabrics out there. Zorner notes that it is moisture wicking, antimicrobial and UV-resistant without added chemical finishes.
Its structure is also breathable and thermal regulating, suggests Wareham, making the wearer cool in the summer and warm in the winter. For these reasons, many athletic wear brands have also adopted the fiber into its performance apparel to help keep the sweaty masses fungal-free and temperature-regulated.
|Legally referred to as bamboo rayon due to its processing, the fiber is a popular choice for both women’s wear and athletic wear due to its vibrant color and inherent performance qualities. (Image courtesy Ash City)|
The dark side of green
Luxury always comes at a price. In the case of bamboo, it's one higher than organic cotton, says Zorner, even considering cotton's new-normal elevated pricing. It also has the potential to limit color options, Wareham warns, as the charcoal process gives a grayish tone to the fabric, making dark colors the best option.
Marquardt notes another issue; with so few initial inputs, the processing often results in extensive discharge into the air and water. Hardin agrees, noting that one of the biggest concerns with any cellulosic processing is the water waste it produces.
In hopes of combating the negative connotations associated with rayon, many companies, especially in the green sector, work only with Oeko-Tex certified mills to ensure higher eco standards. According to Marquardt, there is also a huge push in the manufacturing industry towards enclosed chambers, which can help control the amount of pollution released into the air, both inside the factory and out.
Through its enviable hand, easy shape and inherent features, it's no wonder that bamboo has become a feasible option for everyday wear and an inevitable decorated desire. Offering a cotton alternative can also help to expand customer base to include client options that may not have been a previous prospect.
"A trend toward environmentally-friendly products is sure to push bamboo fabric further into the main stream," says Zorner. Good news for even the smallest of shops because, while the properties and source are far different from the typical T, not much else changes. "Bamboo is just like cotton when it prints," she continues.
Wareham adds that when bamboo is combined with polyester, like in the charcoal method, it is decorated in the same manner as any other synthetic, which also means that the same inks and processes can be used without extra prep or cost.
With an ease of decorating, a luxurious texture and versatile uses, it may be a good idea to prepare for an onslaught of bamboo orders in your queue.