The word “bamboo” may bring to mind a panda bear eating bamboo leaves and shoots, or a stand of tall bamboo plants rapidly taking over a parcel of land. The modern view of bamboo is quickly changing, however, as a process used to take the bamboo from plant to various textiles such as pants, shirts, dresses, children’s clothes, towels, and sheets is gaining popularity. In the search for new and better ways to create and manufacture eco-friendly items that are better for the planet and healthier for people, bamboo has proved to be a sustainable and environmentally sound resource.
In truth, bamboo has always been a useful plant, as people have been using bamboo for food, shelter and various items of clothing for thousands of years. Chinese and Japanese cultures used bamboo to make hats and shoes, while the plant found favor in the 1800’s in the Western world as the rigid portion of ladies’ corsets, bustles and dresses.
However, it wasn’t until recently that two manufacturing processes became widely used to turn the rapidly growing plant into a fiber that could be used to make soft and comfortable items of clothing, bedding, and towels. As companies searched for environmentally friendly and sustainable new materials, the very nature of bamboo has shown it to be a naturally green source for textiles.
The bamboo plant is one of the most abundant, renewable, and sustainable plants in the world. It requires little water, grows rapidly, can continue to grow after harvest, and has natural properties that make it antibacterial, insect repellent during growth, and biodegradable. Much of the bamboo that is grown to supply the textile industry is done in a carefully controlled and responsible manner that is certified organic, pesticide-free, and can be manufactured using a closed system that reclaims the production materials for recycling and reuse.
How is Bamboo Fabric Made?
There are two methods currently used to manufacture bamboo into usable textile:
- The first method is a mechanical process where the bamboo’s wood portion is crushed into a pulp and broken down using enzymes that allow the resulting material to be combed and spun into yarn. This method is expensive and produces a fabric that is similar to linen, with a scratchy texture.
- The second, and preferred method by many who work with bamboo, is the chemical method. Bamboo is crushed and soaked in sodium hydroxide, a chemical that is not harmful to the environment or workers when used responsibly, does not leave a harmful residue, and can be neutralized into harmless sulphate salt if necessary. This soaking process produces a substance called cellulose fiber, which is then made into viscose from bamboo to produce textiles. The resulting fiber produces a soft and highly absorbent fabric.
Eco-friendly, soft, renewable, and safe: the bamboo plant allows textile manufacturers to produce items that have all of these qualities. In our continuing search for ways to reduce our impact on the environment while still being able to enjoy the luxuries of our modern age, bamboo offers a smart solution to at least one environmental issue: how to take an abundant resource and use it to the advantage of both people and the planet. By growing and harvesting the plant sustainably, using responsible manufacturing processes, and producing items that are useful, beautiful, and environmentally sound, viscose from bamboo could be the fabric of the future.