From bathrobes to bedsheets, camisoles to towels, dresses to tees and tops, bamboo fabric–reputedly as luxurious as silk, cashmere and Egyptian cotton–is going mainstream. A surprisingly soft fabric-alternative, bamboo, plant of a thousand uses, is changing the way fabric and apparel companies think green.
Bamboo, which resembles wood but actually is a fast-growing supergrass, has been embraced by conventional designers like Diane vonFurstenberg and Oscar de la Renta, along with eco-couturists Amanda Shi, Linda Loudermilk, Katherine Hamnett, Miho Aoki and Thuy Pham. Los Angeles-based designer Kate O’Connor–who typically uses alpaca and other supple yarns for her designs that languidly drape a woman’s curves–discovered bamboo as an inexpensive, environmentally-friendly alternative to silk, an ideal summer fabric.
Linda Loudermilk, another savvy eco-fashion designer, frequently incorporates bamboo into her eco-fashions. Amanda Shi of Avita has some of the most exciting and originally beautiful eco-fashion in bamboo.
Attributes of Bamboo Plants
One of the world’s most sustainable resources, bamboo, which can grow three feet or more a day, has a unique repertoire of natural properties:
- Bamboo is highly absorbent (hygroscopic), able to take up three times its weight in water.
- Entirely biodegradable, most bamboo is grown organically and uses fewer resources than cotton, one of the most intensely sprayed crops. That translates into a sustainable fabric source that uses less water, fertilizer, pesticides and labor.
- It reaches maturity quickly and is ready for harvesting in about four years.
- Bamboo does not require replanting after harvesting. Its vast root network continually sprouts new shoots naturally, without the need for fuel-guzzling tractors to plant and cultivate.
- Bamboo plants are seldom eaten by pests or infected by pathogens, because of a natural anti-bacterial agent called “bamboo kun” bound to the plant’s cells. Whether bamboo fabrics retain this antimicrobial property is a matter of dispute.
- Easily intercropped with vegetables, bamboo restores degraded lands, stabilizes soil and protects against erosion.
- Bamboo plantations are photosynthesis “factories” that reduce greenhouse gases. Bamboo plants produce 35% more oxygen and absorb about 5 times the amount of carbon dioxide than an equivalent stand of trees.
Properties of Bamboo Fabrics
Bamboo fabrics are made from Bamboo fiber by passing it through various mechanical and chemical processes. Bamboo textiles retain many of the parent plant’s unique properties:
- Bamboo fiber clothing is often worn next to the skin due to its coolness and excellent wicking ability (3 to 4 times that of cotton) that channels moisture away so that it can evaporate. Bamboo textiles have microgaps and holes that breathe easily and seldom stick to the skin in hot weather. Textiles made from bamboo are naturally thermo-regulating, meaning they also help retain body warmth in winter.
- Fabrics are soft, antistatic, smooth, soothing and comfortable, and are especially suited to allergy-prone skin. The fiber is naturally round with no sharp spurs to irritate the skin. Many people who experience eczema and allergic reactions to other natural fibers such as wool or hemp do not complain of this issue with hypoallergenic bamboo.
- Bamboo textiles are more absorbent and produce less lint than cotton, resist wrinkling and need little ironing.
- Bamboo fabrics are durable, strong and abrasion-resistant.
- Fabrics are color fast, machine launder well on gentle cycle with minimal shrinking, and don’t pill.
Best of all, bamboo fabrics are far less expensive than the best silks, cashmeres and fine cottons. Diapers made from bamboo are advertised as more absorbent than cotton, without adding bulk, and their soft, smooth texture particularly well-suited to babies’ tender skin.
The Federal Trade Commission warns against accepting all claims of bamboo’s benefits at face value. For example, bamboo yarn often is technically a rayon, i.e., a manufactured fiber composed of regenerated cellulose. Rayon, once called “artificial silk” and today one of the most widely used fabrics, is made by reacting natural cellulose like wood pulp, cotton (and bamboo) with chemicals such as caustic soda and carbon disulfide.