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Q: Do you incorporate any bamboo fiber textiles into your clothing designs?
A: Thus far I have not, although I am likely to incorporate some bamboo fabrics in the future. I might incorporate some bamboo rayon fabrics, or other rayon fabrics, into my designs for hot weather clothing. I might also use some linen-like fabrics made with natural bamboo fiber.

 

Q: What are the natural and more traditional bamboo fabrics like?
A: The old traditional and natural bamboo fiber textiles are a lot like linen from flax, or cloth made from hemp. These fibers look and feel a lot like hemp, and they have the same care recommendations as hemp fabrics or flax-based linen.

 

History of Bamboo

 

For most of us, the bamboo plant needs no introduction. Worldwide there are over 1,200 species of bamboo. The plant may not be a native species in every part of the world, but bamboo now grows on every inhabited continent. The bamboo plant, like the hemp plant, has been used by humans since the beginning of time for countless different purposes. Today the bamboo plant is used for human food, animal feed, building materials, and more recently, rayon production. Bamboo plants are now increasingly popular as indoor and outdoor decorative plants.

 

Q: Okay, so how is the natural bamboo fabric made?

 

A: With some exceptions, making natural bamboo fiber follows the same basic process used to make flax, hemp, and other fibers made from the woody stems of plants.  The high silicone content in bamboo stalks makes them by far the hardest plant stems used to make textiles. Because of the hardness of the bamboo stems, the process of turning bamboo into textile fiber has a few more steps than the process of turning other plant stems into fabric.  

 

First, the stalks of the bamboo plant are cut at the base, sometimes by machine but often by hand, just as with flax or hemp. This process is referred to as winnowing. The winnowed bamboo is then cut into thinner and more usable strips—a step that is unnecessary for other stem fibers, with the exception of hemp. (Sometimes hemp is cut into thinner strips, depending on the size of the hemp stalk.)

 

After being cut into thinner strips, the bamboo stalks are scrutched. Scrutching is the process of crushing the stalks to soften them up. In earliest times, scrutching was done with rocks or hammers. Later, stone or metal rollers were favored. All plant stem fibers except banana are scrutched during the process of making textiles. Scrutching is sometimes done before, sometimes after, the retting process. Other stem fibers are only scrutched once, while bamboo is scrutched three times.

 

Next, consider the retting. Retting is the process whereby a woody plant stem is partially softened by bacterial decomposition, to help separate the valuable fibers from the rest of the plant matter. Retting has been done in the fields after winnowing, which is referred to as dew retting, or in pools of water, simply called retting pools. Lakes, rivers, and the ocean have also been used in the retting process.  Retting not only helps to soften up the plant stems, it helps separate the desired fibers from the cellulose and pectin. (Pectin can be thought of as the glue that holds a plant’s biomass together.) Retting is typically done when making linen out of flax stems or hemp fabric out of hemp stalks, as well as with bamboo.

 

The scrutching and retting process for bamboo are a bit different than other stem fibers. Thin bamboo strips are always scrutched first, then boiled before being retted. No other stem fiber requires the stalks to be steamed or boiled. After the first scrutching, the bamboo stalks have traditionally been boiled for many hours in large cauldrons, or put onto steaming racks for periods of days. In present times, bamboo strips are put into airtight steam chambers, with high heat and pressure, for many hours. After the steaming or boiling is completed, the stalks are scrutched a second time. After the second scrutching, the bamboo strips are dew or water retted, like other stem fibers. 

 

Bamboo differs from other stem fibers by being scrutched an additional time after the retting process. After the last scrutching, the bamboo strips have traditionally been boiled for several hours in a lye solution of wood ash and water. This final treatment made fibers ready to weave into textiles.  More modern bamboo-fiber manufacturers now use a bath of water and artificially produced bio-enzymes, instead of a process of boiling and lye, to further remove the sticky plant gums lingering on the bamboo fibers. These bio-enzymes are easily reused and quite environmentally benign.  

 

Ecological and Social Impacts of Bamboo

 

Bamboo appears to be the most ecologically benevolent of all crops. Most people think of hemp as the most ecologically benevolent; however, bamboo has several advantages over hemp.

 

Bamboo holds the title of fastest-growing plant. Hemp plants can grow quite large, but bamboo grows larger. Recently, a clump of bamboo in Southwestern China was found to have a shoot 128 feet tall that was a little less than a year old. Bamboo clumps growing in the tropics are the size of large trees.

 

Bamboo is less thirsty for water than hemp and usually requires no irrigation. Bamboo is much more useful for cleaning polluted watersheds. Bamboo requires less fertilizer than hemp, is more resistant to disease, and is less vulnerable to pests. When commercially grown, bamboo generally requires no fungicides, herbicides, or pesticides. Bamboo is a perennial, thus it does not have to be reseeded and replanted—whereas hemp fields must be replanted regularly, which contributes to soil erosion. In addition, the root networks of bamboo are a good deterrent to soil erosion. Bamboo grows in almost any terrain and climate. Bamboo is the largest species of grass, so if bamboo is cut above the root line, the stalks vigorously grow back, with even more biomass.

  

Q: Could natural bamboo fiber cloth be a viable large-scale substitute for cotton?
A: Yes, it easily could. China is currently showing the most interest in turning bamboo plants into textiles to alleviate the need to grow so much cotton. China is all too well aware of the negative consequences of cotton cultivation, and the Chinese are diligently looking for alternatives to cotton textiles. Aside from the practical advantage to using natural bamboo fabric in clothing, it is the most ecologically and socially responsible fabric on the market today.
The process of making natural bamboo fabric, like that of hemp or linen, can produce no toxins.

 

Making natural bamboo fiber cloth is definitely not a new idea. However, the revival of this fabric for large-scale commercial use has still not completely caught on, as of the end of 2012. Natural bamboo fiber cloth is still a bit more time-consuming and labor-intensive to produce than cotton, hence the somewhat slow adaptation of this cloth into the international clothing industry. The process of taking the bamboo plant from a woody stalk to usable textile fibers is a bit more labor-intensive and time-consuming than the automated harvesting of cotton. Nonetheless, the overall environmental impacts and economic savings of large-scale bamboo fabric production outweigh the drawbacks.

 

Natural bamboo fibers could easily be blended with cotton fibers to lessen the need for cotton-growing on a large scale. To some degree, cottonized bamboo fiber cloth would take on the advantages and disadvantages of cotton. Unfortunately, the bamboo-cotton cut fabric would not be quite as soft and pliable as cotton. Some of the better qualities of natural bamboo fiber cloth include bacteria and odor resistance.

  

Cottonized fibers would save the textile industry the need for immediate retooling from carding, yarn-spinning, and weaving machines solely intended for cotton fibers, thus helping to ease the transition away from heavy reliance on just cotton as a textile industry mainstay. In addition, as with hemp fibers, natural bamboo fibers can be cut into shorter pieces and spun on cotton-spinning equipment to make a cotton-like bamboo fabric.

 

Q: You've made me curious. Can you tell a little about the social and ecological use of bamboo other than textiles?

A: Sure. Although hemp is widely considered the most useful plant to humans, the true usefulness of bamboo is very close to that of hemp. Bamboo, like hemp, has been cultivated as a human and animal food source for millennia. Bamboo produces edible shoots and leaves. Bamboo is more ecologically friendly to farm, but hemp is more useful for human food production, and some industrial applications. Unlike bamboo, hemp produces useful oils and protein-rich seeds in huge amounts. The oils prolifically produced by hemp are a substitute for crude oil.

 

Although the use of bamboo for building projects is not a new idea, bamboo is gaining popularity as a modern building material. A few cutting-edge companies now offer complete bamboo-home packages. In these packages, the house structure itself, as well as items therein—eating utensils, food-service implements, and furniture—are all entirely made out of bamboo. Many companies are offering pre-manufactured homes made of bamboo that meet all international building codes and are suitable for all climate types. Large multi-level buildings are now built entirely out of non-processed bamboo.

 

Bamboo can be made into wood substitutes as an engineered building material, as can hemp. Unlike hemp, bamboo stalks can be used without any processing as a stronger replacement for wood. The stalks of some bamboo species have been found to have tensile strength comparable to steel. Bamboo is gaining popularity as a substitute for synthetic materials and wood for countertops, flooring, and roofing. Bamboo makes a long-lasting roof thatching material.

 

Bamboo is the most ecologically benevolent building material known. Bamboo takes one-eighth the energy to produce as concrete, one-third that of wood, and one-fiftieth that of steel. One acre of trees has to be cut to make a standard three-bedroom single-story American home; one-quarter acre of bamboo would build the same home. One acre of trees cut down for lumber takes at least a decade to replenish, bamboo takes one year, and no labor-intensive replanting of seedling is necessary.

 

And the non-tree-based stationery growing in popularity includes stationery made of bamboo. As can hemp, bamboo can be a substitute in wood-based paper products.

 

Instead of looking at bamboo and hemp as competitors, the best policy is to make the best use of both plants.

 

Q: Could bamboo be considered a pest and invasive species, since it is so hardy and grows so fast?
A: Yes, definitely. Bamboo will quickly spread everywhere if efforts are not made to contain the growing area. Luckily, keeping the bamboo in its designated growing area is not too difficult.

 

Q: What are the advantages of using natural bamboo fiber to make items of clothing?
A: Aside from the ecological advantages, natural bamboo fabrics are a lot like linen or hemp. Natural bamboo fabrics have pretty much the same earthy appearance as hemp or linen. All three fabrics are pretty wear- and abrasion-resistant and will last a lot longer than similar cotton garments. And all three get softer over time, resist lint, and hold their shape well.

 

Natural bamboo fiber fabric also has a nice, cool feel and is breathable, like other natural fabrics, thus making this fabric pleasant for warmer weather. Unlike bamboo rayon fabric, natural bamboo fabric still retains the anti-bacterial properties that are inherent in the bamboo plant itself. Natural bamboo fabric is fairly resistant to stains and resists retaining body odors rather well. Natural bamboo fabric is also biodegradable.

 

Q: Ok, so what are the drawbacks to using natural bamboo fiber in a piece of clothing?
A: At this time, the natural bamboo fiber textiles on the market have a fairly high price tag relative to other textiles. Natural bamboo textiles also have a somewhat limited range of designs, textures, weights, and colors.

 

As for the drawbacks of the fabric itself, the same drawbacks occur as are typical with hemp, linen, and most other woody stem- and leaf-derived fabrics. These drawbacks include being prone to wrinkles, and to fabric-edge fraying and breaking fibers on places of high wear and constant creasing, such as collars and cuffs on shirts. And as with hemp and linen, bamboo fabrics, although still comfortable to wear in direct contact with the skin, are not quite as pliable and soft as cotton.