Compared to synthetic high-performance materials, bamboo fabrics deliver an eco-friendly alternative
The use of bamboo, instead of synthetic materials, in performance clothing is becoming increasingly popular, as bamboo’s sweat-wicking properties and feel-good texture become known to athletes and adventurers around the world. While it’s not a perfect process, turning bamboo into clothing presents an eco-friendly alternative for outdoorists who want to shy away from petroleum-based materials and lean toward organic materials. Learn how to care for bamboo materials, about their limitations, and the varying benefits they pose to the apparel industry.
In a world where clothes are necessary, and often desired, which clothes you buy and what they’re made of matters. It’s no secret the apparel industry generates immense amounts of waste. On a global scale, in terms of pollution, textiles rank second only to the oil and gas industry—an industry to which fabric is inextricably linked: As it stands, 63% of textile fibers are now made from petrochemicals, according to a 2018 study, because many fabrics now heavily rely on synthetic materials.
As some clothing manufacturers work to reduce waste and pollution in the apparel industry by experimenting with fewer synthetic fabrics and more natural fibers, bamboo has emerged as an increasingly popular fabric alternative for performance apparel. Known for its natural sweat-wicking, antimicrobial, ultraviolet protection, and anti-odor properties, clothing made with bamboo is easy to care for and offers many benefits to those who spend a lot of time outdoors.
“As the industry has gotten so enamored with synthetic and chemically treated and polyester or petroleum-based fabrics, it seems the pendulum has swung too far away from natural fibers,” says Todd Andrews, co-founder of the bamboo apparel company tasc Performance. “What drew me immediately to [bamboo fabric] was the feel of it, the softness,” he says. “We’re offering consumers a unique experience that’s different from what they’ve been used to with synthetics.”
But how, exactly, does a piece of quick-growing, hearty grass like bamboo get turned into a T-shirt that won’t stink up the tent—or a base layer that protects against the sun when fishing all day on the river—or a pair of compression socks that’ll help keep foot fungus at bay? A lot of experimentation, some collaboration, and, it turns out, a little bit of luck.
Bamboo, a history
While using bamboo in performance fabrics is relatively new, the process of turning fibrous plants into clothing started in Europe in the 1800s, when a French scientist went looking for a cheaper alternative to silk. The fabric he made by grinding, drying, and weaving plant fibers together was so flammable, however, it was immediately pulled from the market. It’d take another hundred years or so for technology to catch up with the theory that fibrous plants, like bamboo, can be transformed into fabrics.
Bamboo itself, of course, has been around since the dawn of time. The towering treelike grass grows in a wide range of warm environments—from tropical regions like the south-Pacific, to mild temperate climates like Alabama. There are more than 1,000 varieties of bamboo, and altogether the grass occupies more than 100 million acres of the planet, mostly concentrated in Asia.
For centuries, bamboo has been used in incredibly diverse ways: as human and animal food, to make fine-quality paper, for medicine, construction scaffolding, furniture, fishing poles, utensils, instruments, and, with increasing popularity: clothes.
Because bamboo grows quickly—more than a foot a day for some species—and needs no fertilizers, nor pesticides, nor supplemental irrigation if grown properly, it has become an eco-friendly alternative to the most popular of natural fibers: cotton, a chemical- and water-intensive crop. “As far as fibers sourced from natural products are concerned, bamboo is up there with the best, as bamboo needs very little water to thrive,” explains Dave Greenblo, co-founder of the Australian bamboo apparel company Boody. “No pesticides or fertilizers are required and, since it’s a grass, it’s not cut down but harvested and new shoots grow immediately.”
Bamboo plants can live for years, and if culled correctly, a field of it can go 50 years without being replanted. This high growth rate, its wide habitat range, and minimal care resources make bamboo not only a versatile resource, but a valuable one for those seeking better environmental alternatives to either synthetics or cotton.
From grass to T-shirt: the process
“It’s a very difficult fiber to deal with and control,” says Andrews, who spent more than two years on behalf of tasc Performance trying “to figure out the process” of turning bamboo into a performance fabric that could withstand high-sweat and lots of motion. In the mid 2000s, when he was first experimenting, there was no one to turn to for guidance. “There wasn’t even a duty classification to ship [bamboo fabrics] then,” he says, so when shuttling textiles between their factory in India and the U.S., they opted for “vegetable fiber”—“the only close designation at the time,” he recalls.
As most bamboo apparel companies discovered, a performance breakthrough came in mixing bamboo fibers with other fibers, either natural or synthetic. This helps stabilize the fabrics, Andrews explains, making them last longer. Tasc Performance blends bamboo with organic cotton. Boody makes a fabric that’s 92% bamboo and 8% spandex. Free Fly, a water-sports-focused apparel company, created a variety of blends with bamboo and polyester, often 70% and 30% respectively. Other companies, like the specialty sock company SockWell, combine bamboo with wool from sheep and Alpaca.
Over the last decade, the manufacturing of bamboo textiles has grown more streamlined, though it’s still far from mainstream. The general process of turning bamboo into a fabric can be broken down into a few basic steps:
- Grow bamboo;
- Harvest bamboo and pulverize stalks;
- Soak the pulp in a chemical solvent that softens and breaks down the bamboo into a honey-like substance called viscose;
- Filter and dry the viscose, then spin it into yarn, often mixed with other fibers like cotton, wool, or a small amount of synthetics to enhance certain, different qualities;
- Weave the yarn into a fabric.
The pros, and the cons
Mercedes Marchand, Sockwell’s vice president of design and merchandising, explains incorporating bamboo into their products not only made their socks perform better, but also made the overall user experience better. “When we put bamboo and wool fibers together any issues with wool were resolved: everything became softer and more durable,” she says.
In terms of the environment, bamboo not only reduces the use of water and chemicals when compared to 100%-cotton and -synthetic textiles, but also land use. According to Boody, bamboo can yield up to 150 tons of materials per acre, which exceeds the yield of only 3-5 ton per acre for cotton. “In a time when land use is under enormous pressure, bamboo’s high yield per hectare becomes extremely significant,” their website states.
And, in terms of performance, bamboo-based fabrics have three major boons: they feel good (buttery soft, slightly elastic)—they perform well (naturally moisture-wicking, temperature-regulating, UV-protecting, anti-odor, and antimicrobial)—and they perform as intended for as long as the garment lasts. There’s nothing to ever reapply: “By not using or needing chemicals, performance stays with the product during its whole life,” says Andrews.
However, no material is perfect, and while bamboo has many notable strengths as an alternative to petroleum-based synthetic fabrics, it also has a few drawbacks.
“It’s not the cleanest process in the world to break bamboo into a pulp and cellulose, and regenerate it, but when we compare that to pulling [oil] from the ground and the polymers that go into [synthetic clothing] and never go away…” Andrews says. “When you balance all the things together, for the long term it might be a more responsible fiber that has a place in the industry.”
Bamboo also competes with a few other non-cotton natural fibers, like modal and tencel, which are “excellent products and are similar to bamboo fiber in that they are all viscose fibers,” Greenblo explains. “Whilst the manufacturing process [of modal and tencel] is excellent, we still believe that bamboo is a better raw material source.”
Considering performance, bamboo is hydrophilic, meaning it’ll carry water and won’t dry super-fast. Like cotton, bamboo wicks the moisture away from your body by drawing it into the fabric. Unlike 100%-cotton fabrics, however, it doesn’t get weighed down when wet and maintains its temperature regulating properties. “It does show sweat—it wont dry as fast as a 100% synthetic,” Andrews says. “But we see this as a new way, a more responsible way, a more comfortable way, a more versable way” to make performance fabrics that are petroleum-free.
Caring for bamboo apparel
Bamboo-based fabric is “easy to care for if you need it to be: machine wash, tumble dry low,” says Marchand. “But it’s better for your clothing and the planet if you simply wash it in cold water and lay it flat to dry. It adds life to your products and is less consumptive, energy-wise.”
With an active set of active kids around the house, there’s always a laundry load to be done in the Andrews house, and he likes to make it as easy as possible. “Just wash [bamboo fabrics] as you would wash a synthetic T-shirt,” he says.
As the environmental movement grows in the apparel industry, bamboo’s role is still taking shape. Boody’s Greenblo looks forward to new technological improvements that he believes will help reduce chemical use in the manufacturing process. “We are hoping that [a new bamboo-breakdown] process will herald in a new era of ‘super eco’ fabrics,” he says. He’s also banking on the fabric’s increasing popularity. “[We hope] the general public will start to really appreciate the brilliant hand-feel and drape of bamboo viscose and all the health benefits, such as thermoregulation, moisture wicking and SPF 50+ sunblock factor that comes along with the package.”
As it stands today, however, “We think it’s a forward-thinking right way to think of performance fabric,” says Andrews. “We see this as a new way, a more responsible way, a more comfortable way, a more versatile way than just focusing on what everybody else is doing: either going 100-percent cotton or, if performance fabric, then 100-percent synthetic.”
Emma Athena is an award-winning journalist and fresh-air lover. She writes about adventure and the environment, where humans and nature intersect at their most impactful moments. When she’s not glued to her keyboard or curled up with a book, she’s running in the mountains with her dog or camping with people she loves. To read more of her work and get in contact, visit emmaathena.com.