Textile Sustainability

(Flax field in bloom, Linen Kids)
I like to research into textile sustainability and ethics.  This is an ongoing project, and sometimes I’m overwhelmed by the amount of information (and the lack thereof) I can find.

The first things I discovered about sustainable textiles:

  1. Conflicting Information (is bamboo sustainable or isn’t it?)
  2. Lengthy pdf industry reports
  3. Linen is a deliciously sustainable, low-impact fibre and always has been.
(Bamboo forest, borrowed from Someone Else)

Shocker: most bamboo is processed heavily with the use of harsh chemicals and a great deal of energy expended to create a fiber. The process is essentially the same as rayon production. That’s all well and fine, but it is hardly the earth-friendly fibre most would believe it is.  However, some bamboo basts (Stems) are steamed or boiled to release the fibers, then woven into “natural bamboo.”  I have yet to locate natural bamboo.

Linen is generally grown and manufactured in the same small scale, organic way that it has been for hundreds of years.

(Industrial Hemp Field with Friendly Disclaimer, Your Brain on Bliss)

Hemp produces the most usable fiber per acre of any of the vegetable fibers, is fast growing, and generally grown without any pesticides. The plant re-enriches the soil. I’ve worked with hemp in the past, and it is beautiful to work with. Wash it several times and it softens amazingly, and has a luster akin to silk.

(Industrial Cotton Field, celsias)

Industrial cotton farming uses many pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers to produce a crop. The volume of chemicals used in bleaching and dyeing make me ill. Cotton farming depletes the land. I know that part of the problem is the amount of cotton grown to satisfy demand. Another part of the problem is an industrial paradigm which focuses on a single bottom line: profit.

After dipping in my toes, I left it at that for a while. Now I need to know more. I want to understand as much as I can about the processes of growing and producing textiles so I can make informed decisions. Some might see this as over-thinking my craft, but I believe that as a consumer I should buy according to my ethical code.

I have a stack of industry reports to wade through, mull, and then I will know the correct questions to ask. For now I have a simple list:

  • What fibres consider the triple bottom line of sustainability in their production? The triple bottom line refers to the idea that money alone as a bottom line leaves many important issues unaddressed. The triple bottom line includes social and environmental responsibility as well as monetary gain. Some businesses are beginning to adopt this model.
  • What fibres support artisan/hereditary farmers and weavers? Can I support small-scale production through creative sourcing? How can I source those textiles?
  • What is the deal with bamboo, exactly?
  • What does “Eco-Intelligent” polyester mean, precisely? Where can I find it? Do any scientific studies exist to support the claim that polyester material contains PBT’s, which can be harmful to humans? What about antimony content?
  • How can I be sure organic cottons are produced according to organic standards, rather than “organic” being used as a green washing marketing ploy?
  • How can I source cruelty-free, possibly organic wool and other alternative protein fibres? I used to love alpaca until I discovered that alpacas are usually killed. Not ok by me.
  • Conversely, what about other protein fibres or hides produced as a by-product of pest culls?
  • What’s the story with Peace Silk? I don’t particularly mind my silk coming from boiled cocoons, but I do mind harsh chemicals and dyes being used. I read that Peace Silk usually uses gentler processes to pull the silk from discarded cocoons and generally uses natural dyes. Is that less harmful, less wasteful?
  • Are there any socially conscious textile producers that I can source- like batiks dyed by women who are supporting themselves and perpetuating a local craft? I know about Peace Fleece already, do similar projects exist?
  • What other virtues do the various fibres possess besides sustainability?
  • And finally the fun part- what is it like to work with each of these sustainable fibres?

I have a lot of questions!  I thought if I put up my own questions I might get some interesting answers, or at least start a discussion.


8 comments

  1. I'm right there with you in this conundrum. I'll add that I wonder about dyes and whether some colors simply aren't possible without harsh chemicals.The thing that gets me down about using organic fabrics are the dull/drab colors.

  2. I have wondered about a lot of these issues but not enough to do an in-depth study!Recently my husband went to a cotton growing district and was told the population was suffering as the work isn't available like it used to be. This is because they don't spray the cotton as much as they used to since the introduction of genetically modified cotton. (good or bad?)I do know I love to wear natural fibres!

  3. My mom (her line of work is recycling/sustainability) and I have had many conversations about this subject. It's amazingly complicated. A few things I remember:sometimes the origin of the fiber is mitigated by the use (for example, cotton which is reused for many years may be more sustainable than anther fiber which will wear out or not work as well)natural dyes are often far more toxic that artificial, because of the metallic salts used. (There is fantastic info about all sorts of dyes on the Dharma Trading Co website)Industry reports are usually unreliable! Years ago I helped her go over the one (yes, ONE) report ever done which took an independent look at cloth diapering so she could make a report. The number of biased, industry funded reports on the subject was astounding. (If you're curious? Cloth diapering for the very clear win.)Her bottom line is to look at the overall picture, which includes using things forever, limiting purchases, recycling/trading with others and so on to lower her total impact. (Having been brought up in her house that's generally my approach.)But there are many ways to view it — do you care about the chemicals used? The energy used? The people affected by the particular industry? The animals/insects affected? It's a lot like choosing food sources. And just as confounding!

  4. What a great post – I really should pay a lot more attention to what goes into my textiles since I pay so much attention to what goes into my food and it just seems inconsistent not to!Of course, right now I'm still mostly using up fabric stashes from 3 grandmothers, so that has it's own type of sustainability!

    • I believe they are routinely killed for their fibres because they are difficult to shear on an industrial basis. I do have some gorgeous handspun alpaca from a lady down South who has “pet” alpacas. She brushes them every day, then cleans the fibres and spins them. It’s enough to keep her in spinning wool which she sells.


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