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#063: Unraveling Bamboo Fabric: Surprising Facts & Benefits

with your host, Jacqui Blakemore


Is Bamboo Fabric Really Eco-friendly?

Let's talk about the challenges around buying sustainable fabric. We all hear about the damaging effects of the fashion industry and we know that there are some production methods that are causing a lot of issues in the environment.


So in this post I wanted to talk about one fabric that's promoted as being eco friendly and that's bamboo. So could bamboo fabric be the perfect solution to our sustainable fabric needs? Well all may not be as it first appears so read on to find out more.


What do you know about bamboo fabric?

You may not be so familiar with bamboo as a fabric, or its properties or its benefits. It's not the most common fabric, so you may not have seen it in shops or on fabric websites unless you've specifically looked for it.


If you have seen it, you may have spotted that it's a little bit more expensive than some of the alternatives. And that may have put you off.


And it's usually in the form of stretch or knit fabrics. So if you aren't comfortable with sewing stretch fabrics, then again, it might not have made it onto your fabric shopping list.


But it is a really interesting fabric and for autumn or spring sewing. It can be ideal for creating those transitional long sleeve tops that give a bit of warmth, but not too much. So it can be a great alternative to other fabrics that you may already have tried or be using.


So my first question for you is, did you know that you could get fabric made from bamboo? I only found out about it initially a few years ago. I think it only really started to become more widely available at the turn of the century thanks to developments in technology.


So if you did know about bamboo fabric, have you tried it?

It came to my attention at a time when I was considering making my own knickers. And because of its properties, bamboo is recommended as a great fabric to use for underwear, amongst other things.


It's definitely increasing in popularity, as it's promoted as being more sustainable and eco friendly. But as with many of these types of claims, the devil is often in the detail.


Common misconceptions about bamboo fabric


Before we get into the details about the fabric and its characteristics, I wanted to cover some of the misconceptions and confusion around bamboo fabrics.


The first is the question of whether bamboo is a natural fibre or a synthetic. Before I started looking into it in more detail, I was definitely guilty of considering bamboo jersey to be made from a natural fibre. After all, bamboo is a plant.


But because of the different ways in which the fibres are processed, the resulting fabrics are not necessarily natural or completely organic. So I'll explain more about that in a moment.


The second misconception is that bamboo fabric will be rough. This is because other products made with bamboo like bed linens or furniture can feel a little rough to the touch. But bamboo viscose is actually really soft to the touch.

misconceptions about bamboo fabric

The third misconception is that if a product name indicates that it's made with bamboo, then it will be 100% bamboo. Unfortunately, because there is an association with bamboo being a sustainable crop, it is tempting for websites to imply that their products are also eco friendly because they have some bamboo in them.


But when you check the details, you can often find that actually bamboo is not the only component, and in some cases, not even the majority component.


In checking a few items as I was researching for the podcast I found some bath towels, bed linen, clothes and fabric that all claim to be bamboo products, but that all had around 35% bamboo and the rest made from something else, usually cotton and elastane.


The final misconception that I just wanted to touch on is that all bamboo is grown without fertilizers or pesticides, and all bamboo fabrics are biodegradable.


While it is true that bamboo can grow naturally without pesticides, and grows rapidly without fertilizers, this doesn't mean that this practice is always followed. The majority of bamboo is grown in China, which doesn't have as strict policies and transparency around farming, and there are claims that farmers are using these products to increase their yields.


Because of its increasing popularity, it's also claimed that farmers are cutting down forests to create bamboo plantations, which is impacting natural biodiversity.


In respect to bamboo fabrics being biodegradable, it's definitely the case that they do decompose much quicker than their fully synthetic alternatives, taking around a year as opposed to the 100 plus years that non plant based synthetic fabrics can take.


But it is worth noting that if bamboo fabric is chemically treated, or certain dyes are used, then this will impact the ability of the fabric to decompose, so it may not be as clear cut as we imagine.


But I'm not an expert in this area. I haven't got the evidence for myself. I'd encourage you to go and read around it and do your own research.


What is bamboo fabric?

So as you may have guessed by now, bamboo fabric is derived from the pulp of bamboo plants. In particular, the giant or Moso bamboo, mainly grown in China.

Bamboo fibres

It has a reputation for being soft, breathable and eco friendly.

Bamboo fibres are strong and durable, and it has been used for thousands of years, particularly in East Asian countries, as a building material and also for nutrition.


There are two methods used to make bamboo into fabric.

  • The first is a mechanical process, where the bamboo plant is crushed and the fibres are extracted using high pressure steam. The fibres are then spun into yarns and woven or knitted to create the fabric in a similar way to linen. For that reason, this is often referred to as bamboo linen.

But before you head out to your garden and start pulling up your bamboo plants, you should know that this is a very labour intensive process. And for that reason, most bamboo fabric produced is not bamboo linen.

  • The second method is a chemical process that involves breaking down the plant using chemicals like sodium hydroxide. This is then passed through more chemical processes to create a gel like substance, which is then extruded into sulfuric acid. which hardens it into a cellulose bamboo fibre. This is similar to the process used to create viscose rayon from wood pulp. And for this reason, fabrics made from this type of method are often referred to as bamboo viscose or bamboo rayon.

And in the USA, fabrics made by this method have to be denoted as bamboo rayon, not just bamboo. Most bamboo fabric in the UK for dressmaking tends to be bamboo viscose or bamboo rayon. And I've also seen Bamboo Toweling and Bamboo French Terry advertised.


Benefits of bamboo fabric

So what are the benefits of bamboo fabric and why might you want to try it? Well, let's tackle the environmental angle first.


As a crop, bamboo is deemed to be naturally more environmentally friendly than alternatives such as cotton. This is for a number of reasons.

  • It can be grown very close together. So for the same size of field, you can get much more bamboo than you can get cotton.

  • It can be grown in poor soils without the need for fertilizers or pesticides. This is because bamboo naturally enriches the soil and is said to contain a natural substance that protects it from pests.

  • It grows really quickly without excessive water and can be harvested by cutting without the need to disturb the soil.

  • And it can absorb more carbon dioxide than the equivalent number of trees for the same, area of land.

So as a crop, it's amazing, and it might sound too good to be true. And when that's the case, you can guarantee that someone will want to take advantage.

forestry

So there are reports of forest land being cut down and being replaced with large bamboo plantations. This is potentially harmful as reducing the diversity of plants can increase the impact of pests which means that some farms are believed to be using both pesticides and fertilizer.


As they're in China though It's harder to track the organic passport of the products But even so, it is still a more environmentally friendly crop than cotton.


As a fibre and a fabric, it also has some great properties.

  • As we've mentioned, it is soft to the touch and so it's lovely to wear against the skin.

  • It is breathable and because of its structure, it can naturally wick away the sweat from the body and help that to evaporate quickly. This makes it great in hot weather or for active pursuits.

  • It's also said to have antibacterial properties (although other research does dispute whether this is still the case once it's been chemically processed). But it is reported to be able to inhibit the growth of bacteria on fabric and reduce any odours.

  • In the case of bed linens, this is also reported to give hypoallergenic properties.

  • These properties also give bamboo viscose a lovely drape. In my experience, it isn't as drapey as normal viscose jersey, but it is more drapey than cotton jersey, so it is a bit easier to work with.

What types of garments is it good for?

pyjamas

These properties mean that it's great for quite a few different types of garment. That includes

  • tops and blouses because that drape creates a really flattering silhouette and it's also breathable.

  • dresses, particularly those that are more flowy or have a relaxed style to them.

  • loungewear and pyjamas that are warm enough for the winter, but cool enough for the warmer weather.

  • active wear such as yoga pants or workout tops because it has that wicking capability to help keep you cool and dry.

  • And if that wasn't enough, I think it can make great underwear like knickers and vests.

But although it's a wonderful fabric, there are some things it isn't designed for:

  • it wouldn't really suit any kind of structured garments because it's a bit too drapey.

  • it's also not really got the warmth needed for heavy outer garments like winter coats, which might sound obvious, but worth mentioning.

  • it's also not very good with very tight fitting styles. Now that might seem confusing because I said earlier it is good for active wear. So it is great for tops like t shirts and yoga pants, but if you want to make things like leggings or sports bras then you need something that has a good recovery and that usually means a higher percentage of elastane or something similar. So if you need something tight, then bamboo might not be the best option.

  • It's also not the best in areas where you might have high friction. Bamboo fabric can be a bit prone to pilling, which means it gets those little bubbles on it. So if you need something that's really durable, then again, maybe bamboo might not be the best option.

  • You probably wouldn't choose it for formal wear either.

Any pattern that specifies medium or lightweight jersey should work.

Many patterns designed for stretch fabric do include a minimum stretch requirement, so do check when you're buying your fabric, what the stretch percentage is, and whether that matches what you need for your pattern. If the information isn't there, then message the supplier to find out.


Mistakes to avoid

So I just wanted to cover off a couple of mistakes to be aware of and to avoid.

  • The first is, like many jersey fabrics, bamboo viscose or bamboo jersey can be prone to shrinking. So be sure to wash it on a cool wash around 30 degrees before you cut it out. I'd recommend not putting it in a tumble dryer but air drying it.

If you do tumble dry, then do it on a cooler heat, if that's not a contradiction. Trust me, there's nothing more frustrating than getting one wear out of your garment, washing it, and then it shrinking to fit a 12 year old.

  • Another mistake is not testing your stitching. I recommend using scraps of fabric to help you find what settings you're happy with. Each different jersey will be different, so do test it out before you make it up.

Take it from me. It's way better to test out on your scraps than on your real project and have to unpick it because that usually makes holes.

  • And lastly, make sure to use the right needle. I know that you might be thinking that you're going to skip this one. But if you find that you're skipping stitches, or your seams or hems are puckering, then the most likely cause is that you're using the wrong needle.

If you buy a lighter weight fabric, then consider going down a needle size to a size 70/10. This will usually stop the fabric from getting pushed into and stuck into the footplate when you're sewing.


I'd recommend using a jersey needle, sometimes called a ballpoint needle, or a stretch needle, which has a slightly different shape if you get problems with a jersey needle.


If you want more guidance on needles, check out this post: Which is the right sewing machine needle? and get the my Sewing Machine Needle Guide.


Tips for buying bamboo fabric

So here are a few tips for you when you're buying your bamboo fabric.

buying fabric

My general experience is that if the price of a fabric looks too good to be true then it usually is. If you're going to spend your precious time and effort making something then I'd say make it from a fabric that's good quality that you can get some wear out of.


I've said this quite a few times but check the details and don't take claims in the name at face value. Bamboo viscose fabrics claiming to be organic should have the appropriate Global Organic Textile Standards or GOTS.


Some fabrics may be OEKO-TEX certified. This means that they've been made without any harmful substances where harmful in this case means harmful to humans.

If you want to learn more about those standards check these links:

When buying online I highly recommend that you buy a swatch first. Colors look different on your screen and you'll have no sense of what the fabric feels like.

Most good fabric websites will have a swatch service or they'll sell you 0.1m of fabric.


I know this might seem like it adds a delay because you have to wait for it to be delivered but if you struggle to successfully buy fabric and never seem to get what you think you're going to get then I believe it's because you aren't using swatches.


Tips for sewing bamboo fabric

In terms of sewing garments from bamboo, then I'd recommend, and many patterns also include this in their instructions, that if you're making a top with sleeves, then reinforce the shoulder seam by using either stay tape or clear elastic as you sew the seam.


Shoulders take the weight of the garment, and using these stay tapes or clear elastic can stop the shoulders stretching out when you're wearing it, from the weight of the garment and the sleeve.


Other places that you might want to stabilise are the waist on dresses if you have a seam to join the skirt to the bodice. This is an area where the weight of the skirt can cause it to stretch out as you wear it too.


And finally, if you have a pattern that has beautiful inseam pockets, then I'd recommend using a strip of stay tape or interfacing on the wrong side of your side seam at the pocket opening. Make it long enough so that it extends just longer than the pocket opening and this will stop it stretching out as you use the pocket.


If you're struggling to sew the hems on your bamboo fabric garments, particularly on fuller skirts, then you can use products like spray starch that will stabilize but then wash out, or knit-n-stable tape which is like an iron on tape that stretches with the fabric.


It can just help to give a bit of extra body to the hem and make it easier for you to sew, minimizing any stretch or roping that can happen as it distorts when you're feeding it through the machine.


I'm going to do a podcast on hemming knit fabrics, so listen out for that coming soon.


Tips on caring for your bamboo garment

In terms of caring for your garment once you've made it, then when you wash it, don't overly spin it as that will cause it to crease.

washing fabric

As I mentioned, I'd recommend air drying it and not using a tumble dryer. They do dry relatively quickly in my experience.


And if you do need to iron it, then use a low to medium heat. And if you have a pressing cloth, then use that and it will avoid getting any kind of shine on the surface of the fabric.


And you'll know this already, I'm sure, but with any stretched garment, particularly with dresses, just be careful if you hang them up, as they can stretch out vertically while hanging. I do have a dress that seems to grow every time I put it back in the wardrobe.


But my biggest tip is just to give it a try. I think this is a wonderful fabric, and I think there's lots of options for things that you can use it for.


I tried it initially on a small scale with making some knickers, after I watched the lovely Beverly Johnson on her class on Craftsy. I still have the knickers, although my design skills leave a lot to be desired, they're not the most flattering. But I do love the fabric and for a knit, I did find it relatively easy to use and soft to sew.


On my list to try is the lovely yoga set by Fehr Trade and I think bamboo viscose will be perfect for that.


Will you give it a try?

I did come into this topic thinking that bamboo was the answer to all of the fabric issues, but I realised that I was very naive. And whilst it is an amazing plant, fibre and fabric, there is a lot of information out there that still seems to be ignoring some of the work that still needs to be done to improve the processes involved in creating the textiles.


There are improvements happening in terms of the technology. I haven't really covered them here, but the closed loop processes involved in producing textiles like TENCEL Lyocell, try to ensure that all of the chemicals and waste are captured and reused, or disposed of properly.


But they're mainly currently related to wood pulp products and it's still very early days in getting those processes applied to bamboo pulp. At the time of writing, I couldn't really find any bamboo fabrics in the UK made from this process. But it is starting to appear in some ready to wear. So I would really encourage you to do your own research.


Educate yourself, put pressure on suppliers and don't just take claims and information at face value.


3 next steps

Here's my suggestion for three simple steps that you can take next.

  1. I've created a downloadable PDF cheat sheet for you. You can download it here: Bamboo Fabric Cheatsheet It's two pages and it's a reminder of some of the features of the bamboo fabric together with some suggested patterns and some tips.

  2. On the second page it has a place where you can attach your samples with notes of where you got them from. So step two would be to find and order at least one sample of bamboo fabric and attach it to your sheet. That way you'll know what it's like and whether it's the type of fabric that you want to use in the future.

  3. And step three. Is once you've done that, let me know what you think, is it for you or not for you? And if you're not sure and you have more questions, then get in touch.

I will be doing more of these fabric introductions on upcoming podcasts on other fabrics. And they'll all come with cheat sheets to help you create your own library of cheat sheets and swatches. So I hope that you find that useful.


Each cheat sheet also has links to a few other resources that you might find helpful.


To listen to the podcast version of this topic click on your favourite podcast app below:

And if you would like more help with any of the aspects mentioned in this article or this podcast episode then I would love to hear from you so do please email me at hello@sewmuchmorefun.co.uk.


Thanks for taking the time to read this article and I hope you find some useful tips that you can apply.


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If you found this article helpful then please click the heart icon below to let me know and I'll create more content like this. And you can also use the icons in the footer if you want to share this with other sewing friends.


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Get in touch

I always love to hear about you trying out what you pick up from these articles and episodes so do let me know:

Thank you so much for listening and for all your support. x

* this post contains affiliate links. This means if you use these links to buy something I may earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. I only recommend products I would/do use myself and all opinions expressed are my own. Read full privacy policy for more information.


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2 comentários


Clare Martin
Clare Martin
28 de ago. de 2023

Brilliant informative post thanks Jacqui! I love that your podcasts have the written notes also incase I forget anything....and Ive downloaded and printed my cheat sheet and made extra little notes on in from this post. All of your downloads/pdfs are so helpful!

Many Thanks

Clare

Curtir

Roberta Worley
Roberta Worley
21 de ago. de 2023

This might sound humorous but if bamboo is biodegradable does that mean that a garment made from it will eventually be of no use?


Is there a picture of a garment that you have made that you could showcase?


Also, could you share a picture of the drape and a close up of what the fibers look like as well as what the stretch looks like?


Thank you!

Curtir
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