I regularly earn my name of The Curious Quilter. Perhaps because, like a three-year-old, I constantly ask “why?” Or maybe because I just want to learn “how!” When I grocery shop, I read labels, and I go home and look things up. I wonder how customs and traditions became the accepted norm, and try to trace their history. I use my library card and bug librarians. I email professors and ask questions. I imagine some would call me that Pesty Quilter! I am always aware that everything we touch, eat, wear, use, and sew with has been grown and made through the work of other human beings.We are so quick to slam the words “environmentally friendly” on products these days, without thinking what it means. I question some of the items. For example: how can a hybrid car really be eco-friendly when we have no long term solution for disposing of their chemically laden batteries?
And so, while reading labels on a bamboo batt, I came to be curious about bamboo products for quilting and clothing. If you have groped the fabrics, you know they can be wonderfully soft and yummy. The battings have an elegant feel. My first exposure to bamboo was my childhood fishing pole, a twelve-foot length of intriguing ‘wood’ that had a short string, bobber, sinker, and a hook. How does that become batting or fabric?
I am still learning, but here are ten interesting tidbits about bamboo and its fibers.
- Bamboo species are one of the fastest growing plants in the world, they are grasses, and some grow two feet a day, making them highly sustainable.
- There are at least 70 known genera of bamboo, growing in cold mountainous areas to the hot tropics.
- It appears that Continental Europe and Antarctica are the only places that have no native bamboo species.
- Most bamboo types have a life span of 5-8 years, and naturally succumb to fungi and other things after that, but plenty of roots remain to start new clumps.
- In the places that ‘farm’ and harvest bamboo, there are not yet standards for organic certification. There is usually no way to know if they used pesticides or herbicides on it while growing. Canada, Australia, the United States, and others are working to define certification, but it is complicated!
- Bamboo’s natural fibers are incredibly short (3mm or less, which is under 1/8 of an inch) so they cannot be spun into thread.
- To become fluff, the inner parts of bamboo are treated either chemically or mechanically. Most, but not all, bamboo fabrics made today still are processed with chemicals to become the ‘rayon soft’ fiber we know. (Perhaps eco-friendly as in sustainable, but not processing?) A down-side of this, aside from the chemicals, is the natural anti-microbial nature of the fiber may be destroyed by some chemicals. Mechanically made fibers, treated with natural enzymes, retain these qualities.* (No wonder I pre-wash!)
- To become thread and fabric, these processed fibers, whether organically treated or not, are made into a fluff and spun similarly to cotton or linen.
- Bamboo fabric or batting, whether chemically processed or mechanically, does not like heat. Cold water washing or lukewarm only. That means that dust mites can still live in them, so if dust allergies are a problem, that may be a consideration for batting.
- Just as bamboo plants drink water in copious amounts, bamboo fabrics can wick up moisture very well. Sounds great for winter long-johns, doesn’t it?
Now I know I will read the labels on bamboo fabric and batting even more closely! Chemically-free in manufacture is not organic. Certainly there are great organically-made bamboo fabrics, but while cotton and wool have clear guidelines to define organic status, bamboo doesn’t. I think that it feels wonderful though, and there are times it will be my fabric and batting of choice. But it has left me even more curious. More research to do!
*The US FTC states: “The Federal Trade Commission, the nation’s consumer protection agency, wants you to know that the soft ‘bamboo’ fabrics on the market today are rayon. They are made using toxic chemicals in a process that releases pollutants into the air. Extracting bamboo fibers is expensive and time-consuming, and textiles made just from bamboo fiber don’t feel silky smooth.” – http://www.ftc.gov/opa/reporter/greengds.shtm
OK, now I bet we are all wondering about the definition of rayon! Maybe another day…
Click here for references.
Want to learn more about batting? Read Quilt Batting Basics and see the batting selection chart.
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