[Sustainable Tuesdays] Three unusual sustainable fabrics

3 Unusual sustainable fabrics

Welcome to my newly created (as in just now) ‘Sustainable Tuesdays’ posts (only because the first one happened to be posted on a Tuesday, so I thought I keep with this day of the week). The aim of the series is to share my discoveries in the space of sustainable fashion and to inform and inspire other sewers to join me on this journey.

In today’s post I’m showcasing three sustainable fabrics that I for one never imagined could be actually made into garments. Unfortunately, some of them are not readily available in the UK, but if you’re travelling through more exotic parts of the world, you might come across them and increase your sustainable fashion stash.

1. Kapok

Kapok fabric made the top of my list because I have literally learnt about it today. So as one would say, ‘fresh off the press’.

What is it: 

Kapok tree

I, J.M.Garg [http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

First and foremost, it is a tropical tree,  Ceiba pentandra, that can be found in a wide range of geographical areas, from Mexico, the north of the South American continent, to Africa and South East Asia. In fact, in SE Asia, the tree is cultivated for the seed fibre, and is also known as the Java cotton, Java kapok, silk-cotton, Samauma, or ceiba (source Wikipedia).

Why is it sustainable:

The trees produce several hundred 15 cm (6 in) pods containing seeds surrounded by a fluffy, yellowish fibre that is a mix of lignin and cellulose. If you know what a cotton pod looks like, this is quite similar, with tiny seeds that need to be removed.

The trees are resilient, grow to be very large, and produce a large number of fruit, a renewable source of material.

What can I use it for:

The fibres are similar to cotton, but shorter and more difficult to weave. That is why they are used mostly as alternative to down as filling in mattresses, pillows, upholstery, and stuffed toys such as teddy bears, and for insulation.

However I have found a company that claims to be able to weave the fibres into fabric, using traditional khmer techniques in Cambodia.

Where can I buy it from:

I could not find a retailer in the UK for the actual fabric.  This is the catalogue of the Cambodian company that produces a mix of silk and kapok, which can be dyed in a range of colours upon request.

I have found a UK supplier, but only for the stuffing, in case you are interested in sustainable materials for teddy beats or pillows

2. Lyocell

Usually, fibres are categorised in natural (linen, hemp etc) and man-made (polyesters etc). Lyocell is actually in between the two, as the source raw material is tree cellulose, which is then chemically processed via enzyme treatments into fibres and woven into fabric.

What is it:

Lyocell is a man-made fabric, produced from wood-pulp cellulose, and it’s a type of rayon. It is mostly sold under the commercial name of Tencel. Fabric sold under the this brand specifically is manufactured by Lenzing AG (must have at least 30% content to use brand name), but was developed and first manufactured for market development the 1980s by Courtaulds Fibres in Coventry, UK and at the Grimsby, UK pilot plant.

The production process includes creating a solvent solution from the tree pulp, spinning the fibre, washing, dyeing yarns and then weaving to produce the final fabric.

Close-up of fibre

Why is it sustainable:

The cellulose pulp is harvested from sustainably managed tree farms. The fibre is produced via an advanced ‘closed loop’ solvent spinning process, with minimal impact on the environment and economical use of energy and water. Lyocell uses an amine oxide as a non-toxic solvent, which is continually recycled during the production process. Production plant emissions into the air from smokestacks and from wastewater are significantly lower in comparison to many other man-made fibre operations.

Bleach is not required in the manufacturing process. For this reason, high quality Lyocell products contain no free chlorine and are sold as so-called “TCF – products”.

However, it is worth mentioning that Lyocell does not take dyes easily, and must be subjected to various chemical processes for colouring.  So people with chemical sensitivities might want to be careful when using such materials.

A very interesting comparison of sustainability credentials between organic cotton and Lyoncell can be found here.

What can I use it for:

Lyocell is now used for most apparel items in the garment industry. For home dressmaking, I would say it could be used for most projects you would choose rayon for.

Where can I buy it from: 

I have found some on eBay, in a shop that also sells bamboo fabrics, as well as Etsy. The majority of places are wholesalers however.

3. Ramie (Nettle)

Ramie hand-made fabric in Japan

By Yasuo Kida (Flickr: 小千谷縮(Ojiya-Chijimi)) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

What is it: I think this one does not need much explaining, everyone must have stung themselves on a nettle going through a field.  However, out of the three main fibre producing species, European nettle, Ramie and Himalayan nettle, only Ramie can be grown commercially.

If you know about linen and hemp usage into fabrics, Ramie is not very different. They are bast fibres he part used is the bark (phloem) of the vegetative stalks. And it turns out people have figured out that Ramie is useful to be woven into clothes as much as 6000 years ago, and it has been found in Egyptian tombs, used in wrapping of the mummies.

Ramie is often considered a ‘noble’ fabric, both because of the know-how needed to extract the fibres and weave them and because of the cost involved, as well as the rich-looking, lustrous qualities of the resulting materials.

Why is it sustainable:

Ramie is normally harvested two to three times a year but under good growing conditions can be harvested up to six times per year. So it is highly renewable and can produce large crops in a small space of time, as well over limited surfaces. It is also similar to other bast fibres like hemp and nettles in that it needs minimal amounts of water and no pesticides or herbicides to thrive, also providing nutrition for the land it is grown on through it’s biomass.  And let’s not forget, longer lasting clothes are very sustainable and Ramie is eights times more durable than cotton.

However, it is advisable to look into the provenance of the fabric you buy. The industrial process is high in chemicals and only hand-processed Ramie (examples of companies include Habu Textiles and Telio), can fulfil the highest green aspirations.

What can I use it for:

Ramie is one of the strongest natural fibres, similar in appearance to linen, and is  known especially for its ability to hold shape, reduce wrinkling, and introduce a silky lustre to the fabric appearance. Also, it is naturally mould, insect and bacteria resistant. However, it is not very elastic and it will need to be blended with other fibres, like cotton or wool, to be usable as dressmaking fabric.

Where can I buy it from:

I found it on-line at Truro fabrics, as well as Organic Textile Company online shop.

If you would like to know more about all kinds of fibres, both plant based and protein based, check out this site, very informative.

Happy learning!

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