Which Fabrics are the Most Eco-Friendly?

You want to be eco-friendly, but you’ve read bad things about bamboo, you’ve never heard of Modal® and you have no idea where linen fits into all of this.  No worries, FaeriesDance.com has you covered.

There are 3 factors considered when determining the most eco-friendly fabrics:

  • The sustainability of the input materials,
  • The harshness/toxicity of any chemicals required for processing,
  • Production waste.

With that in mind, here’s our well-reasoned and researched (but not scientifically tested), Most Eco-Friendly Fabrics list.

1. Hemp
Marijuana’s non-psychotropic cousin leads the list in eco-friendly fabrics.  It is indeed a weed, growing prolifically without the need for pesticides, herbicides or extensive amounts of fertilizer.  It uses very little water compared to other fabric crops.  Hemp stalks can be directly spun into yarn without any chemical inputs and there is essentially no production waste from yarn to fabric.  Hemp was used extensively in the USA up until 1937 when it was included in the Marijuana Tax Act. Since industrial hemp cannot be used as a stimulant, there is some speculation that it was included in the Act as a way to minimize competition for timber-based paper and nylon fabrics. The first USA flag was made from hemp.

2. Organic Linen

The Flax plant is moderately easy to grow, and when grown organically without chemical pesticides or herbicides, is very eco-friendly.  The outer layers must be retted to get to the inner core which can be directly spun into yarn.  Retting of organically grown flax can be done with water alone; no chemicals are required.  Only natural, biodegradable waste products are produced.

3. Organic Cotton
Cotton is a very water-intensive crop.  So even organically grown cotton, which can be spun directly into yarn, falls lower on the eco-scale than hemp or linen; while conventionally grown cotton is off the eco-chart completely.  Organic cotton is the most commonly used eco-fabric as it’s softer than hemp and doesn’t wrinkle like linen does.  It’s readily available, reasonably priced, and one of the most versatile fabrics on the list.

4. Tencel® / Modal®
There’s a tie at the number 4 spot between two Lenzing developed fabrics, Tencel® and Modal®.  Both fabrics are man-made from tree cellulose using Lenzing’s eco-award winning processes which include low-toxicity chemicals along with closed-loop, very low waste, production systems.  The resulting fabrics drape beautifully.  Tencel® has been shown to have moisture management and bacterial resistance properties, while Modal® has unparalleled softness.  Seriously, even cotton seems rough next to Modal’s liquid silk feel.

5. Bamboo / Soy

Spot 5 results in another tie, this time between Bamboo and Soy fabrics.  Both of these have fantastic input materials.  Bamboo is the fastest growing woody plant on the planet. (It’s actually a member of the grass family.)  Soy is created using the discarded, inedible outer casing of soybeans, essentially reclaiming a waste product.  While 89% of USA grown soy is now GMO, most soy fabric is made in China using non-GMO soy.  Unfortunately, in 2013, China approved the import of GMO soy seeds.  So this will be something to watch in the future.  The reason these two near-perfect input materials are way down at number 5 is that both require a fair amount of chemicals to process into fabric.  So they fall lower in the chemical and production waste categories.

6. Recycled PET
This video is the best one we’ve seen on the details of how to turn plastic bottles into polyester fleece clothing.  In truth, putting this at number 6 versus number 5 is fairly arbitrary.  This is a very energy-intensive process, but requires fewer chemicals than in bamboo or soy fabric production.  So it’s a little hard to judge which is better.  Polyester is very beneficial in some applications like swimwear, and keeping all that non-biodegradable plastic out of our oceans and landfills is a very good thing.

Choosing any of these fabrics over conventional cotton, polyester, nylon or rayon is a big step in the eco direction.  However, fabric is only one piece of the eco-friendly puzzle.  The very cleanest hemp fabric that is conventionally dyed and doused with chemical finishes will fall lower on the sustainability scale than a low-impact dyed bamboo with no finishing agents.  If you choose something certified under Global Organic Textile Standards (GOTS) or OEKO-TEX 100 standards, you can be certain the dyes and finishes are non-toxic and free of harsh chemicals.

Workers rights and Fair Trade practices should figure into your evaluation of eco-friendly.  One can argue whether a fair-trade, conventional cotton shirt is better or worse than an organically-grown cotton shirt made under unsustainable working conditions such as those in the recent Bangladesh incident.  Happily, GOTS certification also includes some reasonable working condition requirements for employees.

Intentionally missing from this list are controversial animal-derived fabrics such as wool and silk.  Hand-sheared, free range wool can be very high on the eco-scale (perhaps second or third), providing a synergistic (and often caring) relationship between the sheep and the farmer.  However, mass-produced wool using mulesing and factory-farming techniques has no business in eco-fashion.

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What are “Natural Fabrics”?

Some companies use the term “natural fabric” for apparel or linens as a means of green-washing products that may be laden with pesticides, chemicals or other yucky stuff that is by no means sustainable or eco-friendly.  There’s no legal definition of a natural fabric, the way there is of a certified organic fabric, so it’s important to understand what the term implies.  People also toss out phrases such as “man-made fabrics” or “synthetic fabrics.”  Does that make them bad?  And what’s the difference?

Since there’s no legal definition, the following are the most common interpretations of the terms.  More importantly, though, understanding what goes into each fabric will help you make a more informed decision about what you choose to put on your body regardless of what it’s called.

Natural Fabrics

There is a set of input materials found in nature that can be directly woven, knit or cured into fabric with no or at most minimal processing.  That is, the final fabric looks and feels very similar to the original source material.  By that definition, cotton, hemp, flax (linen), jute, ramie, wool, silk and even leather are considered natural fabrics.

It is important to note here that “natural” doesn’t necessarily mean eco-friendly; nor does it imply vegan or even chemical-free.  It’s simply that the input material is found in nature (as a plant or animal) and can be directly turned into fabric.

Man-made Fabrics

Man-made is a particularly odd term since really all fabric is made by humans.  Cotton doesn’t go weaving itself while we aren’t looking.  But ok, we can move past the misnomer.  There are a set of fabrics that start with natural inputs, but require so much processing that the final fabric doesn’t look or feel anything like the original material.  These fabrics are derived from natural materials. Bamboo is an excellent example.  Most bamboo textiles are created using a viscose process similar to rayon production.  Since the fabric is derived from bamboo versus being directly woven or knit from the bamboo plant itself, it’s considered man-made, not natural.

Man-made fabrics derived from natural materials include rayon, tencel, modal and pine tree fabrics, all of which are derived from various wood pulps, as well as bamboo, biophyl (derived from corn) and rubber (derived from the Hevea brasiliensis tree).

Synthetic Fabrics

There is another class of man-made fabrics that are derived from manufactured materials.  So the input material has itself already been processed or manufactured from something else. One way to think of it is that fabrics derived from natural materials are “once removed” and fabrics derived from manufactured materials are “twice removed” from their natural source material.  Those terms have no real meaning, but they can be helpful in keeping track.  These are the fabrics most commonly referred to as synthetic fabrics, and include nylon, polyester, acrylic, Spandex, elastane, Lycra and polypropylene.

One caveat is that there are a few cross-over materials.  Unprocessed hemp makes a somewhat coarse fabric that stands up extremely well to washing and wear.  That makes it fantastic for khakis and jeans.  However, it’s a little rough when it comes to shirts.  While hemp blended with other materials like cotton or tencel mostly resolves the softness issue, there is also a class of hemp textiles that are processed as a viscose to provide a truly silky finished fabric.  Therefore, while natural hemp fabric is more common, there is a hemp viscose fabric which is actually man-made.

There’s also a bamboo linen, which is a linen-like material woven from the leaves of the bamboo tree, which is a natural fabric.  It’s much less common than man-made bamboo viscose, though.

An initial reaction might be that natural fabrics are more sustainable than man-made fabrics which are more sustainable than synthetic fabrics.  Alas, that is simply not the case.

Conventional cotton requires enormous amounts of water to grow and accounts for more than 10% of total pesticide use and nearly 25% of insecticide use worldwide.

There are some completely synthetic fabrics that are eco-friendly.  For example, recycled PET is a polyester fleece made from recycled plastic bottles which minimizes land-fill waste and avoids the use of virgin petroleum.

This leads to the next logical question; “Which fabrics are the most eco-friendly?”  This is our next topic in the series.

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The Elusive Organic No Wire Padded Bra – Why They’re So Hard To Find

Our most frequently asked for item is an organic or natural fiber bra without underwire that has padding.  We’ve had a few close designs, but that perfect bra has eluded us.  So what exactly is the issue with getting this holy grail of bras?

We have been lucky thus far to carry the most eco-friendly padded bras in the world.  Love Nature, (the Italian company that recently went on [possibly permanent] hiatus), has been making organic cotton padded bras with an interior cotton batt for the padding.  Conventional bras use either polyester or nylon for the interior padding, both of which are petroleum-based fabrics.  The biggest difference in performance is that polyester can be molded to keep its shape and can be made in a variety of thicknesses.  The cotton batting is designed similar to a quilt and can only keep its shape under certain thicknesses (on the lighter side of padding) and with the help of the underwire to support it.  Love Nature only made underwire padded bras because their eco-padding required the firmness of the underwire to essentially hold it in place.

The lesson is that you can have eco-padding and underwire or conventional padding and no wire. At this point, it doesn’t seem you can have both.

In 2011, Blue Canoe came out with their Adjustable Soft Bra and Soft Cup Bra.  Both of these bras have removable nylon pads that sit in organic cotton “pockets” and don’t touch the skin.  These are both pull-on style bras, and in truth, we didn’t think they would do that well.  But Blue Canoe is a trusted brand, so we tried them out… and they are flying out the door.  There are just so many women who want an organic no wire, padded bra that they’re finding conventional padding and no wire the better option.

That said, allow us to introduce two fantastic no wire, padded bras with fully adjustable straps and 3-position back closures.  At the top of this page, you’ll see the Body No Wire Padded Bra and here to the right is the Calais Lace No Wire Padded Bra.  Both are made from a unique eco-fabric of white pine tree trimmings and dyed with OEKO-TEX 100 certified dyes.  They do unfortunately have polyester padding, though it does not touch the skin.

On a side note, we’ve quietly had a no wire, padded bra with adjustable straps and 3-position back close all along.  The Pine Tree Padded Bra has been around since 2009.  However, the $80 price tag put it on a very slow sales track.  Another issue with this particular bra is that the criss-cross straps in the back make it a bit awkward to put on.  It has to first be pulled on over the head before you can secure the back hooks.

The Pine Tree Padded Bra was originally made end-to-end in France.  As the company grew, they realized that despite having an awesome fabric their pricing was holding them back.  A few years ago they re-branded as Do You Green and started having the garments sewn in Tunisia while keeping their unique fabric production local to where the pine tree trimmings are collected in France.

We took a look at them then, but were holding out hope that they would get a Fair Trade certification.  We’ve just touched based again, and are happy to report they’ve gone one step further.  Do You Green now has a dedicated factory in Tunisia that allows them to set their own high standards for employees, working conditions and the quality of their garments.  It also allows them to offer their unique Pine Tree fabric garments at much more reasonable prices.

Getting back on topic, we’re unaware of any company in the world who has developed an eco-padded, no wire bra. We’re still looking, though.  And if you ever see one, please let us know.

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Modal is touted as the new eco-fabric; does it live up to the hype?

I’ve been seeing a lot of eco-fashions made from the new fabric, Modal, recently.  Some of the designs are super cute, but I wanted a little more information before jumping in.  I bet you do, too.  Modal is yet another play on Rayon.  It’s got that fabulous rayon drape and soft, silky feel, but is it sustainable?

I was pleased to learn that Modal was developed by the Austrian company Lenzing, developer of the eco-fabric Tencel. Like Tencel, Modal has earned the European Union EcoLabel for having a reduced environmental impact throughout its life cycle.

Modal comes from Beechwood trees. Beechwoods are self-propagating which means no artificial irrigation or planting is required. More than half of the wood used by Lenzing comes locally from Austria and the remainder is from neighboring countries. All of the beechwood used for Modal comes from forests that follow sustainable harvesting methods.

Notably, Modal is the first fabric considered carbon neutral in its production process.  This is possible due to the generation of excess energy during fabric production and the recovery of component parts of the wood.  Even the pulp production is self-sufficient in terms of energy and is an important supplier of energy for the entire operation. Lenzing also boasts that up to 95% of the production materials are recovered and reused, which sounds very much like a closed-loop production system.

The key part of the production cycle is Lenzing’s Edelweiss technology: oxygen-based chemistry that eliminates the need for harsh and/or toxic production chemicals.

In summary, Modal passes the environmental criteria we set out to meet: sustainable input materials, very low waste production and no harsh or toxic chemicals.  Of course, we also source clothing from manufacturers who use low-impact dyes on the fabric and do not add harsh finishing agents.  With that in mind, our first Modal-based garments are now in and this batch has the bonus of all being designed and sewn in the USA.  Like Tencel, we still plan on using the fabric sparingly in our offerings; but a few awesome pieces are sure to add a bit of variety to your wardrobe.

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Rayon versus Tencel and the Great Bamboo Debate

For years humans have been making clothing fibers from wood cellulose.  Rayon was the first fabric that could start as wood and, through a series of chemical processes, end as cloth fiber.  Rayon is also considered the first of the synthetic fibers, having been developed in the 19th century as an alternative to silk.  Rayon can be created with any cellulose, not just wood, even cotton cellulose works.  While there is more than one way to make Rayon, the most commonly used method is called the viscose process.  Rayon is generally considered harmful to the environment because its processing employs several harsh chemicals, including carbon disulfide, and because the production process generates quite a bit of chemical waste.  Approximately 50% of the carbon disulfide ends up as waste product.

Tencel is a relatively new fiber on the scene, developed by the Austrian company Lenzing.  Tencel also begins as wood cellulose.  However, Tencel employs a closed-loop process that creates almost no waste by redirecting the waste products back into production.  It also uses fewer and less harmful chemicals.  Tencel has been awarded the European Union Eco-label certification and the Nordic Swan.  Tencel also starts with  Forest Stewardship Council certified wood products.

If you’ve had a chance to feel Tencel, you’ll find it has a lovely drape similar to Rayon and makes a great eco-alternative to Rayon.  Buyers should note that, like Rayon, Tencel doesn’t generally like the dryer.

The reason I’m bringing this up is to discuss the Great Bamboo Debate.  Is Bamboo an eco-fabric or not?  Let’s start at the beginning.  Bamboo itself is the fastest-growing woody plant in the world. (It’s actually a member of the grass family.)  Bamboo grows naturally without any pesticides or herbicides and is very hearty.  So as an input material, Bamboo is very eco-friendly.  From there, however, things get dicey.  It seems most Bamboo-based fabrics are created using the traditional Rayon viscose process, which is why the Federal Trade Commission is concerned.  However, there are some companies claiming to use a closed-loop processing method similar to Tencel.  So on processing, it’s not black and white.

Finishing must also be mentioned.  Companies creating products from Bamboo who don’t specifically have an eco-philosophy may use conventional chemical finishing agents and dyes.  So the fact that something is Bamboo doesn’t give it an automatic eco-pass.  All of the companies FaeriesDance.com works with are specifically focused on eco-production.  So none of our Bamboo fashions have harsh chemical finishes and they are all low-impact dyed, not conventionally dyed.

In truth, we have not followed the producer train back far enough to know which of our vendors are using viscose processing and which are using a closed-loop system.  We do know that several of our severely chemically sensitive clients have had very good luck with our bamboo products.  That may be due more to the lack of chemical finishes than anything else, but it’s something to consider.

In the end you as the consumer will have to decide if eco-friendly growing, finishing and dyeing are enough to warrant a green label if you’re uncertain of the processing step.  In the meantime, we’ll be following up with each of our manufacturers to determine how the Bamboo was processed.

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Quick Fact: Latex allergies

Natural rubber latex is derived from the rubber tree Hevea brasiliensis.  The protein in latex is the sensitizer that causes allergies.  Many individuals are not initially allergic to latex, but develop sensitivity to it after prolonged exposure.

Latex allergies are particularly tricky because latex can sometimes be found in elastic, but not always.  Manufacturers are not required to specify if a product contains a small amount of elastic as trim.  Even when they do note that elastic is present, the underlying source of the elastic is almost never listed.  So it is rare to find a garment hang tag that will say with any certainty whether latex is present.

Many of our products are not labeled “Latex Free” only because we weren’t able to track down the source of the elastic.  So they could be, but we just don’t know.  A few of our vendors have been able to trace back to the exact make-up of their elastics.  Here’s a compiled product list of manufacturer-confirmed Latex Free garments.  For more information on latex allergies, visit the American Latex Allergy Association.

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Coffee Clothing… Almost

A while back I had heard that there was a new process of making fabric from spent coffee grinds.  The fabric was purportedly mixed with recycled PET to make “coffee polyester”.  I was so excited by this idea (being a coffee addict lover myself), that I’ve been on the lookout for coffee clothing ever since.

At the Go Green Expo, I finally found coffee nirvana.  I saw shirts made from 100% coffee polyester that honestly didn’t feel all that good, but were adorably cute with coffee beans printed on them, and nice fashion pieces that were 60% coffee polyester, 40% tencel that actually looked and felt good.  The prices were reasonable and I was all set to go!

I sat down with the manufacturer to talk process.  Exactly how is coffee polyester created (and why do the t-shirts feel like 1970’s polyester suits)?  It turns out that recycled PET is combined with… here it comes… 2% coffee grinds and then respun into yarn.  So “coffee polyester” is actually 98% polyester with a sprinkle of coffee.  I was looking for a double espresso and instead got a Grande latte with 1/2 shot.  So those nice 60% coffee polyester, 40% tencel shirts actually contained just 1.2% coffee.

The process is fairly clean and dyed with low-impact dyes.  Since all the polyester is recycled it’s not a bad choice environmentally.  But would anyone actually want one?  What’s your opinion?  Is a little coffee better than no coffee?  Please leave a comment or answer our poll on the top right sidebar to share your opinion.

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QUICK FACT: Is hemp illegal to grow in the USA?

Hemp is not technically illegal to grow in the USA. It can be grown with a special permit from the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). Rumor has it however, that farmers are never actually given permits. So for all intents and purposes, it is illegal. Industrial hemp is in the same family as marijuana and was banned for its similar look. You can’t get high on hemp though, as the mind-altering drug THC found in marijuana is nearly absent in industrial hemp.
On August 5 of this year, Oregon passed a bill to make hemp farming legal in that state. They are the 17th state to pass some sort of pro-hemp legislation in the past 3 years. The states are also lobbying to have the DEA permit issue removed and allow state-control of hemp production. At the moment, all of our hemp fabric for clothing is imported and US farmers would like to change that.
A really interesting tidbit is that in 1619 at Jamestown Colony in Virginia it was mandatory for farmers to grow hemp because there was such a shortage. …You must grow it, you can’t grow, oh the confusion over one little plant…
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QUICK FACT: Where does organic cotton come from?

For years Turkey has held the record for growing the largest amount of certified organic cotton.  But according to the Organic Trade Association, last year India increased its production of organically grown cotton by 292% to become the number one grower.  India alone now produces nearly half the world’s supply of organic cotton.

The USA produces a mere 2.1% of the world’s supply of organic cotton and does not produce enough to meet the country’s demand.  So a lot of organic cotton is imported by necessity.  We hope the increasing demand for chemical-free, organically grown cotton will encourage more US farmers to go organic.

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All About Dyes

There is so much confusion on what goes into dyes that I thought I’d help clarify a little. There are a large number of variations within categories of dyes, but for now we’ll stick to gross categories to get oriented. Here is my take on the overall dye process and the eco-friendliness of different dyes.

What most people hear about these days are low-impact dyes, azo-free dyes or fiber-reactive dyes. These are a category of synthetic, chemical-based dyes that are absorbed more easily into clothing than conventional dyes. Low-impact dyes are substantially better for the environment than conventional dyes because:

  • The higher absorption rate (greater than 70%) means less chemical and grey water runoff.
  • They do not include azo-dyes, a family of dye groups that can contain anything from toxic compounds such as chlorine bleach to known carcinogens such as carcinogenic aryl amines.
  • Low-impact dyes do not contain heavy metals

Still while low-impact dyes are better for the environment than conventional dyes, that doesn’t specifically mean they are good for the environment. Also, many people with multiple chemical sensitivities have reactions to low-impact dyes.

Going one small step further, some textiles are Oeko-Tek or Control Union (formerly SKAL) certified. These certifications do not focus solely on the dye, but are end-to-end process and final textile safety certifications. The dyes used in the final fabric must be at least as good as low-impact dyes and are specifically tested for skin-safety. The only problem with both of these certifications is that they are European-based and neither is widely used here in the USA. (Though Control Union is more common.) There are many legitimate, eco-friendly companies that are still using US-specific fiber certifications along with low-impact dyes. For example SOS From Texas grows cotton that meets all US Department of Agriculture Organic Standards and is certified organic by the Texas Department of Agriculture. Their final textiles would likely pass either of the above mentioned certifications, so the lack thereof for a US company is not necessarily telling in any way.

Getting away from synthetic dyes altogether, low-impact or otherwise, there is a class of natural dyes that are higher up on the eco-scale. Clay-dyes are dyes that are literally made from natural earth muds and clays. They are mixed with water and often little else. The colors are softer, but the dye stays put and they tend to work for people with chemical sensitives. Earth Creations has been offering clay-dyed clothing since 1996. Similarly, there are herbal and tea dyes which are created from plants. The range of colors is limited, but lovely and again, these dyes tend to work for chemically sensitive folks. The biggest downside of herbal dyes is the price. Faerie’s Dance has seen some lovely tea dyed pieces, but so far we’ve balked at the higher costs. We will have some herbal dyed items in 2010 to test the market desire.

Of course the overall least impact to the environment is not to dye clothing at all. So undyed is at the top of our eco-friendly list. But for those who may be tired of “natural” colored items, there is an alternative. There are several strains of cotton that are grown in colors. The colors are somewhat muted, but there is a lovely camel brown and soft green generally referred to as Colorgrown cottons. You can see the depth of color in the undyed brown sock in the center versus the traditional natural colored cotton socks on the ends. Take a look at this undyed Peasant Dress in camel brown.

In summary, the best way to get truly vibrant purples and reds is to use low-impact dyes. We all need a few fashion pieces that really make a statement. But if we fill in the closet with clay-dyed, herbal dyed, Colorgrown and undyed items, we’ll have a lighter impact on the planet and a healthier wardrobe all around.

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