- Home Decorating
The Green Truth About Fabrics
Natural vs Synthetic Fabrics: Ecological Benefits and Drawbacks
Fabric designers and manufacturers are increasingly developing eco-friendly or "green" fabrics and manufacturing processes for home decorating textiles.
Natural and synthetic fibers are now being made from materials that were not imaginable even a few years ago, from traditional fibers made in new ways, and from materials that have been previously used exclusively by particular cultures.
Industry innovators and individual entrepreneurs are developing new fabrics in response to the growing eco-consciousness and desire for "green homes" and eco-friendly products among consumers. While the ecological benefits of the greening of the fabric industry are many, there are also some drawbacks.
Most of these will be discussed in the following sections on specific fibers. However, there is one factor that can be generalized: "Green" fabrics often cost more and the "greener" they are, the more expensive they can be. Of course, one should consider the financial cost vs. the environmental and health costs whenever possible, but not everyone can afford to do that. Nonetheless, there are less expensive, even frugal, ways to make environmentally sound decorating decisions.
Environmentally sound, broadly defined, refers to behaviors, processes and products that have a minimal impact on the environment. This can include re-cycling existing materials, using sustainable materials, and/or adopting business and manufacturing practices that are eco-conscious. In home décor, purchasing used or antique furniture (which can often be purchased for considerably less than new) or reupholstering what you have is not only one of the cornerstones of budget-friendly decorating, it is very eco-conscious. It is also a great way to get exactly the look you want.
A natural fiber that grows in the seed pod of the cotton plant, cotton is versatile and the second strongest natural fiber. (Wool is the strongest.) Use of cotton fabric dates to 5,000-3,000 BCE Egypt. It takes dye well and has a wide range of color options.
Cotton is also breathable and can give you a lot of decorating impact at a low price, whether for window treatments, bedding, upholstery, or accessories, depending on the type of fabric. And it is a renewable, biodegradable resource.
Learn more about the fascinating history of cotton - And cotton's influence on history
However, while cotton enjoys high popularity around the world, it also has low insect-resistance and is responsible for 25% of global pesticide use. In addition, it may be bleached with chlorine based chemicals, which are known to be toxic to the environment and its inhabitants.
Dyes and finishes may also contain harsh and harmful ingredients. Be cautious of any fabric labeled static-resistant, wrinkle-resistant, permanent-press, no-iron, or stain-proof. Chances are those qualities are the result of toxic chemical processes.
Organic cotton is non-toxic and becoming increasingly available in the home décor industry, but it does cost more than non-organic cotton. Organic cotton is grown in soil that is certified free of chemical fertilizers and pesticides for at least three years. Fabrics made with organic cotton should be free of chlorine bleach and chemical dyes and finishes to be considered organic.
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If you want to read more about Linen - I highly recommend this book
Whether you want to grow and/or weave your own linen fabric or learn about the history of linen, this amply illustrated book will provide all you need to know.
Linen is a vegetable fiber from the woody stem of the flax (linum) plant. The use of linen fabric dates at least to 5,000 BCE Egypt.
Flax was one of the most important crops to early American farmers and to the economy of our emerging nation and before the invention of the cotton gin in 1792, most Americans used fabrics that were made from either wool or linen.
Linen fibers are much stronger and more lustrous than cotton. Linen fabrics are very cool and absorbent, but wrinkle very easily. Linen is often blended with other fibers to prevent or minimize wrinkling, but others see the wrinkle factor as appealingly "shabby chic." Linen is used in every type of decorating application, depending on the type of fabric it is made into.
Growing flax requires little, if any, use of fertilizers or pesticides and uses less water than cotton. (Do not, however, assume that linen is organic unless it has been certified as pesticide-free.) Linen is two to three times stronger than cotton, non-allergenic, anti-static, antibacterial, and naturally resistant to dirt. It is comfortable in hot humid weather as it absorbs humidity and allows the skin to breathe. Because it is a natural plant fiber, Linen is also sustainable, biodegradable, and recyclable. (Photo shows flax fiber)
A fiber similar to flax, taken from the stalk of a plant originally grown in China, Ramie shares the properties and uses of linen.
Ramie is one of the oldest vegetable fibers. It was used in mummy cloths in Egypt during the period 5000 - 3000 BC, and has been grown in China for many centuries. Ramie fiber is very fine and is naturally white so does not require bleaching. Ramie is often blended with cotton to make woven and knit fabrics that resemble fine linen to coarse canvas.
Ramie is naturally resistant to bacteria, mildew, and insects. It is extremely absorbent and as much as four times stronger than linen and seven times stronger than silk. It is naturally stain-resistantand has a smooth, lustrous appearance. Like cotton and linen, ramie is also washable. However, it retains its shape and does not shrink. Like linen, though, it is also prone to wrinkles and lacks resiliency so it is often blended with other fibers. It is also expensive due to the labor involved in producing it. (Photo shows a ramie or, as it is better known, Chinese silk plant.)
Like linen and ramie, hemp is also a bast (or long) fiber. Hemp is extremely durable and easy to grow organically. It is a dense, fast growing plant (quickly reaching 15 feet in height). Because of this it blocks weeds and does not require herbicides.
Because hemp has a deep taproot, it draws water and nutrients from deeper soil layers, eliminating the need for fertizers. Hemp actually enriches the soil it is grown in, Unlike more delicate fibers such as flax, hemp can be grown in the same field year after year with no negative impact on the land.
Hemp has been grown for at least the last 12,000 years for the use of its fibers, which are important for the manufacture of textiles and food. China has had an uninterrupted hemp trade for approximately 6000 years and is currently the primary producer of hemp.
Growing hemp has been illegal in the US. since the 1950s because it is a relative of marijuana. (Hemp was first regulated in the US in 1937, when legislation required farmers to obtain a permit to grow hemp.) Hemp and marijuana are both varieties of Cannabis sativa L., but hemp contains almost no THC, the narcotic component of Marijuana. The main reason seems to be that the plants resemble each other making it difficult to distinguish the two crops.
Silk is, despite its sometimes fragile look, a very durable, soft, absorbent, long-wearing fiber. Chinese history credits the invention of silk fabric to Yuen Fei, the concubine of an Emperor who ruled in 2,600 B.C. Legend has it she dropped a cocoon into hot tea and it unraveled into silk fibers. The production was a carefully guarded secret in China for 3,000 years! Today, it is used in a variety of home décor items from rugs and tapestries to sheer organza. You can find a silk fabric suitable for virtually any interior decorating application. (Photo shows silk fiber.)
During the traditional process of making silk, the cocoons are boiled before the larva change into a moth. This is preferred because when the cocoons open to release the moth, the continuity of the fibre is believed to be lost. The silk is believed to be the finest at this stage. About 1500 silkworms are killed in order to make one yard of fabric.
It seems rather ironic when one considers that was a prominent crop in the US since the first settlements in Jamestown. Both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grew hemp on their plantations. Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence on hemp paper and the first US flag was made of hemp fabric.
As stated earlier, it is a natural for organic farming. Hemp is naturally mildew resistant and blocks the sun's UV rays more effectively than other fabrics. In addition, it is stronger, more absorbent and more lustrous than cotton. Hemp is eight times stronger than cotton and four times as durable. It grows in a range of climates and is frost tolerant.
Hemp is eco-friendly, sustainable and much easier to grow (without the use of pesticides) than cotton. One acre of hemp produces as much fiber as 2.5 acres of cotton and at a much lower cost both in cultivation, harvesting, and production. Unlike cotton, hemp fibers are easy to remove from the plant and immediately ready to comb and use. And anything that can be made from cotton or linen can be made from hemp. It is a versatile fiber and hemp can be as soft as the softest cotton flannel, as strong and sturdy as denim, and as comfortable as linen and ramie.
Traditional Silk Making
Kusuma Rajaiah, of Hyderabad, India, after years of research, found a way to produce silk without killing silk worms. Kusuma decided to wait until the moths emerged through a small hole in one end of the cocoon. He then spun the cocoons into yarn and wove the yarn into fabric.
Inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, he called this silk ahimsa because it is a non-violent way of making silk. Ahimsa, or peace silk may be less lustrous than traditionally produced silk, but is strong and durable, softer than "regular" silk, wrinkle resistant, and is said to drape better.
Peace silk is more expensive than conventional silk because it is more labor intensive. Cocoons must be checked to make sure the moth has flown out. Since it is made on handlooms, it takes about two months to spin the yarn and another month to weave it, but its production benefits the weavers, their families, and their communities, in addition to the silkworms.
Luxurious Silk Fabrics
MORE NATURAL PLANT FIBERS
Other natural fibers such as jute, sisal, and coir are also found in home décor, but until recently, were rarely found in fabrics other than burlap. Instead, these fibers, all of which come from plants, were (and still are) used for webbing in furniture upholstery, carpet backing, and area rugs. Reflecting the current emphasis on ecology, renewable natural fibers are becoming increasingly popular in home decor fabrics.
Pinya is made from pineapple leaves. Commonly made and used in the Phillipines, pinya silk is considered the queen of fabrics there and is attracting increasing attention as the world becomes more eco-conscious. Once made into a fabric pinya is similar in appearance to linen. It is lightweight, lustrous, and easy care. To create fabrics, pia is combined with other fibers. Since pia fabric is hand loomed by only a few weavers, it is very scarce, which also makes it expensive. (Photo shows extraction of pia fibers.)
Banana silk yarn is made of the banana fibre especially in regions like India and Philippines. The leaves of the non-fruiting variety of the banana plant are harvested, soaked, processed and spun into a silky fabric. Banana fabric is rare, but skeins of wool made from banana fiber are relatively easy to find.
Because bamboo is very quick growing it usually does not require the use of pesticides or herbicides. Making unbleached bamboo is also very
Bamboo fabric is light and strong, highly absorbent, insulating (warmer in cold weather and cooler in hot weather) and is antibacterial, a quality it retains through multiple washings, and biodegradable. It is versatile and can be made into a wide range of different fabric types including velvets, knits, wovens, denim, smooth as silk fabrics, linen textured fabrics, and more.
Bamboo is processed into fiber in two ways. One is similar to processing flax or hemp: the stalks are crushed, allowing the fibers to be combed out. The other follows processes similar to those used to make rayon: the fibers are broken down with chemicals (including lye, carbon disulfide and acids).and extruded through mechanical spinnerets. Fabrics made from both types of fabric have been called "bamboo" but there is a huge difference in their eco-friendliness. Governments have recently insisted that bamboo fabric made via the rayon method not be labeled as natural bamboo fabric but as rayon made from bamboo.
Bamboo is becoming increasingly popular in home decorating fabrics, as well as flooring, window shades and blinds, and trims.
Enhance Your Home's Décor with Custom Made Natural Organic Sisal Fiber Area Rugs
Soy is a renewable resource and a by-product of the food industry. (Soy silk is made from the by-products of the tofu-making process. The liquefied proteins are extruded into fibers which are then spun, and used like any other fiber. Soy fabric is rarer than organic cotton, which makes it more expensive, too. While not all soy fibers are organic, non-gmo soy fibers are generally better for the environment than most traditional fabrics.
Fabrics made from soy fibers are soft and smooth with a silky luster. Soy is durable and stronger than wool, cotton, or silk. It is absorbent, breathes, resists persperation, and dries quickly. It is antibacterial, offers UV protection, resists wrinkes, does not shrink, and has good insulating properties. It retains warmth very well. There is no shrinkage, it does not wrinkle. However because soy fabric is still relatively rare, it is also more expensive than many other fibers.
Coir is made from the fibers found between the husk and shell of the coconut. Coir is somewhat waterproof. It is used for floor mats and in some mattresses.
Corn is spun into fiber by fermenting corn sugar into lactic acid, which in turn is converted to polylactic acid resin and spun. With properties similar to petroleum-based synthetic fibers, corn fiber does not contribute to greenhouse gases and is totally biodegradable, although there is currently controversy about the dangers of genetically modified corn. Fabrics made from corn fiber are soft, strong, resilient, resistant to fading from UV light, and drape well. Corn fabrics are washable and quick drying.
Fabric made from corn uses no chemical additives or surface treatments and is naturally flame retardant, although if not organic and non-gmo, the corn itself may not be chemically free. Corn fiber can also be used as a substitute for polyester based fiberfill in furniture upholstery, pillows, bedding, and similar items.
Jute is one of the cheapest natural fibres, and is second only to cotton in amount produced and variety of uses. Most jute comes from India. Jute fabrics are also called Hessian Cloth, known as burlap in the U.S. The jute plant only takes 4-5 months to reach maturity, which makes it highly sustainable and quickly renewable. Jute is 100% biodegradable and recyclable.
Sisal is strong fiber that originates from the leaves of the Agave plant, which is found in the West Indies, Central America, and Africa. It is currently popular in area rugs.
Wool is the most durable of the natural fibers. It is breathable, hard-wearing, and can be soft or scratchy, delicate or sturdy, warm or cool, depending on the type of fabric. Wool is biodegradable, renewable, and recyclable.
Wool is also very versatile, and a wool fabric can be found for any decorating application from carpeting to upholstery to window treatments. The down-side is that some people are allergic to some or all wools. There are a lot of types of wool, from Alpaca to Llama to Vicuna.
Organic wool products only use wool from animals that have not received synthetic hormones, and that live only on organic feed. The pastureland that the animals are raised on must also meet rigid guidelines to protect the land from overuse. Organic wool is somewhat rare and can be rather expensive. (Photo shows a basket of wool sheared from sheep.)
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From Our Bookshelf
From left to right: Green Interior Design by Lori Dennis, This Green House by Joshua Piven, Green Housekeeping by Ellen Sandbeck, and Restore, Recycle, Repurpose (A Country Living Book) by Randy Florke and Nancy J. Becker. All available at Amazon.com
"Synthetic" is actually a misnomer for manufactured fabrics, not all of which are synthetic. Synthetic fibers are generally created by forcing fiber forming materials through holes (called spinnerets) into the air, forming a thread. (This process is called extrusion.) Many are made from petroleum. Prior to the invention of nylon, the first synthetic fiber, there were artificial fibers. Rayon and acetate, for example, are both artificial fibers, but not truly synthetic, since they are made from cellulose, a plant fiber.
RAYONS: Rayon, Viscose, Cupro, Bemberg and Acetate
Composed of regenerated cellulose derived from wood pulp, cotton linters, or other vegetable matter such as bamboo, rayon is a manufactured fiber that uses natural materials. Rayon, first invented in 1890, is both an artificial and (partially) synthetic fiber. Today, various names for rayon fibers are taken from three different manufacturing processes that lead to distinctly different types of rayon fibers: viscose rayon, cuprammonium rayon (cupro and bemberg) and saponified cellulose acetate.
Rayon has a high luster, is highly absorbent, soft, cool and comfortable, and drapes well. It is a very versatile fiber and has the same comfort properties as natural fibers and can imitate silk, wool, cotton and linen.
Viscose is the most common type of rayon. Viscose rayon is made by converting purified cellulose to xanthate, dissolving the xanthate in dilute caustic soda and then regenerating the cellulose from the product as it emerges from the spinneret. The process of making viscose was discovered by C.F.Cross and E.J.Bevan in 1891. The process used to make viscose can either be a continuous or batch process. The batch process is flexible in producing a wide variety of rayons having broad versatility.
Rayon's versatility is the result of the fiber being chemically and structurally engineered by making use of the properties of cellulose from which it is made. However, it is somewhat difficult to control uniformity between batches and it also requires high labor involvement. The continuous process is the main method for producing rayon.
The viscose method is relatively inexpensive and used in the production of nonwoven and woven fabrics. Viscose is soft, absorbent, and drapes well. It is also dirt and stain repellent and is used in many decorative fabrics, especially faux silks and damasks and in almost every home decorating application.
Cupro is similar to visose but the fiber is a lot finer and softer. The name comes from cuprammonium, which refers to the process of dissolving pure cellulose in an ammonium solution of copper oxide at low temperature in a nitrogen atmosphere, followed by extruding through a spinnerette into a sulphuric acid solution necessary to decompose cuprammonium complex to cellulose. The process was invented in France by Louis Despeissis in 1890, but was soon made obsolete by the cheaper production of viscose.
In 1919, J.P. Bemberg revived the process for making cuprammonium rayon and registered it under the trade name of Bemberg. Because of United States Environmental Protection Agency regulations, Bemberg is now only produced in Italy.
Acetate, or acetate rayon fiber, is one of the earliest manufactured fibers and is based on cotton or tree pulp cellulose (biopolymers) and therefore is both natural and synthetic. It is formed by a compound of refined plant cellulose or wood pulp and acetic acid. It is long-wearing, hypoallergenic, drapes nicely, and resists wrinkling. Acetate became an enormous success as a fiber for moir because its thermoplastic quality made the moir design permanent. Acetate production accounts for only 3% of rayons made today and is usually blended with other fibers to add its characteristics to fabrics such as brocades, satins, and taffetas.
MORE RAYONS: Modal and Lyocell/Tencel
Modal is a variety of rayon that is made with reconstituted cellulose from beech or eucalyptus trees. It is a luxuriously soft and extravagant eco-friendly fabric. 100% biodegradable, fade-resistant, and 50% more water-absorbent than cotton. It is machine washable and has a beautiful sheen.
Like lyocell, however, modal may require extensive processing to convert the wood pulp to usable fibers. Modal (and its silky smooth cousin, MicroModal) are currently trendy fabrics and are often used in towels, bathrobes, underwear and linens.
Lyocell/Tencel was first produced in 1993. (Tencel is a Tencel Ltd. trademark for their brand of this high-performance rayon fiber.) Environmentally friendly, Tencel is produced from the harvested wood pulp of beech trees grown specifically for this purpose on replenished tree farms. It is specially processed, using a solvent spinning technique in which the dissolving agent is recycled, reducing environmental effluents.
A manufactured fiber composed of regenerated cellulose, Lyocell has a similar hand and drape as rayon, but is stronger, more durable, and machine washable. Lyocell is soft and lustrous, biodegradable, and possesses low shrinkage characteristics, as well as good absorbency and wrinkle resistant qualities. Like hemp, lyocell can be as soft as silk, as flowing as linen, and as warm as wool.
ACRYLIC / MODACRYLIC
Acrylic is a manufactured fiber derived from polyacrylonitrile (a resinous, fibrous, or rubbery organic polymer.) Acrylic has a wool-like feel but lacks wool's insulating properties. It is colorfast and resists stains and fading, but is harder to clean than some other fibers and can pill. It is most often used blended with natural fibers to add durability. Acrylic is machine washable and dryable.
Modacrylic is a manufactured fiber similar to acrylic in characteristics and end-uses. Modacrylics have a higher resistance to chemicals and combustion than acrylic, but also have a lower safe ironing temperature. Fleece, knit-pile fabric backings, and nonwoven fabrics are made from this fiber. Uses include awnings, carpets, flame-resistant draperies and curtains, and area rugs.
Microfiber is a generic term for any synthetic fiber finer than silk. Microfiber is the thinnest of all manufactured fibers. As the name suggests, microfibers are created by micro-technology. The fabrics made from these extra-fine fibers provide a superior hand, a gentle drape, and incredible softness. Comparatively, microfibers are two times finer than silk, three times finer than cotton, eight times finer than wool, and one hundred times finer than a human hair.
Currently, there are four types of microfibers being produced. These include acrylic microfibers, nylon microfibers, polyester microfibers, and rayon microfibers. Microfibers are relatively new (1989) and their uses in home dcor are just beginning to develop. Look for them in slipcovers, curtains, and bedding, faux silks and faux suedes, and other fabrics.
Microfiber textiles tend to be flammable and emit toxic gases when burning.They are made with synthetic fibers such as polyester and nylon which are made from petrochemicals. Microfibers are not made from a renewable resource and are not biodegradable.
Basics of Making Nylon
Invented at DuPont in 1938, from petroleium, nylon was the first completely synthetic fiber developed. Known for its high strength and excellent resilience, nylon has superior abrasion resistance and high flexibility.
Nylon wears well and resists static electricity, but it is not breathable and it pills - characteristics that make it unsuitable for upholstery but perfect for parachutes and umbrellas.
Polyester is made from short strands of fiber bonded together. It is strong, durable, and fade resistant but harder to clean than many other fabrics. It is stain and wrinkle resistant. Its low absorbency allows the fiber to dry quickly, making it a popular choice in window treatments, bedding, and accessories, but also can make it uncomfortable to wear.
Polyester blends well with other fabrics and can be engineered to be similar in appearance and feel to silk, wool, and linen. It is used in upholstery and drapery fabrics. Polyester fiiberfill is often used for quilting, stuffing pillows and cushioning upholstered furniture.
The environmental impact of polyester is very similar to that of nylon. For example, polyester, the most widely used manufactured fiber, is made from petroleum. The manufacture of polyester and similar synthetic fabrics is an energy-intensive process requiring large amounts of crude oil and releasing emissions including volatile organic compounds, particulate matter, and acid gases such as hydrogen chloride, all of which can cause or aggravate respiratory disease. Other toxic by-products of polyester production are emitted in the wastewater from polyester manufacturing plants. The EPA, under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, considers many textile manufacturing facilities to be hazardous waste generators.
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PET (Recycled Polyester)
Recycled polyester or PET (polyethylene terephthalate) is made from recycled plastics. Although this lessens our dependence on oil, reduces landfill waste, and produces less pollution than making plastics in the first place, it is controversial in environmental circles.
Plastic becomes unstable and cannot be recycled indefinitely and eventually will wind up in a landfill. It is not biodegradable. Creating recycled polyester can cause toxic chemicals to leach into our water supply unless the facility treats its wastewater.
The manufacture of PET consumes more entergy than the manufacture of conventional cotton, organic cotton, hemp and other natural fibers. PET is made using antimony, a heavy metal known to create environmental issues and severe health problems. And it is expensive.
Inspite of all these drawbacks, the development of PET is still a step in the right direction as they provide recycling options and do keep non-biodegradable substances out of our eco-systems, at least for a while.
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