Bamboo textiles have been around for a long time. In fact, the earliest patents involving these materials go back to 1864 by Philipp Lichtenstadt. His original idea was to create a “new and useful process for disintegrating the fiber of bamboo so that it may be used in manufacturing cordage, cloth, mats, or pulp for paper.” Yet somehow, despite the availability of the material, it’s only been within recent years that commercially viable bamboo clothing has made it into the mainstream.
Many attempts have been made over the years to develop bamboo fiber that can be used in cloth. The process detailed in the original patent was a lot like the one used for making paper but, at the time, no one developed a cloth fabric. In 1881, there was another patent that involved mixing bamboo fiber with wool, which would lead to some results that were usable as cloth, but it did not go into mass production for reasons that could include inefficient or expensive processing methods.
The first modern example of turning bamboo into usable cloth happened at Beijing University. They released their results in the early 2000s, but it should be mentioned that there were a lot of people and organizations working to manufacture cloth from bamboo at the time, and many of them could have produced something similar, such as a new processing technology that was patented in 2003 by a group of chemists with the Hebei Jigao Chemical Fibre Co. in Shijiazhuang, China.
One of the possible reasons that it took so long to develop commercially viable bamboo clothing is that the push for more environmentally sustainable textiles is a relatively recent trend. But now, because of it silky sheen, smooth texture, and the inherent environmental benefits of the material, bamboo clothing has gone beyond the basics and is now seen in some modern, luxury fashions.
The bamboo industry generates over $2.4 billion a year. It’s native to every continent except Antarctica and Europe (though it was introduced later to Europe) and can survive, or thrive, in areas that would be inhospitable to other plants. It can grow in both rich and poor soils and withstand temperatures that range from -4 F to 117 F and rain levels from 30 in. up to 248 in. in a year.
More than 1,500 species of bamboo exist in the world, but only about 50 of them are used commercially. As a raw material, it’s one of the most renewable, biodegradable, and fastest-growing resources on the planet. It uses space and water efficiently, has amazing carbon sequestering abilities (it uses up to five times the CO2 that a group of trees the same size would), and it does not need replanting. As a resource, its environmental benefits are unquestionable.
Aside from the environmental friendliness of bamboo, it also contains antibacterial and antifungal properties, so it repels odor for long periods of time. Bamboo materials are highly absorbent because the fiber is covered with micro gaps that pull moisture away from your skin. It’s extremely soft, is hypoallergenic, and its non-irritant qualities make it a great choice for clothing.
The Basic Process, and Why It’s Changing
Since the original patent in 1864, the process for harvesting bamboo pulp and creating usable bamboo fibers has not changed very much. In basic terms, the bamboo joints are cut and then split into many slivers. These components are then put into an approved solution by the Global Organic Textile Standard, where they’re left to soak for 12 to 24 hours. From there, the bamboo is milled, combed and spun into cordage, yard, or other usable forms.
As the demand for ethical textiles continues to increase, more modern manufacturing technologies are being used that are more sustainable and safer for the people working in the industry. The Lyocell Process, for example, is non-toxic to humans and uses a closed-loop chemical manufacturing process that can capture and recycle 99.5% of the chemicals it uses.
A Growing Industry
For almost a decade now, the bamboo clothing industry has continued to grow and expand. While some of this is likely attributed to more affordable and efficient processes, a lot of it is related to the demand for ethical textiles and sustainable production methods.
Hundreds of millions of dollars of bamboo textiles are sold in the United States alone. Growing retail brands and massive department stores are carrying these popular bamboo products. If the trend continues, we can expect a lot more retail growth and production throughout the industry.