Bamboo – the not-so-natural fibre

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different breeds provide wool  with different characteristics

As you will have noticed, I am a fan of working with natural fibres – my preference being sheep’s wool (because we produce lots of it in the UK), but I’m not averse to other types too, including the fleece/hair from other animals such as goats and alpaca. There are some circumstances where something like cotton is much more appropriate… when making Knitted Knockers, for example, but most of my knitting, crochet and felt-making is done using wool.

You may have noticed, however, that when talking about working with non-wool natural fibres I don’t tend to mention bamboo or soya “silk” or a number of other fibres that are derived from natural materials. This is because bamboo etc are members of a class of fibres that, whilst not made from petrochemicals, like acrylic, are “manmade” – the rayons.

bamboo yarn sample

a bamboo yarn sample

Rayon is a manmade fibre, but created with polymers from natural sources (often cellulose from plants, but sometimes another source of polymer, such as protein in milk – yes, milk) rather than petrochemicals. For example, viscose is a sort of rayon made from wood pulp; Tencel is a sort of viscose made from eucalyptus wood (usually found as fabric rather than yarn); bamboo yarn or bamboo silk is a sort of rayon (unless it is referred to as bamboo linen, in which case it’s retted and spun from the natural fibres like flax).

There are all sorts of environmental and health issues associated with the chemical processes required to create these products (with the exception of Tencel® and other Lyocells, which are produced in closed loop systems that avoid chemical pollution). Rayon fibres are biodegradable; indeed, they break down at approximately the same rate as cotton, if not a bit quicker. However, it’s important to understand that the processes used to make bamboo and other similar yarns are chemical and similar in some ways to the production of plastic yarns, but with a very different polymer source. It is often difficult to find details of the processes used to create these purportedly “natural” fibres, although it’s easy to find misleading claims about their environmental and health credentials.

Generally the rayon yarns are soft and silky, with little give in them.

Different fibres have different characteristics, and it’s a case of choosing the right one for the job. I would always recommend handling yarn before you buy, which generally means supporting a local yarn shop… adding an extra dimension to your ethical choices as regards your knitting and crochet.

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buy your yarn somewhere like this – support the local economy, get expert advice and feel and see the yarn before you buy

 

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30 Comments

  1. Thanks for that information. I knew there were issues with bamboo, but did not know what they are. As a rough comparison, how do bamboo socks compare to conventional cotton socks? It’s about the only bamboo we have. Many thanks. 🙂

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    • Well, conventional cotton is grown using lots of pesticides plus there are issues with the amount of water used in its cultivation. In addition, cotton mills may well be poor when it comes to health and safety of workers. Organic and fairly traded cotton socks are your best bet. In comparison, bamboo can be grown without massive pesticide and water inputs, but because it mostly comes from China it’s very difficult to get a clear idea of the ethics of its production. Manufacturers often claim a closed loop production system (ie where chemicals cannot escape into the environment) for fibre production, but do not provide details. I think that we should question the manufacturers of such products to try to unpick their environmental credentials and not be seduced by the greenwash.
      Sorry I don’t have a clear answer, but it is ever the way when you are trying to do the right thing.

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  2. Philippa Pickworth

     /  April 24, 2018

    Oh dear, David is very upset as he had bamboo socks on his birthday list.

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  3. Murtagh's Meadow

     /  April 24, 2018

    Very informatative post, thank you.

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  4. This is interesting! I have chosen Bamboo yarns over cotton, believing them to be the better deal in caring for the environment – but you raise a good point about understanding the ethics of production. And, as I never believe the spiel coming from the manufacturer of any product any more, it’s up to me to do the research required to ensure what I want to believe is
    actually real……… Luckily for me a certain lovely friend recently introduced me to Corriedale yarn, a particular wool fibre I hadn’t used before and which I have fallen in love with…… there are already several future projects planned with this yarn 🙂

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    • Oh, I’m so glad you like the wool – it’s always a risk buying at a distance… it could have turned out to be horrid even if the colours were nice. I keep thinking about your crochet and enjoying the thought that I was able to make that project happen.
      Today, when there was no sunshine at all, I was considering moving my light catcher. I had temporarily put it up quite high in the limery so that it didn’t get knocked whilst I was doing some cleaning and now it needs to come down so that it’s properly on show… I just can’t quite decide where yet. Careful positioning will mean I get rainbows in both the limery and the kitchen, but I do need a bit of sunshine to test it out… maybe at the weekend…

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    • You’ll be happy to know that the yarn for your socks (which should arrive today) is from British sheep then!👍🏻

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  5. Interesting article! The only bamboo yarn or clothes I’ve come across have had “other” manmade materials mixed in so I’ve mostly passed them by (except for some organic bamboo/cotton socks that are SO comfy). It’s annoying that companies can hijack people’s eco-friendly efforts with marketing ploys, but I guess it’s up to shoppers to be on the up and up.

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  6. Living in the climate I do, my clothing choices tend to veer strongly to natural plant fibres. A lot of cotton is grown in Australia, and I try for locally produced where I can. I’d love to wear more wool (yes, we grow a *lot* of that here too!) but sadly our climate doesn’t really encourage wearing woollies!

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    • Jude at the wool shop is currently experimenting with some linen yarn – it feels a bit stiff to begin with, but I think once it’s worked with and then washed it might end up being lovely and drapey and cool. Not that I need anything like that here!!
      Can you check on the levels of pesticide input for your local cotton? Apparently cotton covers 2.5% of the world’s cultivated land but accounts for 16% of global pesticide use! I have been trying to seek out organic cotton in recent years.

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  7. Thanks for doing all the research for us! I was never entirely comfortable with the concept of bamboo or cotton socks for exactly the reasons you mention, but had never looked as far into it to have my suspicions confirmed. Luckily, BFL is my favourite anyway, so I can happily continue knitting away, guilt free😀

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    • I haven’t tried it yet, but I want to have a go with wool/mohair sock yarn – it’s supposed to be hard-wearing and there’s a few people producing it now, including Whistlebare and Blacker Yarns.

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  8. Thank you for the education on yarn types and the environmental impact of production, so interesting and so much I have yet to learn.

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  9. There was a lot of good information here even for those of us that don’t knit or crochet. Understanding fabric and how it’s made is important. I appreciate all of this. Thank you.

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  10. I have had the same concerns about bamboo!

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