BAMBOO: ITS HISTORY AND BENEFITS
R4 CLOTHING LTD | July 2021 | 9 min read
As the the fastest growing plant on Earth, it is no surprise that bamboo has been used in human civilizations for over 7000 years. Its properties have allowed it to be used across countless sectors as it has become a vital part in many communities' daily lives.
This story provides a brief introduction to the history of bamboo and how its textiles are produced before delving into its widespread benefits and the consequent inevitable growth in bamboo usage.
Historically in Asia, even in its early stages, bamboo was used for many things. Chief among these was paper, which was invented in China centuries ago and was the most flexible item of its time. Other uses of bamboo include houses, weapons, needles, showcasing a growing desire to develop bamboo over the years. The first patents for bamboo materials occurred in 1864 and 1869 – with an emphasis for its usage in cords, cloth, and mats. Surprisingly, despite the patents, a large bamboo-cloth-business had not materialised.
This was likely due to low demand in locations where bamboo grew, and because transportation costs were too expensive. In 1881, another patent was issued for mixing bamboo fibre with wool to produce a new type of fibre. The plant was woven together to make hats and shoes in China and Japan to protect rural workers from sun exposure. This was a pivotal moment for bamboo textiles; it was marked a promising fabric with great potential. In fact, Western countries followed suit and even used bamboo to make corsets!
Recent technological advances, however, have allowed bamboo to become more widespread as a textile source. Indeed, Beijing University is accredited for developing the first modern bamboo textile process, but it is likely that numerous manufacturers discovered this at the same time...
This innovative chemical process - using solvents to remove bamboo glues and modern bleaching chemicals to dye it white - created the commercially available bamboo fabrics we see today. This has rapidly increased in popularity since.
HOW ARE BAMBOO TEXTILE FIBRES MADE?
Bamboo textile fibre is made from bamboo timber which has matured in the forest for at least 4 years. Then they are spun into yarn, like any other textile fibre.
The preferred method by many who work with bamboo, is the chemical method. Bamboo is crushed and soaked in sodium hydroxide, a chemical that is not harmful to the environment or workers when used responsibly.
The inner core of bamboo and its leaves and are extracted and crushed together to make bamboo cellulose. The crushed bamboo cellulose is soaked in a solution of 18% sodium hydroxide at 20 °C to 25 °C for 1-3 hours. This soaking process produces a substance called cellulose fibre. It is then broken down by a grinder and left for 24 hours to dry. A mixture of carbon disulphide and sodium hydroxide, and other things dissolve into a viscose solution. The viscose bamboo cellulose is then filtered through a dilute sulphuric acid solution that works to harden and reconvert it into bamboo cellulose fibre. Finally, the threads
are spun into yarns which are to be woven into a fabric. [see diagram below]
This process has been met with much resistance from sustainable fashion experts because it requires toxic chemicals. These chemicals, sodium hydroxide and carbon disulphide, change the genetic structure of natural bamboo, turning it into rayon1. However, the plant is not the problem, but rather the questionable ways in which it is being processed into fabric. Choosing the right manufacturers/ companies can mitigate these risks...
A more sustainable form of bamboo is when it has been processed mechanically. Here the bamboo’s wood portion is crushed into a pulp and broken-down using enzymes that allow the resulting material to be combed and spun into yarn.
This method is expensive and produces a fabric that is like linen, with a scratchy texture. Though, the mechanically processed bamboo, tends to be more expensive because of the multi- step process it requires.
Bamboo Clothing: Process
Chemical pesticides and synthetic fertilisers are not needed in the growing of bamboo – it is seldom eaten by insects or infected by pathogens...
Low water needs: Bamboo has low water needs, especially compared to cotton (water intense). Therefore, it does well in impoverished soils as it helps retain water in a watershed area.
Excellent at carbon sequestering: They’re one of the fastest growing plants in the worlds, reaching full height in 3 months, and ready to harvest in 3-4 years. It has been reported that bamboo takes in more carbon dioxide and produces 35% more oxygen than trees.
Biodegradable: Bamboo, as a natural cellulose fibre, is biodegradable. The decomposition process doesn’t cause any pollution to the environment. However, a biodegradability problem may arise if bamboo is blended with a synthetic elastic such as Lycra.
The bamboo industry generates over $2.4 billion a year. From 2004 to 2010, the market for bamboo cloth expanded rapidly. This is due to many reasons, for instance: the new affordability and availability of the fabric, its use in more products, and new technology that makes it easier to create fabric much akin to cashmere and similar soft materials. Its affordability also comes down to how it is one of the fastest growing plants on earth. One species has been reported to grow 3 feet in a single day!
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. Bamboo fabric, therefore, has potential to outshine tradition textiles. It is much less costly to produce than cotton, avoids the extensive use of pesticides in non-organic cotton production, and production is not as chemically intensive as polyester.
Hypoallergenic: It does not trigger any allergic reactions – perfect for those who have sensitive skin suffer from allergies. This is because it is made without chemical treatment.
Many people also wonder, how does bamboo grass turn into the soft and breathable fabric? Again, this is because it is made without chemical treatment! Its unique fibres mean that it hardly wrinkles and holds its shape exceptionally well – even after washing!
Odourless: Bamboo clothing absorbs up to 70% more moisture than cotton – not retaining bad odours due to its thermal regulating properties (antibacterial). This is because bamboo possesses an anti-bacteria and bacteriostatic bio- agent called "Bamboo Kun" (gives the plant a natural resistance to pest and fungi resistance)
Powerful insulator: It has insulating properties that encourages heat exchange, i.e., it keeps the body cooler in summer and warmer in winter... Natural UV protection: It can filter up to 97.5% of harmful UV rays. This makes it the ideal fabric to have next to your skin on hot days with prolonged exposure to sunlight – especially when trying to protect yourself from skin cancer...