Bamboo Fabric Vs Other Natural Materials

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Bamboo fabric has long established its reign as the eco-friendly go-to in seemingly every industry, from clothing to bedsheets. But is this really the case? I never looked twice at clothing labels until I was pregnant with my first baby and looking for maternity wear.

Maternity wear is bloody expensive

This made me wonder, what could possibly justify this price tag? While you can get cheap maternity clothes from Kmart, many independent retailers still charge over a $100 for a maternity dress.

If you study the clothing labels and material, you’ll see that some of the prices are beyond reason. In the below table I’ll outline the main differences between common fabrics used in maternity wear and what they SHOULD technically cost you.

A Quick Comparison of Materials in Maternity Clothes

Fabric Advantages Disadvantages
Cotton A soft, fluffy staple fibre that grows in a boll, or protective capsule, around the seeds of cotton plants of the genus Gossypium
  • Hypoallergenic and dust mite resistant
  • Bio-degradable
  • Soft, breathes well
  • Cotton plantations are damaging to the environment
  • Creases easily
  • Weakens with exposure to light
  • Prone to pilling
  • More expensive than most fabrics
Rayon or viscose Rayon is the general term for fabrics made from regenerated cellulose fibre from plants such as beech trees, pine trees, or bamboo. Different chemicals and variations used in the processes yield viscose (simply called rayon in the US). Viscose is the first generation of these plant-based fibres, deriving its name from the viscous liquid used in the manufacturing process, which is also used to make cellophane. Because it looks like silk and feels like cotton, it is also known as artificial silk, or fake cotton. It can also be less durable than other types of rayon because it is made with a higher concentration of sodium hydroxide, or caustic soda.
  • Eco-friendly, bio-degradable
  • More moisture absorbent than cotton
  • Soft, comfortable to wear, drapes well
  • Does not build up static electricity
  • Does not pill
  • Does not insulate body heat making it ideal for use in hot and humid climates
  • Uses chemicals in its manufacturing process that’s toxic to the environment and also harmful to the body
  • Moderate dry strength and abrasion resistance
  • Creases easily
  • Withstands slightly lower ironing temperature than cotton
  • Susceptible to mildew, termites and silverfish
Bamboo Bamboo in itself is not actually a fabric. Most clothing with material labelled as “bamboo” is, in fact, a type of viscose rayon that uses cellulose fibre from bamboo. The chemical manufacturing process of bamboo rayon is not particularly environmentally friendly as it uses chemicals that are toxic to the environment.
  •  Soft & durable
  • More water-absorbent than cotton
  • Breathable
  • Cool in summer, warm in winter
  • Highly debatable whether it is eco-friendly and biodegradable
  • Most chemical manufacturing processes use chemicals that are toxic to the environment
Modal One of the softest and most durable materials on the market, nicknamed the cousin of cotton. Also a type of rayon, modal is the second generation of plant-based fibres, produced from beech trees. It is classified as a bio-based textile and is a registered trademark of Lenzing AG, an Austrian company specialising in textiles and fibres. It is generally considered more green than viscose and other types of rayons.
  • Eco-friendly, bio-degradable
  • Stronger and softer than other rayons
  • Does not shrink or get pulled out of shape when wet
  • Does not fade; brilliant lustre
  • Wear-resistant, anti-crease and strong
  • Soft, silky feel with velvety appearance
  • 50% more water-absorbent than cotton
  • More breathable than cotton
  • Does not fibrillate or pill
  • Cheaper than cotton
  • Modal that is produced in third world countries may use harmful chemicals in its manufacturing process.
(This is not a problem for modal produced in first and second world countries, which have stricter regulations for the use of chemicals.)
Polyester Synthetic polyesters extracted from petroleum using a chemical process. Poly (ethylene terephthalate), also known as PET, is used for many soft drink bottles. It is becoming increasingly common to recycle them after use by melting the PET and extruding it as fibre for clothing.
  • Strong, lightweight and soft
  • Resistant to shrinking, stretching, mildew and creasing
  • Sun resistant
  • Does not breathe
  • Stains are difficult to remove
  • Not environmentally friendly
Acrylic A man-made fibre used to imitate wools, including cashmere.
  • Woolly feel
  • Durable, soft
  • Colourfast, easy to clean
  • Not as warm as wool
  • Stiff
  • Can irritate the skin
Spandex or lycra, elastane A synthetic fabric with polymer base, most often used in swim wear and active wear. It is often added as a blend material in maternity wear to increase elasticity and shape retention, and reduce creasing.
  • Very elastic
  • Retains shape after stretching
  • Dries faster than ordinary fabrics
  • High resistance to lotions, oils and perspiration
  • Lightweight, strong and durable
  • Soft, smooth, easy to care for
  • Does not breath very well
  • Sensitive to heat

Putting into Perspective – What Do All These Mean?

The Most Expensive & Eco-Friendly Options:
Organic Cotton, Mechanically Processed Bamboo, and Lyocell Modal

Organic cotton is grown and farmed sustainably, thus reducing its environmental impact. Normal bamboo fabric is often processed with harsh chemicals that are damaging to the environment, but the more expensive mechanical manufacturing process eliminates this problem and generates true eco-friendly bamboo fabric.

Similarly, normal modal fabric also uses chemicals in its manufacturing process, but the patented Lyocell (or Tencel) modal fabric uses a process with non-toxic chemicals and does not produce harmful by-products.

Unfortunately, many retailers do not properly disclose and research the source of their fabric, often selling normal bamboo and cotton products as high-end eco products.

The Middle Tier Options:
Viscose (or rayon) – Bamboo & Modal

Viscose, the much cheaper alternative, rivals cotton in all aspects. If you’re only paying $15 for a maternity dress, it’s likely to be made from viscose or polyester. However, due to the harsh chemicals used in the production of viscose, it might not sit well with people who have sensitive skin or allergies. Like cotton, it also wrinkles easily so you’ll have to find time in your busy motherhood schedule to do some ironing.

Bamboo and modal, the second generation of rayon, offer the best of both worlds. They are cheaper than cotton, yet are softer, more durable, and more breathable. Modal, in particular, is already a popular material widely used in Europe. It is said to be the softest and most durable material on the market today. Its breathability means it’ll keep you cool in summer and warm in winter, as a bonus it is also anti-crease, say goodbye to ironing!

Essentially, these biodegradable fabrics are best for those who do care for the environment but are also on a budget and do not want to break the bank. I consider myself one of them – being eco-conscious within means.

So, What Exactly Are You Paying For?

Good quality maternity wear is worth your every penny. However, before buying any, take a look at its material composition and decide whether it is worth the price tag. If you want a trusty outfit that will accompany you through pregnancy, breastfeeding, and well beyond postpartum, then durable and comfortable material is essential. So, the next time you buy maternity wear for yourself or someone else, make sure you know what you’re paying for:

  • Soft and breathable – Pregnant ladies hate being hot and clammy in the summer!
  • Designed for easy breastfeeding – Many retailers would like to pass off front-buttoned outfits as breastfeeding wear, but a starving screaming baby will not patiently wait for you to unbutton those bits and pieces one by one.
  • Durable and longlasting – Good quality materials will save you from problems like fading colours, complicated washing instructions, pilling, tearing, mildew and more.

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I didn’t realise the the chemical manufacturing process of bamboo rayon was so bad for the environment! I had assumed it was eco friendly 🙁 Great information!