Don't be fooled by marketing campaigns advertising bamboo as an environmentally friendly, natural, and organic fabric. A lot of fashion brands and retailers want to appeal more sustainable than they are in reality.
Bamboo lyocell isn't a natural fabric but a semi-synthetic rayon fiber. Most bamboo fabrics contain viscose rayon made of wood fibers extracted from bamboo plants.
Lyocell is a regenerated cellulosic fiber and the third generation technology of rayon, after viscose and modal. Lyocell is arguably one of the most eco-friendly cellulosic fibers.
Lyocell production involves cellulose-based and renewable resources such as wood. But lyocell can also be manufactured out of bamboo, soy, seaweed, or coconut.
I've done a lot of research and hard work to help you make better purchasing decisions as a well-informed consumer. Here is everything you need to know about bamboo lyocell fabric.
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What is bamboo lyocell?
Bamboo lyocell a type of rayon fiber extracted from bamboo plants. Its fabrication demands heavy processing but with fewer steps than viscose rayon.
Rayon isn't a new type of fabric. Its first fabrication is dated back to about 1855. But the term rayon was first officially adopted later in 1924.
Lyocell is the third generation technology of rayon, after viscose and modal. Even though it comes from renewable resources, bamboo lyocell isn't a natural material but a regenerated cellulosic fiber derived from bamboo pulp.
One of the most well-known brands of lyocell is Tencel, manufactured by the Austrian company Lenzing. Many fashion brands such as H&M, Esprit, Massimo Dutti, and Uniqlo make clothing using Tencel.
However, Tencel lyocell fibers come from eucalyptus trees harvested in PEFC or FSC certified forests. Eucalyptus trees quickly grow without the use of pesticides, fertilizers, or irrigation.
Bamboo lyocell fabric uses
You can commonly find bamboo lyocell fabrics in clothing and accessories because they are smooth, sheen, and affordable. They resemble luxurious silk.
In the textile and apparel industry, bamboo lyocell makes knitwear, evening dresses, formal shirts, sportswear, hats, suits, blouses, coats, sweaters, pajamas, undergarments, and more.
Manufacturers also use bamboo lyocell in furniture, upholstery, drapes, bed sheets, curtains, carpets, bathrobes, towels, and home decor, like other soft and luxurious fabrics.
Semi-synthetic cellulosic fibers like modal, acetate, viscose, cupro, or lyocell are slowly replacing petroleum-based synthetic fibers such as nylon, acrylic, and polyester.
The market for bamboo lyocell fabrics will slightly rise in the coming years, as new apparel and home furnishing applications develop, especially in China.
Although it's possible to use bamboo lyocell alone, textile manufacturers often blend bamboo with other types of fibers such as nylon, cotton, wool, silk, and more to lower raw material costs.
Many fashion brands around the world choose lyocell fabrics to create affordable clothes. It makes cheap garments if used as the primary fiber content or a substantial part of the fiber composition.
Every year, 6.7 million tons of semi-synthetic cellulosic fibers are produced globally, according to Lenzing. They account for 6.2% of all fiber production worldwide.
Viscose rayon is the most widely used semi-synthetic fabric. It has around 79% market share with 5.3 million tons produced in 2018, as reported by the Textile Exchange.
Lyocell is the third most used cellulosic fiber after viscose and acetate. It had a 4% market share in 2018 but will grow faster than any other fabric with a 15% compound annual growth rate (CAGR).
Bamboo lyocell production
The bamboo plant is considered natural and eco-friendly. It has fabulous properties as a very sustainable, fast-growing crop that requires almost no fertilizer, pesticides, labor, or additional water.
Cellulose from bamboo pulp is converted into a soluble compound using chemicals. A spinneret then forms bamboo lyocell filaments of regenerated cellulose out of the solution.
Many chemicals and water are needed to condition bamboo pulp, treat and dissolve cellulose fibers, and wash the regenerated fibers.
The main ingredients used in bamboo lyocell fabrication are N-Methylmorpholine N-oxide (NMMO) and water. NMMO, also commonly called amine oxide, is considered non-toxic.
Spinning is a manufacturing process used to create polymer fibers like lyocell fibers. It's a specific form of extrusion that employs a spinneret to produce multiple continuous filaments. The various spinning types are wet, dry, dry jet-wet, melt, gel, and electrospinning.
Wet spinning is the oldest type of spinning. Lyocell fiber production usually uses wet spinning, like many other synthetic fibers, such as nylon and acrylic.
During the wet spinning extrusion process, the polymer is dissolved and extruded through several thousand holes into a large spin bath, washing rolls, and drying rolls. After being purified and extended to make long filaments, bamboo lyocell fibers are ready to be spun into threads.
China is the largest producer of bamboo in the world, followed by India. But there is no guarantee that the majority of bamboo grown there is eco-friendly. Intensive bamboo cultivation can be detrimental to the environment without appropriate regulations.
Bamboo lyocell fabric properties
Bamboo lyocell is a unique material with unique properties. Lyocell fabrics look and feel like luxurious silk as they are comfortable, soft, and lightweight.
Bamboo lyocell fibers are very pleasant to the touch. They are water absorbent and dry quickly, and are resistant to moths and mildew.
Bamboo lyocell fabrics drape and hang well. They have good resistance to wrinkling and pilling, multiple sheens, and color options.
Lyocell is a comfortable material for everyday clothing as well as sportswear since it's breathable and durable.
However, bamboo lyocell fabrics don't resist high temperatures. They have low thermal stability and will lose longevity when exposed directly to UV and sunlight.
How to care for bamboo lyocell
Taking good care of your clothes is one of the best ways to live more sustainably and ensure that they last longer. Give special attention to bamboo lyocell fabrics, as they are delicate.
Extend your clothes lifespan and the time you can wear them by taking good care of them and avoiding common mistakes. You will limit pressure on natural resources, reduce waste, pollution, and carbon emissions.
Before washing bamboo lyocell fabrics, read the care instructions on the care tag. This way, you can determine if the bamboo lyocell fabric is washable.
The washing instructions may vary depending on the blend. Pure bamboo lyocell fabrics generally need to be hand washed. Cleanse and rinse the fibers in cold water.
Semi-synthetic fabrics made with blends of bamboo lyocell with other fibers are usually easier to wash. You can place them in the washing machine on the cold wash setting.
To save water and preserve your clothes quality, wash pieces made of bamboo lyocell in cold temperatures. It also saves energy and prevents fabrics from melting.
You can place bamboo lyocell fabrics in the washing machine but with a temperature lower than 40 degrees Celcius (104 degrees Fahrenheit).
Don't use any chlorine-based or strong detergent, and use a gentle cycle to avoid high spin speeds. Make sure the washing speed doesn't exceed 600 revolutions per minute. Otherwise, bamboo lyocell fabrics may become very creased.
To avoid dye bleeding, make sure to soak the fabric for the least amount of time.
The more sustainable way of drying your clothes is to hang them to dry.
Do not dry bamboo lyocell fabrics in a tumble drier. They have low thermal resistance and will melt under high temperatures.
Place them on a line in fresh air rather than using a dryer. It preserves their quality and saves an enormous amount of energy, carbon emissions, and money.
You can also lay the fabric down on a towel for a while, then flip it over. Or you can hang it up on a hanger to help it dry naturally.
Iron your clothes only when it's necessary. If you decide to iron bamboo lyocell fabrics or blends, select the lowest temperature possible to prevent damage.
Iron the fabric through a damp cloth if possible. Bamboo lyocell fibers can melt. And too much ironing will eventually damage the fabric.
Bamboo lyocell doesn't resist chemicals very well. Keep chemical-based glues, perfume, nail polish remover, and alcohol-based solvents far away from clothes made of bamboo lyocell.
Don't use acetone or organic solvents to remove stains either. They will dissolve fibers and cause irreversible damage to the garment.
Environmental impact of bamboo lyocell
Bamboo viscose production is generally toxic. It demands the usage of chemicals such as carbon disulfide, sulfuric acid, ammonia, acetone, or caustic soda. These highly hazardous substances harm the environment and put workers' health at risk.
On the other hand, bamboo lyocell is much more eco-friendly. But there are many different manufacturers of lyocell. While some of them are taking action to protect the planet, people, and animals, others aren't as respectful toward the environment.
Sustainable forest management is a primary concern with bamboo production. The global textile and apparel industry is responsible for deforestation, destruction of ecosystems, and greenhouse gas emissions.
Bamboo can be a very hazardous fabric. Its production can emit poisonous gas and release chemicals that pollute drinking water, the soil, and the air, destroying ecosystems, plants, and animals.
A lot of textile manufacturers use dangerously toxic chemicals and methods to produce bamboo fabrics. Large amounts of water get contaminated during fiber manufacturing.
Thankfully, sustainable production facilities can almost fully recover and reuse water and chemicals with closed-loop processes. When more than 99% of the solvent is recycled, lyocell production is considered eco-friendly.
And key players in the fashion industry are developing new eco-friendly manufacturing processes, using non-toxic solvents, recycling compounds, and biodegradability.
No toxic and harmful chemical waste should ever go into the nearby environment. Instead, water and chemicals need to serve in the next manufacturing loops.
As a consumer, you have the power to drive change in the textile and apparel industry. Buy products made in sustainable production facilities with strict effluent treatment protocols.
Pay close attention to the origin of the lyocell you are buying and relevant certifications. Look at the labels and thoroughly research websites for more information.
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About the Author: Alex Assoune
Alex Assoune (MS) is a global health and environmental advocate. He founded Panaprium to inspire others with conscious living, ethical, and sustainable fashion. Alex has worked in many countries to address social and environmental issues. He speaks three languages and holds two Master of Science degrees in Engineering from SIGMA and IFPEN schools.