Hemp has long been used as a fiber for paper, rope, and cloth. In fact, until the 1920’s, 80% of clothing was made from hemp textiles. But now there may be something even better, something that rivals steel in its strength. As you no doubt guessed, it is bamboo. It’s the very same plant that is used for eating, as building materials, for strengthening roads and bridges, and a large assortment of other practices.
What is Rayon?
First, we must understand what Rayon is, in order to understand how bamboo is considered to be a textile. Rayon, first invented in the late 1800’s, is a material made from the purified cellulose of a natural fiber, primarily wood. However, rayon can be made from the pulp of a variety of fibers, including bamboo. The pulp compound is chemically converted into a soluble compound and then dissolved. The compound is forced through a spinneret to produce filaments which are chemically solidified, resulting in the synthetic fibers call rayon.
But is it Really Natural?
Like hemp, bamboo uses the fibers to create the textile material. However, for bamboo the fiber must be broken down further and turned into rayon, which is considered to be a synthetic fiber. This is where hemp and bamboo currently break away from one another. While hemp can be used in its fibrous state, bamboo must be broken down. The spun cellulose is considered to be a semi-synthetic fiber.
And this is where advocates of bamboo and hemp get into an argument. It is true, in my opinion, that the rayon could no longer be considered a natural fiber. However, bamboo itself is less demanding on the environment and grows faster than hemp (or any other plant). Bamboo is also able to grow in environments that hemp would not. In this sense, bamboo has a lot of advantages.
Some of the advantages of bamboo as a textile are that the material dries very quickly, and is comparable to polyester. Also, it is very light weight, which is good for anyone carrying a heavy load or doing some form of intense exercise.
The other factor is that hemp, like cotton, may not use organic means to grow the plant, even though the bamboo may be organic up to this point. Additionally, in a study completed by Korean researchers, rayon was found to be more biodegradable than cotton.
There is always a Downside
The disadvantage of using bamboo, currently, as a textile fiber is that the processes to make rayon are typically harmful. The chemicals can be quite hazardous to people. Even though scientists are actively trying to find better ways to break down the fibers in a more environmentally friendly way, it is still a problem.
As with many things, the story will continue, as scientists find better ways of doing things. Perhaps someday bamboo will no longer need any harsh chemicals to make it useful for clothing.