Let's start with what you didn't know about rayon. You may know that rayon is a very popular man-made fabric, but did you know that it is also the oldest manufactured fabric? Back in the late 1800s rayon was created as a cost-effective alternative to silk. Although the fabric is artificially produced, the fibers come from natural sources, most often wood pulp. Because of this, it is not considered a synthetic fiber, though semi-synthetic would be appropriate. By the 1920s DuPont was churning out so much of the fabric that it became a household name. In 1935 DuPont took it a step further, inventing the world's first fully synthetic fiber, nylon, and so began the reign of artificial fabrics. So what's that got to do with bamboo fabrics? Well, there are two ways to manufacture cloth from bamboo: retting (mechanical) and regenerating cellulose (chemical). Retting is a traditional technique used to make linen from flax stalks. So, you guessed it, you can tell bamboo fabrics produced via retting by their heftier feel and open weave, much like linen. Retting uses micro-organisms and moisture to separate the fiber from the stem. Fibers are then run through the scutching process where heavy metal rollers remove the remaining woody stalk bits. Finally, fibers are combed out and spun into a yarn. Mechanical processing of bamboo maintains the fiber's natural anti-bacterial and anti-microbial qualities. This method is also non-toxic, and the more sustainable approach, though it is also more time-consuming and costly, which makes chemical processing the most common production method for bamboo fabrics. Chemical processing of bamboo is simply that of rayon manufacturing. The difference being that the fiber is sourced from bamboo stalks over other wood sources. Therefore, most bamboo is simply classified as rayon. So why don't all the ads say that? Well you would be less likely to buy it then, wouldn't you? Thanks to the FTC though, companies are now required to be more transparent in their labeling, so when considering buying bamboo please read the label carefully, watching out for works like "rayon" and "viscose". In this method chemical solvents are used to dissolve the bamboo into a pulp. These chemicals include carbon disulfide, known to cause reproductive issues, sodium hydroxide (caustic soda), and sulfuric acid, along with a slew of other toxic pollutants and carcinogens, much of which leak into surrounding waterways and pollute the air. So yes, bamboo stalks are one of the most sustainable natural materials in the world, reaching harvest in just four short years, but bamboo cloth is often a different story.
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