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Last month when I wrote about natural fibers, I was pleased that several of you asked about bamboo. But before I answer your questions, I want to tell you about manufactured fibers and how they are made.

Originally, manufactured fibers were created to mimic more expensive natural fibers like wool and silk. Today, manufactured fibers are engineered specifically to have certain properties that natural fibers don’t. Manufactured fibers come in two primary types: cellulosic, which are plant-based, and petroleum-based.

So, yes, some manufactured fibers do in fact originate from plants. In the manufacturing process the plants are broken down into chemical solutions which are then forced through tiny holes to make filaments, much like a silkworm extrudes a liquid that hardens into filament.

Here are some common cellulosic-based fabrics and their qualities:

Viscose is the generic name for Rayon, which is its brand name. Chemically, Viscose resembles cotton, but it can also take on many different qualities depending on how it is manufactured. It is strong, absorbent, soft, comfortable to wear (especially in hot climates, since it doesn’t retain heat), inexpensive, and it drapes nicely. On the downside, Viscose shrinks when washed, deteriorates with exposure to light, is susceptible to mildew, and the fibers weaken when wet. Use a cool iron when pressing Viscose, since it can melt.

Acetate has excellent drape, feels and looks similar to silk, is comfortable to wear in all seasons, doesn’t shrink much, and resists moths and mildew. Acetate should be dry cleaned or carefully laundered because the fibers aren’t very strong, especially when wet. Acetate dyes beautifully, but the colors tend to fade with wear and cleaning. Use a cool iron when pressing acetate, since it can also melt. When blended with other fibers, acetate can give a fabric wrinkle resistance and nice drape.

Lyocell, more commonly known by its brand name Tencel, is soft and absorbent, strong, takes dyes nicely, drapes well, and is resistant to wrinkles and shrinkage. The process for manufacturing Lyocell requires very little water and produces little air pollution, which makes it more environmentally friendly than other cellulosics. It can also be given a variety of textures during the manufacturing process to make it resemble suede, leather, and even silk.

And you may have guessed by now that bamboo is also a manufactured fiber. There has been quite a bit of controversy over this fiber recently because it was initially touted as an environmentally friendly natural fiber with bacteria-resistance, moisture wicking capabilities, biodegradeability, and sustainable qualities. Unfortunately, however, many of these beneficial qualities are actually lost during the chemical manufacturing process. If you would like to learn more about bamboo fibers and the controversy surrounding them, you can review this FTC Consumer Alert and this article from Super Eco.

Next month I’ll introduce you to the petroleum-based manufactured fibers and their qualities.

—Liesl Gibson

Liesl Gibson designs the popular Oliver + S line of sewing patterns for children’s clothing. Read more of her writing on the Oliver + S blog.


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    Apr 29, 2012, 05.51 AMby walsher

    I wonder if these plant base material is strong enough to withstand a regular washing machine fiber to the home construction firms

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    Apr 28, 2012, 11.25 PMby walsher

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    Apr 21, 2012, 05.52 AMby Trevindo

    I really love the idea of using bamboo cellulose fiber for clothing material because they can be very inexpensive but yet very strong as well Travel Insurance Singapore

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    Apr 19, 2012, 11.18 PMby walsher

    I think that bamboo will be an ideal cellulosic plant base for clothing because it grows very fast and it doesn’t create any type of pollution pressure washing woodstock ga

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    its ridiculous how fast bamboo grows and you really have to trim them very often so they don’t grow so wild proxy server

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    Mar 14, 2012, 04.53 AMby Trevinol

    I use to have bamboo on my porch but they just grew so fast that I have to keep up trimming them. So had to get rid of them since they take so much of my time. Trevinol

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    Aug 2, 2010, 05.28 PMby olymmpia

    Love this post !

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    Apr 11, 2010, 07.19 PMby gaidig

    Thanks for the alert on bamboo fibers. I had been under the impression that bamboo was processed like linen (or milkweed or kudzu), and I am glad to know what is really going on.

    1 Reply
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      Apr 22, 2010, 07.30 PMby oliverands

      In some cases, bamboo is indeed processes like linen. Unfortunately, it’s an expensive process and has been largely overtaken by this manufactured method. But from what I understand, you can locate natural bamboo from a few sources. Sadly, I can’t offer any suggestions in this area but I have been told it is available.

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    Apr 4, 2010, 12.41 AMby beastofcotton

    Interesting article; thank you!

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    Mar 31, 2010, 09.49 PMby pkalmonte

    This is a fabulous, very informative series. I especially appreciated the link to the FTC paper on bamboo fabrics. Thanks!

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    Mar 31, 2010, 05.51 PMby bijouxbetty

    I read an article in the Times a few weeks ago about using milk proteins to create fabric. Livia Firth – Colin Firth’s wife, wore a dress to some american awards ceremony made from it. Very insteresting!

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      Mar 31, 2010, 09.22 PMby oliverands

      I’d love to read this if you find it again. Will do some searching. Thanks for letting us know!

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    Mar 31, 2010, 03.15 PMby Lisette O

    Yay! What a great article. But you left out modal.

    1 Reply
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      Mar 31, 2010, 09.21 PMby oliverands

      I know. Space constraints. But I also don’t see it used very often. Do you?

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    Mar 31, 2010, 12.15 PMby nikkishell

    Great post! We sell many of these types of fabrics at work.

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    Mar 31, 2010, 04.10 AMby minkeymonkey

    Thank you! Your posts are pleasantly unbiased. I’d read a few articles on the bamboo controversy a couple years ago and wound up confused. This makes it quite clear.

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    Mar 31, 2010, 02.55 AMby gedwoods

    We also provide information on fabric manufacturing techniques and eco-friendly fabrics at the fabrics international wiki site, developed by and for BurdaStyle members.

    1 Reply
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      Mar 31, 2010, 02.03 PMby oliverands

      Gedwoods, I think your site is a terrific resource. Thanks for making it available to everyone!

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    Mar 30, 2010, 09.31 PMby ellen-lumpkin-brown

    Really interesting post! So much great information!

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    Mar 30, 2010, 08.35 PMby threadsquare

    Great post! I like some qualities of the new cellulose-based fabrics, though I realize that they often get the “green” card with consideration of the truth in manufacturing. Do you have any links to controversy around the other fabrics listed? Or more about the pros/cons of the processes and what plants are sourced (other than bamboo)?

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    Mar 30, 2010, 05.49 PMby sewenggirl88

    i love this series! i never knew manufactured fabrics could be so different from cotton or silk

    • This is a question
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