By  on April 10, 2007

During the Thirties, Forties and Fifties, nylon's durability, polyester's UV protection and spandex's stretch were developed. Activewear textiles have been characterized by their performance capabilities — and extremely negative impact on the environment — ever since. Now there's buzz about a new crop of textiles with exceptional properties. Along with a promise to work hand in hand with Mother Nature, mills are developing some of the most comfortable, sanitary performance materials ever. But some feel that the combination of these materials with green processes may not be a match made in heaven.

Hemp (Ventilation)

Not the cannabis you bake into brownies, this industrial-grade fiber has lower psychoactive chemical levels. "There's a major difference between marijuana and hemp," says Barbara Filippone of EnviroTextiles. "It's like jalapeño peppers and bell peppers; one's hot, the other's not." Hemp fabrics are known for their moisture absorption, anti-bacterial properties and ventilation.

EnviroPro: This plant, grown internationally as a companion crop to ward off pests and suppress weeds, lessens dependency on pesticides.

EnviroCon: Fiber-processing plants produce significant quantities of respirable dust contaminated with endotoxins harmful to workers.

Photo: hemp summer cloth at EnviroTextiles.

Soy (Moisture Control)

Manufacturers process the residue of soybeans from tofu production to spin these cashmere-like fibers. There was a time when only vegans, vegetarians and edamame addicts claimed allegiance to the plant, but as Howard Silver, president of Jasco Eco, remarks, "The fashion industry is taking green from hippie to hip." Soy clothing has excellent moisture absorption and transmission, making it more sanitary than cotton, but the fiber is versatile enough to make everything from cashmere-like sweaters to faux fur.

EnviroPro: This process makes use of what's otherwise waste material.

EnviroCon: The majority of genetically modified crops are soy, and the debate on their environmental impact has yet to be resolved.

Photo: Soysilk at Southwest Trading Co.

Bamboo (Anti-Bacterial)

This cellulose fiber comes from refined bamboo pulp made of the plant's stems and leaves. "A fabrication isn't marketable just because it's 'green' or 'sustainable,'" says Steve Usdan, president of Natural Earth-Safe Textiles. "Function leads form, and form leads green." True to this mantra, bamboo fabrics, which are soft and inhibit the growth of bacteria, are perfect for yoga, aerobics and running activewear.EnviroPro: Bamboo is one of the fastest-growing plants on earth, which makes it an abundant, renewable resource.

EnviroCon: Without responsible handling, it can spread wildly and choke out other crops.

Photo: bamboo jersey at Jasco Eco, white; bamboo twill at Natural Earth-Safe Textiles, yellow.

PLA (UV Protection)

Polylactide is a synthetic polymer produced from the fermentation of plant sugars derived primarily from corn. The trademarked Ingeo PLA fiber was developed by NatureWorks in Minnetonka, Minn. "Products produced from Ingeo in 2007 will save the United States over one million barrels of oil," maintains Dennis Lenz, president of Mill Direct Apparel. PLA textiles are lightweight, hypoallergenic and provide more UV protection than polyester.

EnviroPro: PLA production uses about half the energy required to manufacture other synthetic polymers; products are completely biodegradable.

EnviroCon: Growing one acre of corn uses enough water to run a household dishwasher over 30,000 times. Increasing production could dramatically affect area water tables.

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