WARNING: This photo of regenerated cellulose can alter your mind.
A funny thing happened on my way to make the “greenest” tee on the planet. It is said that artists are like scientists, and in my case, it is fairly true. I am a process artist and love to learn how things are made, I like to start a project without a plan, study along the way and allow it to unfold “naturally.” I have an interest in methods and materials. I don’t ever claim to be an expert, as I run through the assorted worlds of chemistry, agriculture, and manufacturing.
When studying bamboo, and simultaneously worshipping it, finding facts was arduous. I desperately wanted to understand this “new” clothing fiber. Perhaps I put too much expectation on bamboo. I wanted bamboo to solve the world’s environmental problems. I wanted it to be the new genius invention that shows how smart we humans can be. And, because it a legal “cousin” to hemp, and grows in many regions, I viewed it as a new solution (for the USA at least.) I was committed to helping usher in bamboo fabric.
One day, I received a microscopic photo of bamboo fabric from a lab test that I initiated. Bamboo fabric is a regenerated cellulose, from the same process used to create rayon or viscose. The plant is broken down into a paste in order to push it through a spinneret to make thread. What I learned that day is that once a natural cellulose fiber is put through the regeneration process the very origin of the cellulose source is lost. To the chemist’s eye it is cellulose, which is abundant on the earth and found in trees, plants like hemp, cotton, jute and some grasses like bamboo. Where the regenerated cellulose came from cannot be known. Under the microscope, all regenerated cellulose has the same chemical and physical characteristics. At this point, it would only be logical to determine that any natural characteristics associated with a particular cellulose resource would also be lost. What I learned that day is that regenerated cellulose fabric can easily be made from bamboo, birch, beech, oak or pine! What?!
I ran into my husband’s wood shop and waved to him to stop cutting wood. I pointed to the bags of sawdust that tend to stack up at the door. “Honey, cellulose is cellulose! My tees could easily be made from your waste!” The thread in my tees could have easily been made from his sawdust. (What a great green idea for our future!)
Suddenly, in my eyes, my beloved bamboo fabric went from extraordinary to ordinary. Too sad for words. I had some personal decisions to make concerning my tee shirt company and my aim to be as green as possible. Yes, bamboo remains a great renewable cellulose resource and I still support it for some uses. The green question for me is, if I am to use regenerated cellulose, why use cellulose grown on the other side of the planet? I have cellulose sources all around me. Could I manage to take my decision to switch fabric publicly without confusion? I knew in my heart that with this new information the answer was not only apparent, but my integrity was tied to it. Needless to say, I immediately looked back into a local cellulose source, USA organic cotton (a soft fiber that doesn’t need to be regenerated.) I am happy to report that there is progress being made in styles, colors and the whole production from field to tee. I am now settling into a new place with my pursuit of a green tee.
This experience really gave me a jolt. I had been trying to get my art, my thoughts, on my tees and finally I was so moved that the “artist block” disappeared and words poured out. I have much to say and now can see my USA organic cotton tee as a blank canvas in need of some expression. I am just starting to make some strong points!