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Fiber - It's Not Just For Breakfast

Posted by Kim Brooks on 1st May 2014

Chew on this: Alpaca and Bamboo

With the onslaught of green thinking and a desire to offer the market green textiles natural fibers have become the buzzword of the 21st century. But what are the fibers you are wearing? Or better perhaps, what are the fibers you are selling?

In an attempt to understand the growing market for alpaca fiber blends, we set out to do some research into what constitutes a natural fiber, what the benefits are, what the processes to manufacture it are and what the overall implications are. We were so surprised by our findings and think you will be too!

So you know alpaca, right?

Alpaca is a protein fiber. You know that it is similar to hair, that it does not absorb moisture, rather it evaporates it and that it has a soft supple hand.

Alpaca doesn’t contain natural lubricants such as grease or lanolin that need to be stripped from the fiber. This is important because the processing of alpaca, the washing, can be done with environmental low impact soaps that are not costly. Alpaca does not have to be de- haired like cashmere or camel. We know about the colors.

Alpaca has developed more thermal capacity in its fiber than almost any other animal. The fiber contains microscopic air pockets, which create lightweight garments with high insulation values. It has a natural luster, does not easily tear, pill, stain or create static. It is highly durable, incredible strong and it is easily cleaned. It doesn’t wrinkle easily and wrinkles will fall out quickly. Alpaca is flame retardant and is hard to ignite and will eventually ash.

Alpaca can be fabricated into garments without the addition of other fibers, but can also be combined with other fibers.

Our initial question was, “Is there benefit to alpaca, when it is combined with other fibers?” Seems like a simple question, right? Blends consist of two or more fibers and, ideally, are supposed to take on the characteristics of each fiber in the blend, to the degree of their sum part of the total.

Let's look at Bamboo

Bamboo, the ‘New’ natural fiber! It is everywhere right now and more and more retailers are selling this “natural” textile, touted for its green and sustainable nature. Sounds like a perfect blend candidate to blend with alpaca. Is it?

Here is what we found:

Bamboo is a plant, commonly grown in Asia and processed only in China. It is a type of grass with a hard, woody, hollow stem. Bamboo creates a cellulose fiber.

Bamboo is softer than cotton and has twice the absorbency. It has a lovely drape, is very elastic, easily dyed with beautiful color pigmentation and retention. It is hypoallergenic and contains antibacterial elements called bamboo “kun” known to repel bacteria. Some people with chemical sensitivities cannot tolerate bamboo clothing. It is more wrinkle resistant than cotton but still may require ironing after washing. Shrinking is minimal in warm temperatures.

Bamboo has gained quite a prominence in the last few years, much greater than when it was called “Rayon.”

“Most bamboo fabric has a smooth hand that feels like rayon - because that’s essentially what it is.” - Todd Copeland PatagoniaTM

I was surprised when it came to my attention that in fact bamboo fabric is not organic or chemical-free at all. While bamboo is a sustainable product (this is questionable depending on who you research, but for the sake of this article, it can be grown and regrown.), the process of making it into fibers that can be used for clothing is in no way organic or natural.

Rayon is a regenerated cellulose fiber, which means that a natural raw material (wood, paper, cotton fiber, or in this case bamboo) is converted through a chemical process into a fiber that falls into a category between naturals and synthetics.

The most common form of manufacturing is the Viscose system or ‘solution’ spinning because the fiber is ‘spun’ in a chemical solution. The pulp is dissolved in a strong solvent to make a thick, viscous solution that is forced through a spinneret into a secondary ‘quenching’ solution where strands solidify into fiber. The solvent used for this process is carbon disulfide, a toxic chemical that is a known human reproductive hazard. It can endanger factory workers and pollute the environment via air emissions and wastewater. The recovery of this solvent in most viscose factories is around 50 percent, which means that the other half goes into the environment. Other potentially hazardous chemicals are also used in the viscose process, including sodium hydroxide and sulfuric acid. All fibers once created are slightly yellow in color.

Patagonia, a leader in the natural product movement will not use bamboo fibers in any of its apparel due to the high level of health and environmental issues. There are many other concerns as well, over and above generic standards in the control chemicals; studies done on the residual chemical toxicity, to the destruction of farmland to grow bamboo.

Ok, so let’s blend it with alpaca. In looking at blends in the market, I see 60-80% alpaca super fine or baby alpaca blended with 40-20% bamboo.

As a merchant selling products I cannot market this ethically as organic or green. I can say it is sustainable, from a harvesting perspective. The yarn will be finer, thus creating a fine gage article, and it will have a greater luster, great drape and will have a softer hand. While it is still hypoallergenic, it cannot be worn by everyone, as the chemicals used can cause reactions in chemically sensitive people.

Thermal properties should be similar, while softness and sheen improved. Be aware, dyed articles, and all bamboo must be dyed, may yield quite different colors on protein fibers than they do on cotton or other cellulose fibers, and these different types of fiber can loose colorfastness differently. Natural, dye free alpaca will need to be blended with dyed bamboo to maintain the same ‘natural’ shade.

The wicking of an alpaca bamboo blend will be different as well. Bamboo is great at pulling moisture from the skin, but acts like a sponge, absorbing it. Alpaca is water repellant, moving moisture in between the hairs and allowing body heat to evaporate it. An alpaca bamboo blend will pull moisture away from the skin, however the textile will absorb it. I see this as a possible negative, as cleaning the garment will need to be done more often due to the absorption of body moisture. While bamboo has a natural anti bacterial, it is unclear if the high absorption will gather environmental odors from sources other than bacteria.

Washing instructions are similar between the two fibers, but following the manufacturers guidelines are a must. Your alpaca/bamboo article may wrinkle more than a 100% alpaca sweater. Steam can cause rings in bamboo that do not come out, so be careful using a steam iron to remove any wrinkles.

Bamboo/Rayon is cellulose, and like other plant based textiles burns rapidly and leaves only a slight ash. The burning smell is close to burning leaves. Alpaca has a far greater flame retardancy but the introduction of the cellulose will increase flammability. This is especially important when dealing with children’s clothing, as natural flame retardancy is a selling feature and flame retardancy compliance a must.

Lastly, bamboo fiber is far less expensive than alpaca, so the article will be less in price.

Remember too, while the article may be knit or assembled in the USA, all bamboo, or rather Rayon, is made in China.

So, does bamboo benefit alpaca when blended with it? I would have to say overall, No, because it ‘detracts from’ more than it ‘adds to.’ It does, however, have an interesting marketing platform that enables something new, something different, in the market place. Is it good? Is it bad? That is a determination that must be made by the individual.