The Material Life: Eco-Friendly Fabrics

Beautiful organic fabrics and sustainably produced cloth are becoming more accessible.


Anna Sova’s decadent silk satin jacquard bedding, with paisley deisgn patterns, is tinted with high-quality, eco-safe, azo-free dyes and finished without formaldehyde.

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“Life is based on patterns, spun out in potentially never-ending repetitions, until the structure is in accord with its destiny.”
—Mary Schoeser, textile historian

Modern textile design bears the mark of ancient civilizations—Chinese, Mesopotamian, Greek—and its infinite variety of colors, patterns, and textures spans the globe. No matter what kind of home you live in, you can draw upon the great traditions of textile weaving and printing to create your own personal style.

Before you bring any fabric and upholstery into your home, however, be aware that almost every aspect of modern textile manufacture has been criticized for its health and environmental impacts. Happily, many reforms in the United States and Europe are now addressing these concerns and eco-friendly fabric is becoming more popular.

The textile industry creates a host of pollution problems. Factories discharge dyes and chemicals into waterways, and they release heat, fly ash, formaldehyde, and sulfurous and nitrous compounds into the air, thereby contributing to acid rain. Textile packaging, drums, and toxic chemicals are dumped into landfills. Even the used fabrics themselves are a problem: Many can’t be recycled because of their mixed-fiber content.

There are health hazards too. Textile workers may suffer hearing loss from factory noise and develop byssinosis, or “brown lung,” caused by airborne cotton dust. Worker exposure to carcinogenic chemicals, especially formaldehyde, is a serious problem. For consumers, there are toxicity issues surrounding fabrics treated with formaldehyde (such as permanent press), flame retardants, and stain repellents. Contact dermatitis and allergic reactions to some fibers, dyes, or finishes are common complaints.

Dying fabrics is a highly complicated and often dangerous business. Preparing cloth for dying may involve scouring and bleaching with strong agents; acids or oxide chemicals are often used to “fix” the colors. Synthetic dyes, notably aniline dyes made from coal-tar derivatives, became widely used in the nineteenth century. Today, gentler dyes and dying processes are coming into use, and some of the most noxious ingredients, such as arsenic, disappeared long ago.

The vast quantity of pesticides used to grow cotton has also been an issue, and that’s being addressed through organic growing methods. In a nice historic twist, Turkey—where one of the most ancient pieces of extant cloth was recovered—has become one of the world’s leading producers of organic cotton. In another welcome development, cotton bolls in naturally occurring colors are once again being grown. They fell out of use when manufacturers began demanding white cotton that was more easily dyed.

Steps toward sustainability

The Association for Contract Textiles has developed a lifecycle evaluation tool that determines textile products’ environmental impact. Questions include: How were the raw materials obtained? Were natural and renewable resources used? What toxic emissions were involved? How much energy and water were used? Are the finished products biodegradable? In a similar effort, the Institute for Market Transformation to Sustainability has approved a voluntary sustainable textile standard, with a precise rating system (sustainable, silver, gold, and platinum).

Many designers are taking their own steps to develop and market sustainable fabrics. Harmony Susalla left a career in conventional fabric design to bring her work in line with her principles through her company Harmo ny Art Organic Design. Her “Season One” collection of 100 percent organic cotton prints, produced by the Fox-Rich mill of Ridgefield, Connecticut, is made with the gentlest possible dyes and no synthetic finishes. These bright, beautiful cotton sateens for upholstery and drapery are newly available.

Internationally renowned fabric designer Mark Pollack—who worked with the great innovator of modern fabric design, Jack Lenor Larsen, before starting his own New York–based firm—teamed with three different textile companies to produce his environmentally friendly collection. Pollack’s “Relay” and “Grove” designs are made in the United States of 100 percent post industrial-recycled polyester, with no added chemicals. In addition, Interface Fabric’s Terratex brand is making Pollack’s “Bull’s Eye” from 100 percent recycled or compostable materials and “Triad Stripe,” a wool and rayon blend produced in Switzerland by a process called Climatex, in accordance with a series of rigorous environmental protocols. Pollack is promoting these fabrics for wide use in residential and commercial interior design.

The three R’s for fabrics

Back in the old days, a “rag and bone man” trawled through neighborhoods gathering items for reuse and recycling in his wagon. Today, the earth is choking on textiles made of non-recyclable mixed fibers and mass-produced fabric furnishings designed to last no longer than this year’s fashion colors. You can arrest the process—even turn it around—by buying organic and sustainable textiles. You can also reduce, reuse, and recycle within your home. A few tips:

• Buy less and buy to last. Develop your taste and buy fabrics accordingly. Resist the trend toward recasting home furnishings as a matter of disposable fashion.

• Buy old things and give them new life. Antique textiles and linens are incomparably beautiful. Our grandmothers put love into their embroidery, tatting, and crochet work on fine linen and cotton pillowcases, towels, sheets, tablecloths, and napkins. Use large cutwork or drawnwork tablecloths to make window treatments. Look for vintage textiles for upholstery, draperies, and accent pillows at antique shows and on the web.

• Collect or make quilts. Quilts are a world in themselves; they’re history written with needle, thread, and scraps of fabric. They’re also certainly the loveliest example of recycling in our culture. Use quilts on your beds or as throws; hang them as art. If you find an old, tattered quilt at a flea market, cut it up for toss pillows or mats.

Martha Ruschman contributed to this article.

Chemically Sensitive?

• Replace synthetic, chemical-laden fabrics and furnishings with organic, nontoxic, and sustainably produced items.

• Choose plant-fiber fabrics whenever possible.

• Avoid commercial soil-guard treatments.

• If you’re highly sensitive, the Furnature company will remove fabric finishes and dye odors from almost any fabric using its SafeWash system.

Nano, nano

Upholstery that repels stains and repairs its own tears may sound futuristic, but within the next decade these and scores of similar labor-saving enhancements promise to revolutionize home furnishings. Nanotechnology, the hot science creating all these scenarios, utilizes the nanometer, a unit of measurement so small you need 80,000 to equal the thickness of a human hair. Nanotechnology, which manipulates matter on the molecular level, is being used in the electronic, biomedical, pharmaceutical, cosmetic, and energy fields—for everything from glare-reducing eyeglasses to long-lasting tennis balls to sunscreens—and future applications are endless.

Because natural textile fibers—cotton in particular—lend themselves most readily to molecular rearrangement, some of nanotechnology’s earliest practical applications include wrinkle- and dirt- resistant fabrics. Every time you spill coffee on your new Gap “Stress-Free” pants or soil your “Stain-Defender” comforter and quickly wipe off the mess without a trace, you’re benefiting from nanotechnology in action.

How does this “wonder” technology work? Fabric protection is a chemical enhancement that’s attached at the molecular level and that fundamentally transforms the fibers. The same polymers (plastics) that were once applied to fabric surfaces are added as nano-components to water-based liquid, explains David Offord, chief scientific officer at Nano-Tex in Emeryville, California, the country’s leading developer and marketer of nanotechnology for textiles. Fabrics are immersed in these polymer-saturated baths, then heated to seal the new bond between cloth and polymer.

The difference between the old and new methods of stain-proofing material is that the nano-polymer repellent is no longer a fabric coating; it’s now permanently bound into the fabric. As a result, the repellent no longer wears off, and much less of it is used because nanotechnology attaches wrinkle or stain resistance to the fiber’s molecular structure with greater efficiency.

“Think of a lotus plant,” says Offord. “When it rains, the whiskers or hairs on the plant’s leaves elevate to deflect water from leaves’ surface. That sort of protective shield is what we add to the core of fibers.” These molecular attachments have no adverse effect on the fabric’s tactile quality or breathability.

In a mind-boggling twist, no one has actually witnessed nanotechnology; it’s beyond the visibility of even the most powerful electron microscope. What Offord and other nano-scientists see is “indirect evidence”—upholstery covers that repel water, pants and shirts that withstand a day of hiking without a wrinkle.

Is it natural?

How eco-friendly is nanotechnology? Proponents argue that the science holds promise for reducing pollution and improving energy generation. Stain-repellent polymers (such as spray-on ScotchGuard, a likely carcinogen) have been befouling the air for fifty years. The nanotech difference is all about embedding as opposed to applying surface layers of synthetics.

On the other hand, groups such as Environmental Defense argue that we don’t really know whether new nano-materials will harm eco systems, wildlife, or humans. The group advocates increasing federal funding for research into nano technology’s potential risks and enhancing safety regulations to ensure that nanotechnology products are properly evaluated before being marketed.

In the meantime, the future rapidly approaches. Within five years or so, fabrics will be nano-engineered to kill germs and emit pleasant scents. They’ll also be manipulated to adjust to weather changes. Within a decade, Offord explains, upholstery material will be reverse-engineered so that when torn, the ends will attract one another, more or less like magnets, and reattach.

What will happen to soap and water, the hot iron, and the needle and thread in this high-tech fabric future? For now, keep them on hand, especially if you’re thinking in terms of a budget. Nanotechnology currently adds fifty cents to a dollar to the cost of manufacturing a garment, and Nano-Tex executives estimate it will add 15 to 20 percent to the cost of future engineered home-furnishing textiles.

—Stephen Yafa