The Material Life: Eco-Friendly Fabrics

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

| January/February 2006

“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.

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