The Difference Between Bamboo and Cotton Fabric

The Difference Between Bamboo and Cotton Fabric

November 05, 2018

There are so many different options when it comes to the fabrics that are used for clothing. One fabric that has withstood the test of time is cotton. However, in recent years, there has been a growth in the use of bamboo fabric.


Unless you are specifically looking for a certain type of fabric, what an item is made from generally doesn’t play a huge part in your decision making process. But should it? How much do you really know about the fabrics used to make the clothing you wear every day? It’s interesting to consider if cotton is still the best choice when it comes to making garments, or perhaps it is just the easiest option for brands to use. Despite the growing use of bamboo, it still can’t compete on a global scale with the widespread use of cotton.


But is bamboo actually a better option?


Step One prides themselves on their use of premium high quality bamboo fabric, so to highlight why they made this choice, let’s compare the two fabrics.


What is Cotton and what is Bamboo?

Cotton is one of the most widely used fabrics - a shrub that is native to tropical and subtropical areas of the world. The plant grows in a boll, which is a protective case that contains the soft, fluffy fibre. This fibre is spun into yarn or thread in order to create fabric.


Bamboo on the other hand, is the largest member of the grass family, and is able to survive in almost any climate. The fibres of the bamboo plant can be used to create fabric, which is known for being incredibly soft.



History

Cotton is a fabric that many of us take for granted as it is so prevalent in our lives. But what you may not know is that civilizations have been using the plant for over 7,000 years. The plant that makes up the majority of the fabric we use today has a far older history than you may think; with several different ancient civilizations beginning to use cotton plants in order to make fabrics. There is evidence of this all over the world, meaning these ancient discoveries would have been independent of each other and each community would have each found the benefits of the plant individually. Archeologists have found proof of cotton usage all over the world, ranging from cotton bolls in Tehuacan Valley in Mexico dated to around 3600BC to Peru in the form of seeds and cordage dating to approximately 4500BC. However, it wasn’t until the 8th Century that cotton was brought over to Europe. Despite the continents late start compared to other communities, cotton quickly became the fabric of choice in the Middle Ages.


Interestingly, the fabric was hand woven on a loom until the 1350’s when the spinning wheel was introduced; the invention of the spinning wheel greatly improved the speed of cotton spinning making it even more accessible. As western society evolved, so did cotton and the European middle class became more concerned with cleanliness, meaning they needed a fabric that could easily be washed. Furthermore, people started to care more about fashion and making a statement, so the fact that cotton could easily be coloured made the fabric globally desired.


In the 1960’s the fabric was introduced to Britain, which quickly resulted in new inventions such as the spinning jenny, the water frame and the spinning mule. Cotton was the spark that ignited the UK’s industrial revolution and British cotton products made up 40% of European exports in 1784-1786.


By 1793 the American cotton industry is booming with the 1830’s seeing the United States overtaking Europe and becoming the major producer of the fabric worldwide. The cotton industry is wound throughout history, with many different countries putting their mark on the fabric. It’s safe to say that we would not be as developed, or efficient at making the fabric if it weren’t for the innovations of our ancestors.


Alongside cotton, we have many other fabric options to choose from, one of which is bamboo. This is considered as being a more modern discovery that that of cotton. Despite many attempts throughout history to turn bamboo into fabric, it is only in recent years that this has been successful.


An early attempt to make cloth out of bamboo was in 1881 when bamboo fiber was mixed with wool; although this did work, it was not put into mass production, probably due to the cost of the process. It was this idea, though, that is the predecessor to modern bamboo fabric and production. However, the continued failure for the fabric to be commercially used didn’t mean people stopped trying to find an effective method for making cloth out of it.  


In the early 2000’s the first modern example of creating bamboo fabric was noted at Beijing University. Interestingly, this process made it possible for bamboo fabrics to be made, and successfully marketed in America. Throughout the 2000’s however, it was a race to see who could turn bamboo into a functional cloth first, and a new processing technology was quickly patented in 2003 by a group of Chinese chemists. It is often suggested that one of the reasons it took so long to find an efficient way to develop bamboo fabric was due to the push for more environmentally friendly options. It is partly due to the fact that bamboo cloth is relatively environmentally friendly, especially compared to the process involved in making many other fabrics, that it has become so popular in recent years.


Between 2004 and 2010 the market expanded rapidly, with some days increasing by up to 5,000%. It’s important to remember that the initial process of harvesting bamboo and creating usable fibers in the 1800’s has not changed a huge amount. The process of turning bamboo into fabric has been refined, however, and it is a fabric that is starting to become more widely used. Today, bamboo fabric is known for it’s incredibly soft and luxurious texture.



Growth

Although cotton was originally found in countries such as Mexico and Peru, the plant has since been brought over and widely grown elsewhere. Today, the three highest producers of cotton are China, India and America.


China is considered as being the biggest cotton producing company, producing 6,532 thousand metric tones of cotton per year. Roughly 100,000 farmers cultivate cotton within China. The country also boasts 7,500 textile companies which produce $73 billion worth of cloth per year. India is second in the world ranking of cotton production, making 6,423 thousand metric tones per year. India has the perfect climate for cotton growth, meaning the plant can flourish without too much extra support from farmers. Once grown, the plant is processed in massive quantities through machines. America produces about 3,553 thousand metric tones per year, which is considerably less than both China and India. Cotton farms can be found all over the country in states such as Florida, Mississippi, California, Texas and Arizona. Although Australia does not produce anywhere near the amounts made in China, India or America, it is the 8th largest cotton producing company, making 501 thousand metric tones per year. One of the most famous cotton producers in Australia is that of Bonds, who still produce their own cotton for all of their items.


Bamboo is significantly less widely grown and harvested for fabric than cotton. As a result of this, there are far fewer places that grow and cultivate the plant. Whilst there are 1,600 different species of bamboo that span all over Asia, there is one particular type that is perfect for making cloth. This type is known as Moso bamboo, and is actually the most important bamboo plant in China; it covers almost 3 million hectares which is about 2% of the total Chinese forest area. Due to where the plant grows, the primary supplier of bamboo for fabric is China.


Environmental Impact

It’s common knowledge that people are having an enormous impact on the planet. Over the recent years, there has been a shift in priorities to finding more environmentally friendly and sustainable alternatives. As both cotton and bamboo are plant based, it’s easy to think that their production doesn’t have any negative impacts, however is this really the case?


Cotton is the most widespread non-food crop in the world, and its production provides jobs and income for over 250 million people worldwide. This industry also employs 7% of all labor in developing countries. Although it could be argued that cotton production is helping developing countries improve through offering jobs, it does have its issues. Undoubtedly, cotton is the largest provider for fabric, but, unless something changes, this will not be able to continue for much longer. This is due to the simple fact that current cotton production methods are not environmentally sustainable. As hard as it is to believe, continued use of cotton for fabric is destroying the environment. It takes 10,000 liters of water to produce 1 kilo of cotton, which equates to roughly 2,700 liters to make one cotton t-shirt. Furthermore, cotton production causes heavy pollution; pesticides used are often found in nearby water resources. These chemicals in the water mean that locals suffer from health issues due to unclean water. It’s clear that companies that continue to use cotton are not being environmentally conscious. Although it is a cheap and easy fabric to make, it is causing tremendous harm to the planet.


Bamboo, however, is a much more environmentally friendly option and therefore has many more advantages. Bamboo plants are actually the largest member of the grass family, growing up to 35 metres tall. Furthermore, the plant is able to grow in many different climates, from cold mountain regions to hot tropical areas. This in itself makes the plant a sustainable option. In order to make any fabric, the plant needs to be cut down so it is important to consider how quickly the plant can grow back so as not to harm the natural environment.


As bamboo is a grass, it grows incredibly fast, with a new shoot reaching its full height in only eight to ten weeks. Another benefit is that once it has been cut, it will regenerate in the same way your lawn in your garden does. This means there is no need to replant. In fact, regular trimming is good for the health of the plant and makes the regrowth time quicker. Essentially, deforestation isn’t a concern when it comes to bamboo, meaning the local habitat does not suffer from the use of bamboo in clothing. As bamboo is able to survive in harsh climates, it is considered as relatively water efficient, meaning the plant requires far less water to grow than cotton. Although many people consider bamboo as a more expensive option in terms of making fabric, it is far more sustainable and healthy for the environment. With the global shift to environmentally friendly options, it is likely that more companies will begin to use bamboo in the future.



Alternative Uses

It is also interesting to consider if the plant offers any other uses aside from clothing. Although the majority of cotton is used in making clothing, it is also possible to make other items from the plant. Cotton can be used to make fishing nets, coffee filters and tents, as well as cotton paper and book binding. Furthermore, the cotton seed can be used to produce cottonseed oil which can be used as an alternative to vegetable oil. Despite these other uses, cotton is not widely used for products that are not fabric based.


Bamboo greatly differs from cotton in this regard, as it has a range of other uses outside of the textile industry. One common use for bamboo is scaffolding and is the preferred choice over metal in Hong Kong. As the plant is strong and durable, it can also be used to make houses, which is much more environmentally friendly than using timber. 70 hectares of bamboo can produce enough material to build 1000 bamboo houses; in fact, over one billion people live in bamboo houses today. Another construction use of bamboo is in roads and is used all over India and China. Bamboo roads are able to support trucks that weigh up to 16 tones. Bamboo is also used to make furniture, toys and utensils. The plant is also a source of food for both people and animals, as well as having medicinal properties. It’s quite obvious that the bamboo plant can be used for many more purposes than a cotton plant, making it a more valuable world resource.


What Fabric is Used by Major Brands

Although there are clear benefits of using bamboo fabric, many brands still opt for cotton. Basically, almost any well known underwear brand you can think of makes their products with some form of cotton blend.


Bonds, for example, have their own cotton farms and factories, and continue to produce and use their own fabrics. Tradie and Jockey also continue to use cotton. It’s hard to believe that even premium brands such as Calvin Klein, Hugo Boss and Diesel still use this inferior fabric, despite there being far better options. Sadly, these brands are still happy to make their customers pay a premium for their garments, without providing a premium product. Step One, however, decided that providing a high quality product is important, hence the use of bamboo fabric. All items sold by Step One are made from incredibly soft, luxurious bamboo fabric. Regardless of colour or style, the quality of the fabric will always be the same. After trying a pair of bamboo undies, you’ll find it incredibly hard to go back to the cotton used by many other brands.


Pros & Cons of Cotton

The table below highlights the positives and negatives of using cotton for making fabric. As you can see, it is clear that the negatives outweigh the positives. When this is the case, it is often best to look for other alternatives instead of continuing to use an ineffective material.




Pros

Cons

Cheap to manufacture

Bad for the environment

Easy to manufacture

Not sustainable

Poor elasticity- undies will sag and lose shape quickly

Not very durable



Pros & Cons of Bamboo

As with cotton, bamboo also has pros and cons when it is used to make fabric. Unlike cotton, however, there are far more positives of using bamboo than negatives. The fact that the fabric is environmentally friendly, and a more comfortable option should mean that it is a far better alternative.



Pros

Cons

Incredibly soft and comfortable

Slightly more expensive to manufacture than cotton

Naturally moisture wicking (absorbs sweat and keeps you naturally dry)

Naturally antibacterial

Hypoallergenic

Eco-friendly

Quick growing plant that benefits from trimming



Although cotton continues to be the fabric of choice for many brands, it’s clear that it is no longer the best option. In the past, there were fewer ways to make fabric, and therefore less choices, but now, despite there being better alternatives, companies are still sticking to the outdated idea of using cotton. The simple fact is, cotton is unsustainable, so brands will eventually be forced to stop using the plant and look for other options. However, why would you keep overpaying for men’s underwear that is made from cotton and will wear out after only a few washes, when you are able to purchase bamboo underwear from Step One? Once you try a pair of bamboo undies, we guarantee you’ll never want to go back to cotton. So instead of wasting money on inferior products, we highly recommend you give the more sustainable and comfortable bamboo fabric a try!



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