Traditionally grown and produced cotton requires chemical fertilizers, pesticides, insecticides, and chemical defoliants. Cotton alone is responsible for 18 percent of all pesticide use and 16 percent of all insecticide use worldwide. In addition, 82 percent of non-organic cotton grown in the U.S. is genetically modified.
Thankfully, organic cotton is produced without these toxins and is not genetically modified. Although less than one percent of cotton grown in 2013 was organic, global organic cotton production has grown 600 percent over the past decade, and as consumer demand increases, production is expected to follow.
Hemp has some of the longest and strongest fibers of any textile, which means it can easily be turned into quality cloth. Unlike cotton, hemp grows quickly and is naturally pest resistant. Even though it doesn’t require heavy use of chemicals, it’s best to purchase fabric with a certified organic label to ensure it’s toxin-free.
It’s sourced mostly in Asia, Canada, and Europe, though, since growing hemp in the U.S. has been banned in most states since the 1950s (it’s the same species as the marijuana plant). This may begin to change, however, with the legalization of marijuana in an increasing number of states.
Manufactured from the stems and roots of flax plants, linen is naturally durable and is easy to produce organically. Like hemp, it’s made from plants that grow rapidly and requires little to no synthetic pesticides and herbicides.
Like hemp, the flax fiber that can be used to make fabric is imported to the U.S., and the transportation emissions used to source the textile should factor into your buying process.
Long loved for its moisture-wicking properties and heat retention, wool is also renewable and versatile. It’s used to make everything from fabric to batting to felt.
Made from sheared sheep fleece, it’s often dipped in pesticides to remove critters like ticks, lice, and mites before being spun into cloth. After it’s spun, conventional wool is sometimes treated with mothproofing insecticides.
Certified organic wool producers, on the other hand, do not use any chemical pesticides or insecticides. Organic producers must follow the same strict standards set for USDA organic dairy, meat, and other animal fiber products, including limitations on the number of sheep they can raise to prevent land degradation from overgrazing.
Made from the rapid growing bamboo plant, this fabric has a reputation of being an extremely eco-friendly option. Bamboo improves soil quality, prevents erosion, and is naturally pest resistant.
If processed mechanically—by crushing the woody parts of the plant and using natural enzymes to pull out the fibers—bamboo is a sustainable textile. But when it’s processed with chemicals to turn the fibers into fabric, bamboo’s benefits are undermined.
While there is no set labeling for the way it’s made, fabric processed chemically is often referred to as “rayon made from bamboo” and mechanically processed can be called “bamboo linen.” Buyer beware: Most bamboo fabric on the market today is chemically processed, as bamboo linen is more labor intensive and costly to make.
The Bottom Line
Look for organic materials that are made locally and are untreated or colored with non-toxic, vegetable-based, heavy-metal free dyes. When buying organic fabric, choose products that are marked USDA Organic, Global Organic Textile Standard, Quality Assurance International (QAI) certified, International Federation of Organic Agriculture (IFOAM) certified, or the Oeko-Tex Standard 100 to ensure they have been tested and proven to be organic. Avoid fabric finishes or coatings, which are found on items labeled no-iron, water repellent, or oil cloth.
Where To Buy
Spoonflower prints fabric on demand in North Carolina using eco-friendly, water-based inks on natural and synthetic fabric. Because they print the exact length desired, there is little waste of ink, fabric, or water. You can make your own fabric or shop from their large collection of fabric from independent designers around the world.
HoneyBeGood carries everything from printed organic cotton and organic cotton quilt batting to thread made from post-consumer plastic bottles. They have a wide selection of eco-friendly fabric and notions.
Organic Cotton Plus sells more than just organic cotton. They have organic hemp and flax, organic knitting yarn, and notions of all kinds, including batting, buttons, thread, and finishings.
Pick Natural is home to organic cotton, linen, bamboo, and hemp. There is a minimum order requirement of 10 yards per fabric, so it’s best for larger projects.
Don’t forget to buy used. The most eco-friendly choice is fabric that already exists. Stitch life into old textiles by choosing vintage. Check out Donna Flower, Retro Age Vintage Fabrics, and Revival Fabrics to give any project a blast from the past. You can also shop your local thrift store or buy online at places like eBay or Etsy.