Green Living

How Natural Is That Natural Fiber?

My daughter needed a sheet set for her new full size bed, so off we went to one of those linen stores where aisles full of sheets in all sorts of fibers quickly had us totally confused. She’s ten, so the main thing she cared about was getting the color she wanted in her bedding – something that would match her new Pink Webkinz frog. I’m a little older and wiser, so I was concerned with getting sheets that didn’t contain toxic chemicals.

I was delighted to find some very pretty pink Modal sheets with a tag that assured us that they were made from beech trees from sustainable tree farms where no pesticides or toxic chemicals were used. They were wonderfully soft and silky and my daughter fell in love with them, so we took them home, washed them and put them on her bed.

I was so happy with our purchase that I told a friend about it and she asked me if I’d looked up Modal fiber on the net or done any research on it. I was ashamed to admit that I hadn’t. (Sheesh! I do research for a living.) I was even more ashamed to admit that I’d trusted a tag on a sheet, rather than doing my own investigating.

So I looked up Modal and found that it isn’t quite as innocent and natural as the tag implies. Yes, the beech trees are raised without pesticides or other synthetic chemicals if the Modal comes from the EU. (Ours did.) But the manufacturing process includes using caustic chemicals to break down the fibers, similar to the way rayon, another “natural” but not organic fiber, is made. True, there were probably no residues in the sheets, but there was also no assurance that they hadn’t been dyed with harsh, synthetic dyes either.

Some Modal is dyed with non-toxic dye and some isn’t. As a skeptic, I tend to think that if it doesn’t say non-toxic dyes, it probably was dyed with synthetic ones. Unfortunately, our sheets didn’t say they’d been dyed with non-toxic dyes, so I’m just hoping that whatever dyes they used don’t leach out of it over time. Obviously, I have some more investigating to do, although the sheets are on the bed. They were very expensive and I’m convinced that they have to be healthier than non-organic cotton or polyester.

All this research led me to wonder about other so-called natural fibers like bamboo, hemp and Tencel, which is made by the same company that makes Modal. From what I can glean from the Net, unless the garment is certified organic, there’s no guarantee that it’s any more natural than any other fiber that is produced through a chemical process that uses chemicals – usually caustic chemicals – to break down the fiber into a pulp that is then spun into threads. The company that makes both Modal and Tencel touts its award-winning manufacturing process which – in the case of Tencel – recovers 99.5% of the solvent, but then where does the other .5 percent go? Into the fibers?

I understand that there are two types of bamboo fabric and fibers – one that is made from whole bamboo that is spun into fibers and one that is processed into pulp first. The former is considered more natural than the latter. Tencel is reputed to be made with fewer chemicals than Modal, but still uses a solvent in the pulping process. Hemp, cotton and bamboo are only really “natural” when they’re certified organic and untreated with formaldehyde or flame retardant or any other VOC.

It’s a case of “caveat emptor” but when hasn’t the buyer had to beware of misleading claims. All I know is that I’m going to be much more careful from now on when I’m choosing fabrics for clothes or bedding. If it’s not organic, I’ll assume that it has something in it that I don’t want next to my skin or on my family’s beds. Hmm, sounds like I’m going to be waiting for sales to be able to afford any future natural fibers, because organic garments and bedding are really pricey, and now I have a better idea of why they cost so much.