What Are Bamboo Sheets Made Of?
Think about bamboo and your mind might conjure up images of bamboo forests, pandas or maybe bamboo growing in the garden.
But what are bamboo sheets really made of? And how does this incredibly strong and durable bamboo plant, get turned into the soft, silky material used for making bamboo sheets and other textile products?
We explore the different types of bamboo fabric, some being highly sustainable, look at how they are made, and find out what makes bamboo a great choice of material for the softest, best bamboo sheets and other bedding products.
How Are Bamboo Sheets Made?
Surely bamboo sheets are made from bamboo? Well yes, they are, but not all bamboo sheets are created equal.
There are several different ways that bamboo can be made into fabric. For all of them, bamboo is the raw material, but the way that the bamboo is processed results in different types of fabric, each with their own unique properties.
The Different Types of Bamboo Fabric
Mechanically Processed Bamboo (Bamboo Linen)
Bamboo linen is a natural fabric that is processed by mechanically combing out the bamboo fibers and spinning them into a yarn. It’s a slightly coarse fabric, similar to the linen made from flax and hemp and therefore not as popular for making bed sheets as silky-smooth bamboo rayon.
Rayon is the general name for fabrics that are made from regenerated cellulose fibers. To make rayon, the cellulose within plant fibers is extracted, dissolved and realigned to make a new fiber.
The three types of bamboo rayon are:(1) bamboo viscose, (2) bamboo modal and (3) bamboo lyocell.
(1) Bamboo Viscose
The majority of the bamboo fabric produced world-wide is conventional viscose rayon made from bamboo. The standard viscose-making process is a lengthy one, and one that is chemically intensive. It produces a fabric that is incredibly soft and durable and in much demand for bedding and clothing products. However, its heavy use of toxic chemicals raises concerns about its environmental impact.
(2) Bamboo Modal
Modal is a type of rayon that’s made using a very similar process to viscose, except that the fibers are treated slightly differently after spinning, to make the filaments stronger. The extra processing stretches the fibers, making modal rayon lighter and finer than viscose rayon. It’s often used for making things like athletic clothing where the fabric needs to be more robust. Whilst it is extremely soft, it is usually a little too thin and airy for bed sheets.
(3) Bamboo Lyocell
The lyocell process is slightly different from the process used for making viscose and modal. It uses a different, non-toxic solvent that can be filtered and re-used in a closed-loop system so it is much better for the environment.
It shares the same soft feel as viscose and modal and has an even greater ability to absorb water. These qualities, combined with its lower environmental footprint, make lyocell a great, sustainable fabric choice. The lyocell process is used to make several kinds of branded viscose including TENCEL, but because the lyocell process is more expensive, only a few brands are making bamboo fabric in this way.
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Is Bamboo Fabric Natural or Synthetic?
Mechanical vs Chemical Processing of Bamboo
Mechanical: Natural Bamboo Linen
The only type of bamboo fabric that can really be called “natural” is bamboo linen, made using a mechanical process. The woody parts of the bamboo plant are crushed and natural enzymes are used to break it down into a pulp so that the fibers can be mechanically extracted and spun into yarn.
It’s the same process that’s used to make linen from hemp or flax and it creates a very eco-friendly material. There is very little bamboo linen on the market however, because it’s an expensive and labor intensive process. It also doesn’t create the soft, silky, draping fabric that is now hugely popular for making bamboo bedding and clothing products.
Chemical: Bamboo Rayon
The majority of bamboo fabric on the market is bamboo rayon which is scientifically known as a “regenerated cellulosic fiber”. To make rayon, the plant cellulose is taken through a chemical process that turns it into a fabric.
Although it is a natural-based fiber, we can’t call it truly natural (like cotton, wool or silk), because the cellulose has to be taken through extensive processing to achieve the end result. It’s also not a synthetic fiber (like nylon or polyester) because it is derived from naturally occurring cellulose and therefore not completely man-made.
The best answer is that bamboo rayon is neither natural nor synthetic, but falls somewhere in between.
There has been a lot of confusion about bamboo fabrics because some manufacturers label their products as “100% bamboo fiber”, without specifying the type of bamboo fabric.
Some companies also use generic terms like “bamboo fabric” alongside terms such as “natural” and “organic” which leads consumers to believe that sheets are made from a natural material, instead of the semi-synthetic bamboo rayon.
To protect consumers, the law in the US requires manufacturers to label their products as “rayon” or “rayon made from bamboo” unless they are bamboo linen made directly from bamboo fibers, and in this case, they should be labeled “mechanically processed bamboo”.
Are Bamboo Sheets Eco-friendly?
We often see bamboo fabrics being marketed as green or eco-friendly, but is this really the case? To answer this question, it’s important to examine the different processes involved in turning bamboo into fabric, and find out what impact each of them has on the environment.
Some are eco-friendly, others are not. So if sustainability is important in your buying choices, then take a deeper look below.
Mechanically Produced Bamboo
Bamboo linen is the most natural fabric and very eco-friendly because the production process doesn’t require the use of toxic chemicals. Instead, natural enzymes are used on crushed bamboo wood fibers and these fibers are then washed and spun into yarn. The processing is the same as for other linen fabrics made from flax or hemp, hence it is often called “bamboo linen”
The Viscose Process
The process for producing bamboo viscose is much like the process for producing any other viscose rayon fabric. It is the most common way to produce bamboo rayon and it is also the most environmentally damaging.
The process involves dissolving bamboo cellulose with chemicals, to produce a viscous solution. Sulfuric acid is then used to re-solidify the cellulose while it is being spun into fibers. The chemicals used are highly toxic, posing a risk to workers and can cause serious pollution when hazardous waste enters waterways in the surrounding environment.
The Lyocell Process
The alternative to the viscose process is the lyocell process. It creates the same kind of fiber from wood or bamboo pulp but in a less environmentally damaging way.
This is primarily because lyocell is a closed-loop system where 99% of the chemical solution is recaptured and re-used, so much less hazardous waste is produced. It also uses N-Methlymorpholine N-oxide as the solvent which is much safer than the solvents used in the conventional viscose process.
So are bamboo sheets eco-friendly? The answer to this question is that it depends on the type of bamboo fabric we are looking at, and the processes involved. Bamboo, being a highly sustainable crop to grow, certainly has the potential to be a sustainable fabric but only if the production method is also an eco-friendly process.
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Benefits of Bamboo Fabric
Production processes aside, bamboo viscose, modal, and lyocell all offer the same benefits:
Benefits of Bamboo Fabric
What Are the Best Bamboo Sheets Made of?
If you are wondering what bamboo sheets are made of, and which of the different types of bamboo fabric is best? Well…that depends on what you’re looking for.
Bamboo Linen – Natural and Eco-Friendly
Bamboo linen is the most natural fabric and very eco-friendly because there aren’t any toxic chemicals involved. But it is a slightly coarse fabric, quite different to the soft, silky viscose fabric that is preferred for best bed sheets. It’s also expensive to produce and there aren’t many companies making bamboo fabric in this way.
Bamboo Rayon – Soft to the Feel
To turn bamboo fiber into the luxuriously soft and silky material that has become so popular for bedding, it needs to be made into rayon. Viscose, modal, and lyocell are all similar in terms of the feel of the fabric, but the processing methods differ in terms of their environmental impact.
The lyocell process is the greenest method of producing bamboo rayon and this is the one we would recommend if you are looking for the super silky viscose feel, without the environmental price tag.
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Do Bamboo Sheets have a Thread Count?
We’re all familiar with the idea that the higher the thread count, the better quality the material. But while this is true with cotton, it doesn’t apply to bamboo rayon. This is because bamboo rayon is woven from the long, continuous fibers, produced during the viscose or lyocell process, whereas cotton fibers are a lot shorter.
Thread counts for bamboo sheets are usually around 250-350. However a 300 thread count bamboo sheet feels a lot like a 1000 thread count cotton sheet, so you don’t need to get hung up on the thread count when it comes to bamboo bedding.
What About Bamboo Blends?
Some manufacturers blend bamboo rayon with other fabrics including cotton and microfiber. Sheets blended with microfiber (typically polyester) might be cheaper but they are definitely inferior products compared to 100% bamboo rayon sheets.
Microfiber blends don’t breathe well at all and so you don’t get the benefits of using a pure bamboo rayon. A blend with natural cotton is okay. It produces a strong fabric, but some of the unique qualities of 100% bamboo derived rayon will still be lost.
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As the production of bamboo rayon uses a chemically intensive process, it’s important to know that the finished product is safe. Fortunately, the concern with bamboo rayon is not that the chemical residue remains on the bamboo material, but in the disposal of the chemical waste product.
To be certain about the safety of bamboo sheets is best to look for an green certification called Oeko-Tex certification. Oeko-Tex is a product testing system that labels and certifies the safety of textiles and textile products.
There are various different levels of certification available. The important one to look out for is the Oeko Tex 100 Standard which verifies that the finished material has been tested to be free of chemical residues which may be harmful to health.
Checklist for Buying the Best Bamboo Sheets
To buy sheets that are both high quality and good for the environment we have dug deeper an in this article we assign sustainability scores for each bamboo sheet we reviewed.
Choose sheets that are 100% bamboo-derived rayon
Bamboo sheets that have an Oeko-Tex certification
Buy from brands that use the lyocell process or non-toxic solvents
Choose companies that use strict effluent treatment protocols
Are Bamboo Sheets Any Good?
We’ve looked at the pros of bamboo bedding including softness, durability, and breathability and we’ve discussed the potential pitfalls, namely the environmental impact of the viscose-making process.
So all in all, are bamboo sheets a good choice? Yes! We certainly think so.
Bamboo is a great sustainable fiber and as fabric technology advances many manufacturers are making considerable, positive efforts to ensure clean production.
Bamboo rayon has many desirable properties which make it a great choice of material to use for bedding. It comes down to having the necessary knowledge to discern between the different types of bamboo sheets available to buy.
Knowledge is power, as they say, and with the right knowledge, it’s possible to buy the best quality bamboo sheets that are good for both you and the environment.
At Positively Sustainable, we are committed to providing information that will help you to make confident choices about the products you buy. We believe in the power of ethical consumerism to hold businesses accountable and make sure that they are manufacturing products in an environmentally and socially responsible way.
Join us on our journey towards a positively sustainable future.