In a world full of packed schedules and lives lived on the go, it’s easy to see why many would argue against buying organic clothing (including organic bamboo clothing) based on convenience. And while permanent press came into our lives in the 1950s to help ease the burden of the overworked housewife, the cost of that convenience is a toxin-filled one.
First, let’s talk about what causes those pesky wrinkles using cotton fabrics as a prime example yet again. The wrinkles in cotton clothing are caused by the relatively weak cross-linked hydrogen bonds that keep the cellulose polymers in place in cotton fabrics (as well as hemp and flax). These hydrogen bonds are broken by moisture and when the fibers shift to realign themselves, a wrinkle is born. But in the 1950s, researchers at the USDA Southern Regional Research Center developed a process to create our “wrinkle free” and “wrinkle-resistant” clothing by replacing the weak hydrogen bonds with stronger bonds that were water-resistant. And the secret weapon in their war against housework….formaldehyde.
That’s right. The key to keeping your wardrobe smooth and wrinkle-free is a known carcinogenic that can cause a variety of health problems such as burning and watery eyes, respiratory complaints such as coughing and difficulty in breathing and allergic contact dermatitis in some consumers. Even as manufacturers are more aware of the danger of using toxins in their processes, the main concern with this treatment was the smell it left on the clothing. So in the 1990s, the process was improved to still include formaldehyde but make to reduce it so as not to irritate the delicate nose.
There are two methods of creating permanent press clothing that are now being actively used. The first consists of soaking conventional cotton fabric formaldehyde resins, rolling the toxic fabrics between huge rollers to squeeze out excess resins and then baking the fabric in large ovens at 300 degrees Fahrenheit to essentially cure the resins into the fabrics. This baking method ensures that the toxic formaldehyde becomes permanent in the fabric and can’t be washed out. Some clothing manufacturers take it one step further and treat the baked-in-formaldehyde clothing with liquid ammonia to reduce shrinkage.
The other method in the war against wrinkles that is actively being used consists of exposing garments to formaldehyde gases which then permeate the fabric and are then baked into the clothing. Commonly referred to as vapor phase technology, this process places fabrics in airtight chambers and moistens them with water or steam until the moisture is anywhere from 5% to 20% of the fabric weight. Formaldehyde gas is then pumped into the chamber until the concentration of air in the chamber is approximately 40% to 60% formaldehyde gas. To make the formaldehyde link and bond with the hydrogen atoms in the fabrics, sulfur dioxide gas is also pumped into the chamber making a nice little chemical sauna to create your wrinkle free fabrics. A variation on this method involves soaking the fabrics with an aqueous solution of a weak acid salt such as ammonium chloride or phosphoric acid after the fabric has been exposed to the formaldehyde to facilitate more efficient cross-linking. And while manufacturers may vary what chemicals are used as a catalyst or temperature in the gas chamber, it’s still easy to see that the process of creating easy care garments is anything but easy. It involves high doses of chemicals and is technology intensive.
Never mind the fact that growing cotton itself is a chemical-laden process but to continue to saturate the fabric in chemicals is a high cost on both the environment and the consumer. Organic clothing today is becoming more mainstream and the excuses not to purchase them are growing slim. Bamboo fibers (if grown and processed responsibly) offer a great organic alternative for your wardrobe and household. Whether you’re looking for a bamboo sheet set, organic duvet covers or organic women’s clothing, there are stylish and affordable options for you.
And if you dread the iron as much as a 1950’s housewife, not to worry. Bamboo fabrics are silky smooth, lightweight and with a few shakes, are as wrinkle-free as permanent press.