Organic + Sustainable Fabrics ~ Everything You Need to Know!

on July 21 | in Products, Sewing + Quilting Tips, Sewing Trends, Sewing Tutorials + Patterns | by | with 13 Comments

Our selection of organic and sustainable fabrics is growing! Organic fabrics are from manufacturers that adhere to strict federal regulations covering how cotton is grown, using methods and materials that have a low impact on the environment. Our 100% Organic Cotton Solids are offered in a variety of weights and weaves, from voile and poplin to twill and canvas. (Here’s our Organic Prepared for Dyeing (PFD) Fabric Test and a Beginning Fabric Dyeing Tutorial we did for the fabrics.) We also have new sustainable knits and beautifully-designed 100% organic cotton and poplin in the shop.


Melanie O’Brien from A Sewing Journal is back for her monthly look at recent sewing trends. Today she helps explain what it really means when a fabric is organic and/or sustainable. Do you use organic/sustainable fabrics in your sewing? What do you think about the growth in organic/sustainable fabrics, industry-wide? You can find Melanie at A Sewing Journal, on Twitter and on Facebook. She’ll be back next month with more sewing trends.

With organic and sustainable fabric becoming more widely available, it’s important to understand exactly what these terms mean.

What is organic cotton fabric?
From the Organic Trade Association: “Organic refers to the way agricultural products are grown and processed. It includes a system of production, processing, distribution and sales that assures consumers that the products maintain the organic integrity that begins on the farm.”

Organic cotton fabric must start with organic cotton. So let’s go to the fields. Some of you may be familiar with organic produce and the fact that there are standards to be met and agencies that certify whether or not the agricultural product was grown to those standards. It is the same way with cotton. As an agricultural product, organically grown cotton must use methods and materials that have a low impact on the environment. The production system must replenish and maintain soil fertility, reduce the use of toxic and persistent pesticides and fertilizers and build biologically diverse agriculture.

Upcoming organic cotton fabrics by Michelle Engel Bencsko, Cloud 9 Fabrics.

The certification of the cotton is complicated as cotton is a global crop and there are many different standards and certifying agencies. Ultimately, the certification process chosen usually depends mainly on the final market of the organic product. Meaning that, organic cotton that is grown to ultimately be sold as fabric or clothing to the US market or the European market (for example) will need to be grown and processed according to standards for those countries/regions. There are a number of agencies that do the certifying and more information can be found on the Institute for Marketecology (IMO) website.

Fruit Punch + Suzi-Q organic collections from Timeless Treasures.

Now, organic cotton fabric involves much, much more than just using organic cotton. The entire production process has rules and standards, such as: at all stages organic fiber must be separated from conventional fiber; use of toxic heavy metals, formaldehyde, aromatic solvents, genetically modified organisms (GMO) are prohibited, use of synthetic sizing agents is restricted, bleaches must be based on oxygen (no chlorine), Azo dyes are prohibited, packaging material must not contain PVC and much more. Again, global organizations have been formed to create and enforce standards and certify the final product. The most well-known agencies include the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), Oeko-Tex, and Organic Exchange.

Storyboek by Jay-Cyn Designs for Birch Fabrics, coming soon!

This brings us to an organic cotton base cloth, pre-dye or printing. Most (but not all) organic cotton fabrics currently on the market do not use organic certified dyes/inks due to availability, quantity and quality issues. However, most use what are called low-impact dyes and inks. Low impact dyes and inks do not contain heavy metals or other known toxic substances. They do not need mordants (a chemical fixing agent) and the water can be recycled. The dye cycle is shortened, so less water and fewer chemicals are used.

What about Fair Trade? Some organic cotton fabric is also produced in a fair trade certified facility. However, the GOTS certifying process does require that the minimum standard from the International Labour Organisation (ILO) must be met by all processors. The ILO “helps advance the creation of decent jobs and the kinds of economic and working conditions that give working people and business people a stake in lasting peace, prosperity and progress.”

Daisy Janie Organic Fabrics + selections from the Cut Out and Keep Cloud 9 Fabrics collection.

What about US-grown cotton? There are many types of cotton and certain types are used for certain types of fabrics. The kind of cotton needed for high-quality quilting cotton fabrics are not grown in large enough quantities in the US to supply the market.

What to Know:

  • Manufacturers will advise which agencies certified their fabrics and what type of dyes were used. Feel free to ask if the information isn’t readily available. All should show their certificates when asked as well.
  • Organic cotton fabric is soft, durable, drapes beautifully and is color fast. They are not any more delicate than similar fabrics made with conventional cotton. (The possible exception is if the fabric was made with herbal dyes and then instructions should be given).

Anika and Marin fabric collections from Monaluna fabrics.

“Sustainable” Fibers
Let’s move on to what are called “sustainable” fibers used in fabric production.

Hemp is considered sustainable because of its remarkable agricultural characteristics. It grows extremely fast in many climates, does not exhaust the soil, requires no pesticides or herbicides because dense planting crowds out weeds. Fabrics made with hemp are strong, soft (and soften up with subsequent washings) and long-lasting.

Soy fiber is made from the waste product from soybeans after the oil is extracted. It is converted and processed (usually using non-toxic agents and enzymes) into a fiber and made into fabric. Soy fabric is usually extremely soft and warm. (See our amazing new soy/organic cotton blend knits!)

Bamboo as a crop is highly sustainable as it grows very fast and needs minimal care. Processing it is similar to the production methods for wood pulp rayon. Bamboo must be converted to pulp and transformed to what is called bamboo viscose (similar to rayon). There is some concern about the chemicals used for this process, but improvements are being worked on.

Look for many new organic and sustainable fabrics at Sew,Mama,Sew! in the coming months. We’re proud to support this growing trend.

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13 Responses to Organic + Sustainable Fabrics ~ Everything You Need to Know!

  1. loans…

    Organic + Sustainable Fabrics ~ Everything You Need to Know! « Sew,Mama,Sew! Blog…

  2. Ellie says:

    I think saying there is “some concern” about the process of making bamboo pulp into rayon is misleading. This is a highly chemical process and over 50 companies, including Wal-Mart and Target, have been told by FTA to stop marketing rayon as “bamboo” fabric and misleading consumers. Please do the research. You’ll find this is not at all an eco-friendly choice.

  3. Ellie says:

    Bamboo is just rayon, but made from bamboo pulp. The chemical process is toxic to the environment and the people at the factory, the bamboo is often grown in China, and many workers (not all) are in sweat-shop environments. My advice is to keep clear of ALL “bamboo” fabrics until strict standards go into force.
    Read more at VeggieRevolution:

  4. Ellie says:

    Question: When is bamboo not bamboo? Answer: When it’s used to make clothing.

    At least that’s according to regulators in the US and Canada, who are cracking down on marketing claims that could be misleading or deceptive in their efforts to appeal to environmentally conscious shoppers.

    They argue that even if clothing and other textiles are made from a material that may have started out as bamboo, the fibres are in fact based on the plant’s cellulose which is broken down by a chemical process.

    And because rayon (or viscose) is, by definition, a man-made fibre created from the cellulose found in plants and trees, these fibres are rayon too. Any plant or tree – including bamboo – could be used as the cellulose source; but the fibre that is created is rayon.

    Read more:

  5. angelina says:

    a subject dear to my heart. thank you!

  6. Beth T says:

    Thanks for this thorough explanation. The organic cotton I just purchased is every bit as soft to the hand as “non-organic” cotton in my stash. (I agree with Lisa Zap that those terms are misleading and annoying, but don’t have a better alternative.)

  7. madebymum says:

    Lovely article I have been using bamboo in my baby bibs and blankets for a couple of years. It is so soft and is a fantastic eco fabric. The addition expense is certainly worth while for baby and the environment.

  8. MelanieO says:

    Hi Lisa – I’ll try to answer as best I can.

    1 – Yes, there is. There is a conversion period (3 years)when crops are being changed over to organic that can be costly to the farmer as the cotton cannot yet be sold as organic. Certifying is expensive as is converting machinery and using new production methods (like putting in barriers to prevent contamination from non-organic crops). Also, organic cotton is more labor-intensive and usually pays fair wages. Conventional cotton uses chemicals for weed and pest control and harvesting while organic uses more labor-intensive methods. Any machinery used to process conventional cotton must be cleaned before processing organic cotton. Here’s a great article about this subject:

    2 – Here is the answer from the Organic Trade Association:
    “When asked what their greatest barriers are to planting more cotton in 2010, growers cited finding a market for their cotton, finding a market that will pay value-added costs of organic products, production challenges such as weeds and insects, weed control, and labor costs. Growers also cited competition from international organic cotton producers as well as the cost of transition to organic.”

  9. Lorri says:

    Interesting article! I think that deconstructing used clothing is another great way to be sustainable (and cost effective!)

  10. Lisa Zap says:

    Informative article. Questions: 1) Is there a vast cost difference for farmers/companies growing “inorganic” cotton vs. “organic” cotton? 2) Is cost the main reason for preventing widespread practice of growing “organic” cotton vs. “inorganic” cotton?

    (As an aside, I really wish a terminology other than “organic” had been brought into general use by the powers that be for food and textile crops as the alternative is not “inorganic” – just my personal beef).

  11. Nik Kamisah says:

    Such varieties of cotton and superb design for our sewing projects but it is quite difficult to get that pattern in our country. another problem is we have to order and may be costly.

  12. Katrina H says:

    Good to know!

  13. Fantastic, fantastic information, Melanie – as usual!

    I would like to add that most of us who are manufacturing GOTS-certified fabrics are not using US-supplied cotton simply because there aren’t ANY GOTS-certified suppliers of cotton fiber, fabric or GOTS-certified fabric printing mills in the US. (There are for other applications, and typically they are in-house operations, but not for large volume printing of fabric.)

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