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.