Even if you convince only a few customers to use earth-friendly fabrics, you will be contributing to a healthier environment through the process of educating people about environmentally acceptable fabric choices.
In this article we wil share some talking points that will help you
sound knowledgeable when you and a customer discuss environmentally
friendly fabrics, such as certified organic cottons, hemp and fabrics
made from pop bottles made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET).
CERTIFIED ORGANIC COTTON
If a company is selling you Certified Organic Cotton it should be
able to provide you with a certificate from an authorized certification
agency recognized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The
USDA has adopted national organic standards for growing fiber, as
well as for growing food. These standards include such practices as
farming without toxic pesticides, crop rotation and the use of natural
• Certified organic labeling can be a bit tricky.
Companies can offer fabric from certified organic cotton that was
then treated with toxic dyes and other processing chemicals. These
fabrics still can be labeled “made from certified organic cotton.”
So ask your supplier so you know what you are getting.
The cheapest and fastest way to grow cotton is to add artificial fertilizer
to the soil, use chemical pesticides to combat insect damage and chemically
exfoliate the plants prior to harvest. These chemicals find their
way into the groundwater and eventually into the wells that provide
half the U.S. population’s drinking water. Growing organic cotton
is more expensive, but savings will be had in the long run if organic
growing practices reduce the cost of cleaning up the environment and
treating people exposed to toxic chemicals in the drinking water.
By encouraging the use of crops grown with sustainable and environmentally
friendly practices, we can do our part to prevent inadvertent exposure
of both our natural resources and our bodies to toxic and harmful
• Characteristics: Cotton naturally comes in
a variety of colors. Therefore, organic cotton fabrics are not necessarily
natural, unbleached cotton. It’s true that you won’t find
a naturally occurring fuchsia or royal blue cotton fiber. However,
a wide range of tans, rusts, grays and greens are grown here in the
United States. Worldwide, researchers are working to grow more varied
shades of cotton fiber.
Given that organic cotton can come in a variety of colors, mills are
able to weave a full range of patterns. Complex jacquards are available
as well as highly varied and textured weaves. Organic cotton is no
different from conventional cotton in that there is no limit to the
weight, threads per inch, weaves pattern, etc.
As with any fabric, organic cotton fabric should be pre-tested before
it is recommended as a good candidate for a home furnishings project.
You will see differences between samples in such characteristics as
stretchiness, hand, shrinkage and color change.
Because there is no sizing in organically manufactured cotton you
will see less change in the crispness/softness of a given sample compared
to those conventionally manufactured. We’ve noticed that when
washing organic, untreated cotton that the colors change; they actually
darken and intensify. This does not seem to be related to laundry
soap or water temperature.
Your customers may find organic cottons dyed with the more environmentally
friendly dyes acceptable. However, if they are choosing organic cottons
to limit chemical exposure in their homes, perhaps due to allergies,
you should encourage them to stick with the naturally occurring colors.
FABRICS MADE FROM POP BOTTLES (PET)
If you are trying to promote the 3Rs—Reduce, Reuse, Recycle—you
might suggest fabric made in part from recycled pop bottles. Although
originally made from non-renewable petro-chemical resources the good
thing about plastic pop bottles is that they can be ground up and
spun into fibers that can be used to make fabric.
• Processing recycled PET into fibers: EvoTex
carries a line of hemp fabrics that are part recycled PET. They come
in both plain weaves (23 percent PET) and twills (45 percent PET);
both are tightly woven. The colors are dark: denims, browns and khakis.
I washed a plain weave in hot water and put it in a hot dryer. There
was essentially no shrinkage. The fabric seems to be extremely durable.
While fabric made from PET fibers may be more of a novelty than anything
else, it at least will lead to a good topic of conversation between
you and environmentally conscientious customers. Furthermore, they
will appreciate your initiative in offering earth-friendly fabric
options such as organic cottons, hemp and recycled fabrics.
If you do a Web search you will find many sites offering organic fabrics.
Some of these are not suited to the home décor trade and others
only carry organic cottons as part of their inventory. One company
that offers prompt, friendly service and reasonably priced fabric
is Mitchell Co. in North Carolina. It offers about 50 fabrics in a
variety of weights, patterns, textures and colors. I was amazed at
the beauty and creativity that was possible. The fabrics are manufactured
in North Carolina from organic cotton grown in Texas. The company
states that no chemicals are used in handling, storage and processing
of the product.
WHY OFFER FABRICS MADE FROM HEMP?
Although you will unlikely find a source of certified organic hemp,
it is worth considering as part of an environmentally friendly portfolio.
This is because hemp can be cultivated using a much lower load of
fertilizers and pesticides. Hemp fabrics are available that are free
of herbicides, fungicides and insecticides.
Hemp used to be a major U.S. crop, providing fiber for rope, fabric
and paper. In fact, during World War II the U.S. government encouraged
hemp farming in an effort to provide a source of rope fiber. However
hemp’s commercial growth is now outlawed due to it being from
the same species of plant as marijuana. This is despite the fact that
the strains that have been developed to give high yields of commercially
viable hemp fiber contain only minute amounts of the psychoactive
ingredient found in marijuana.
Hemp currently is grown in temperate climates around the world including
Canada, Eastern Europe and parts of Asia. Because hemp causes less
soil depletion than cotton it can be grown without artificial fertilizers.
Its deep tap roots help prevent erosion. Hemp is more resistant to
insect infestation than cotton. The yield of fiber per acre is more
than double that of cotton fiber. Finally, less water is required
to grow hemp resulting in less potential for contaminating ground
water sources. So, although hemp may not be certified organically
grown, it is a “greener” crop to grow compared with conventionally
As with cotton, people find hemp to be hypoallergenic—unless
they are sensitive to dyes that may be used.
• Characteristics: Fabric made from hemp is
extremely durable. Customers who want a slipcover that will outlast
their rowdy, growing families may find that hemp is the fabric they
should choose. However it is not without problems. It can be stiff
and it lacks any give at all.
These properties can be tempered in several ways. Washing tends to
soften hemp. My experience is that washing causes the fibers to swell
and you end up with a thicker feeling fabric. Manufacturers improve
the draping properties of their hemp fabrics by blending the hemp
with other fibers such as cotton or silk. Hemp is naturally resistant
to mold and UV light. When planning a project using hemp fabric imagine
that you are working with linen.
Hemp fabric definitely has a mind of its own and will not want to
mold itself to the bulges and curves found in most furniture. On the
other hand, slipcover styles that hang in clean lines should work
great. Based on the samples I’ve tested, grain lines lie straighter
than in fabrics that have gone through a lot of processing (rolling,
drying, dying, sizing, etc.).
When sewing, be sure to serge the edges. Most 100 percent hemp samples
I’ve seen have low thread counts and the edges will unravel
if washed. I once covered crowned down cushions with 100 percent hemp.
It helped to snip curved edges more frequently than usual. Hemp that
I have sewn on did not ease well. Hemp mixes are much easier to sew
Jean Hutchins (www.naturalslipcovers.com)
sews slipcovers in Durham, NC, and Karen Erickson (www.slipcoveramerica.com)
is a slipcover instructor throughout the United States and Canada.
Both are members of the Slipcover Network; www.slipcovernetwork.com.
• EvoTex: has a selection of fabrics that could be used for
slipcovers; (206) 633-1177; www.evotex.com.
• Hemp Traders: has a wide range of fabric weights and blends;
(310) 914-9557; www.hemptraders.com.
(Both companies will sell you a set of their samples.)
• Mitchell Co.: (800) 870-5312; www.organic-cotton.com.
• Visit the USDA’s National Organic Program Web site at:
• For an overview of the Texas Department of Agriculture’s
Organic Certification Program, visit www.agr.state.tx.us/license/regulatory/organic_ref_material/program_overview.pdf.
• To learn more about recycled plastic bottles visit www.petcore.org/envir_recprod_01.html.