I really wish I could answer yes to this question, because sourcing truly healthy fabrics is one of the more frustrating things I have to do in my practice.
However, the answer is more complex.
- The very short answer is that washing does eliminate some of the toxins, but absolutely cannot eliminate all.
- It is very possible to get chemical-free fabrics; the most dependable standard for healthy fabric is to look for fabrics that are GOTS certified.
- GOTS stands for Global Organic Textile Standard, and examines the chemical inputs into the entire fabric creation process, rather than only whether that cotton was grown organically.
Organically grown cotton is not sprayed during the growing process. There are many charming quilt fabrics that are both organic and GOTS certified.
- I love the fabrics by Harmony Art and the ones stocked by Modern Organic Fabrics.
- Harmony Art also has a list of retailers that carry her fabrics, and each of these stores carries other lines that are GOTS certified.
It is important to ask for each fabric, because retailers also carry Oeko-Tex 100 certified fabrics, which are not as carefully monitored as far as the inputs. They are cleaner to use, but the production chemicals end up in the environment.
Cotton fabric production
In order to understand the chemical inputs, Patty Grossman, of O EcoTextiles, helped me look at the steps of cotton fabric production:
- As the cotton is grown, it is sprayed with chemical pesticides, defoliants, and weed killers. The average acre of American cotton receives 4.3 pounds of pesticides. Cotton that is not labeled organic also could be grown from GMO seeds, seeds that have their genetic makeup changed to make it resistant to herbicides.
- Studies have shown that pesticides are present inside the cotton fibers after harvest, and that they cannot be washed out using a home washing machine.
- As the cotton fibers are processed into yarns, and woven into fabric, they are washed, treated for texture, and bleached or brightened. These chemicals, often including dioxins, can be present in the finished textile.
- The woven textile is dyed or printed to give it the color, and often treated for softness, wrinkle resistance, or other qualities. Printed textiles often have both heavy metals (such as cadmium) and plasticizers (like phthalates) in their printing inks. Wrinkle or stain-resistant fabrics can contain chemicals such as formaldehyde.
- These treatments and colorants are well-designed by the chemists. They are designed to NOT wash out. The dyes, for instance, are called "fiber reactive" dyes because they chemically bind with the fiber molecules in order to remain colorfast. The chemical components of your fabric dye are there as long as the color is there.
Fabrics for home furnishings
In the home furnishings industry, fabrics are often coated for stain resistance, back-coated to give a fabric the dimensional stability to be used as upholstery, and must be fire-resistant. Many of these chemicals are types that have been proven to be harmful as well as bioaccumulative (this means that increased exposure leads to increased levels of these chemicals in your body).
Fabric, like any modern industrial product, is a complex, multi-component item. At each step in a fabric's production, it can have chemical inputs added to its makeup.
- Over 2,000 chemicals are regularly used in textile production, some of them so toxic that they are outlawed in other industries.
- The final fabric is, by weight, over 10% synthetic chemicals of various types.
Making a decision
Decision making about acceptable risk is challenging, especially when the safer product (that they had to spend less on chemicals to make! I'm just saying...) is more expensive. It is hard for a consumer to know exactly how concerned to be.
I use the precautionary principle as my standard of safety for products that I specify: If a product has a suspected risk of harm to the public or the environment, it is sensible to eliminate exposure to that product until further scientific findings emerge that provide sound evidence that no harm will result.
- Simply stated, if it might have a health effect, don't expose yourself, until it has been PROVEN that there is no effect. This is the approach to chemical regulation used by the EU.
- Unfortunately, the U.S. system allows chemicals to be used until research proves there is some reason to regulate use of that chemical.
Ask for GOTS certified fabrics
Okay, enough bad news. The good news, and the reason I love the opportunity to answer these questions, is that knowledge is power. It is easy -- and important -- to ask a fabric supplier whether their fabric is GOTS certified, and there are many sources of fabrics that are.
- Green fabric lines should know whether they are certified, and this independently verified standard is your strongest tool in evaluating whether a fabric is truly safe and chemical free.
- Each person can assess the risk, relative to their level of concern, and take the steps to minimize their exposure that they feel are necessary.
We have discussed mostly cotton, but there are beautiful fabrics in every market sector.
- I love the O Ecotextiles upholstery and drapery fabrics; the
- lush wovens of Twill Climatex collection; and the
- groovy prints of Mod Green Pod.
Every time you vote with your dollars by purchasing clean fabrics, you are creating change in the marketplace. Companies produce things that sell well, and now we have the knowledge that allows us to buy only safe fabric.
For more information:
Read Maggie Wood's Q&A "How do I select safe natural fiber products for my home?" for more information on nontoxic fabrics.
Check the GOTS database of certified products here.