Introduction to Organic Fibers

Source: Christine Chamberlin

By now, you may know about the benefits of eating organic food and supporting organic agriculture. But did you know that many of the crops that produce the fibers used to make our clothing and home wares—often those we sleep in every night—account for some of the highest pesticide usage? In fact, it takes roughly one-third of a pound of chemicals (pesticides and fertilizers) to grow enough cotton for just one T-shirt, which is why it is important to consider organic cotton and other fibers.

Surround yourself with the beauty and comfort of fibers pure and clean, just the way nature intended. You’ll help protect our fragile ecosystem and support small farming communities around the world.

Nature’s fibers have kept humans comfortable for thousands of years. Archeologists determined the first remnants of cotton existed about 4,000 years ago.

Silk has a rich history of over 3,000 years. Pillows made with buckwheat hulls have been used in Asian countries for centuries to eliminate stiff necks, shoulder pain, and headaches.

It was only after WWII and the introduction of dangerous fertilizers and pesticides that fiber crops, like food crops, became treated with chemical toxins with damaging effects on the environment and farm workers who raised the crops.

Thankfully, as consumers become more environmentally aware, the growing demand for organic fibers is now on the rise. In 2003, organic fiber sales in the United States grew by 22.7 percent over the previous year, to reach $85 million, according to the Organic Trade Association's 2004 Manufacturer Survey.

What makes a fiber organic?
To gain organic certification, a farm must have been inspected by an accredited certification organization using strict national or international standards. Farmers raising organic fiber follow standards that nurture the soil or animal from which it comes and do not use toxic insecticides, herbicides or fungicides. The Organic Trade Association Web site offers a complete definition of the standards for certified organic fiber processing.

To help understand the many organic fibers available, we have put together the following primer.

Organic Cotton
If you are looking for healthy clothing and other home items, cotton is a great place to start. Conventional cotton is one of the most environmentally unfriendly crops grown anywhere in the world. Grown from a seed, cotton can be a sustainable and organically grown crop. If all the cotton in the world were grown organically, the use of insecticides could be reduced by 25 percent!

If you think organic cotton clothing and home furnishings have to be plain and boring, think again. Organic cotton is now available in many colorful new designs using ecosafe dyes and even color grown cotton. From colorful and whimsical baby crib sets by to trendy new styles from, organic cotton can be very fashionable.

Organic Hemp
The hemp plant is harvested for its fibers, seed, seed meal and seed oil. Hemp is a distinct variety of the plant species cannabis sativa L but because of its leaf shape is frequently confused with marijuana. Hemp contains no THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol), the active ingredient in marijuana.

Hemp fibers can be spun and woven in a fine, crisp, linen-like fabric and used for apparel, home furnishings, and carpeting. Hemp has antimildew and antimicrobial properties, making it a good solution for shower curtains, rain apparel, and floor coverings.

Organic Wool
Sheep, alpaca, and llamas provide us with wool, a miraculous fiber. Wool’s most remarkable quality is its ability to maintain comfortable body temperature, no matter what the season. Wool produces warmth in winter without overheating, and actually keeps you cooler on summer nights because of its natural moisture-wicking properties.

Wool bedding works like a personal heating and cooling system, which makes it perfect for people who experience night sweats. A wool mattress topper or wool moisture pad can actually cool you off during the night by dissipating sweat through the wool’s coil-like fiber.

Another reason to choose wool is because it is hypoallergenic and resistant to bacteria, mold, and mildew, which trigger allergic reactions in some people. Wool is also a natural flame retardant. Firefighters wear wool clothing. Why? When wool touches a flame, it won’t ignite because wool fibers do not support combustion.

Kapok fiber is a silky, cotton-like substance that surrounds the seeds in the pods of the Ceiba tree, primarily found in Asia. These trees grow naturally in the wild making kapok a sustainable resource.

The silky kapok fiber, or floss, is a tiny cellulose tube with air sealed inside and it is ideal for stuffing life preservers and other water-safety equipment because of its excellent buoyancy. It can support as much as 30 times its own weight in water and loses only 10 percent of buoyancy over a 30-day period. It is eight times lighter than cotton and, thanks to its vacuum fibers, makes an extremely efficient thermal insulator.

Kapok fiber is lightweight, nonallergic, nontoxic, resistant to rot, and odorless. The fiber is too fragile to be spun but makes an excellent batting for pillows. The end result is a pillow with all the qualities of down but is hypoallergenic.

Buckwheat / Millet Hulls
Buckwheat and millet are low-maintenance crops that grow well on land that is wet or unprofitable for other crops. Buckwheat and millet crops grow extremely fast and are naturally resistant to insects so do not require pesticides during cultivation.

Grain-filled pillows have been used in Asian countries for centuries. Buckwheat or millet hull pillows mold to the contours of the head, neck, and shoulders exactly. Sleeping with a buckwheat or millet hull pillow elevates your head for proper alignment and cradles your neck or head with steady, gentle support. They also help eliminate stiff neck, shoulder pain, back pain, restlessness, headaches, and sometimes even snoring.

Buckwheat hull filling has "cool in the summer, warm in the winter" insulating properties and lasts for many years.

Silk is a fiber with an impressive 3,000-year history. There is nothing like silk for warmth and breathability. Spun soft and lofty, silk is as insulating as the finest down. This strong and long-lasting fiber makes luxurious apparel, bed linens, and pillow batting.

Organic Trade Association

The National Organic Standards Board Definition of "Organic"

Sustainable Cotton Project

Hemp Industries Association (NA)

Christine Chamberlin is co-owner of The Clean Bedroom ( and a freelance writer specializing in the subject of creating healthier sleeping environments (