How to

10 August 2017

From Tree to Tee: How Wood Is Used To Make Fabric

When you think about the clothes that you wear, you’d probably never consider that they might once have been wood. After all, wood is firm and inflexible and these aren’t the most ideal qualities for something like a t-shirt to have.

It certainly wouldn’t make for a comfortable fit.

While the idea of this material being used to make clothes may put an image in your mind of sewing wood chips together, it’s a lot more complicated than that.

The man-made fibres that are used to make fabric – and by extension clothes – come from natural polymers that are broken down through chemical processes. Regenerated protein and regenerated cellulose are the two categories of fibres that are formed by these processes, with the latter being the one that’s extracted from wood.

In order to reach the end stage of producing clothes from these fibres, though, they first have to lose their “hard” property. Unlike plant cellulose that is used for things like cotton and hemp, wood needs to go through the additional procedure of becoming a soft fibre.

It works by taking wood chips from trees like spruce or pine and exposing them to chemicals that digest the material and produce a cellulose pulp. This pulp is then further subjected to processing, pressing, drying and shredding to form a dry cellulose compound that can then be dissolved to create a solution. It becomes appropriate for use as a clothing material when it’s put through a spinneret to break it down into strands and then stretched into long, straight fibres.

Turning wood into viable clothing fibres has been happening since the late 1800s and continues today in a primarily “closed-loop” manufacturing operation. The extensive production process has been considered damaging to the environment, leading to more eco-friendly approaches to be put in place where chemicals are recycled and reused.

Clothing from processed wood is not hugely common, especially with the fears it creates over deforestation, but it continues to be a viable choice provided manufacturers are sustainable in their production of it.

James Darvill

James is a passionate scriptwriter and reluctant poet with a talent for the dystopian. His love for cold weather sports and hiking in the winter gives him the enthusiasm for writing about keeping warm.