Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Putting the 'cloth' in cloth diapers: the A-Z on textiles and fibers in CDs

Whether you're researching cloth, you're waiting on an upcoming appointment or workshop with a retailer or consultant, you're just getting started building a stash, or you've been in the thick of cloth diapering for a while, you may find yourself constantly encountering new and unfamiliar textile terminology. 

Does it all confuse you? And do you like what you've got already?

Ain't nothin' wrong with that, my friends. Move right along and ogle something beautiful, like the new gDiaper special releases we just received a shipment of.

But if you've become a diaper nerd--or if you just pride yourself on being the type to research thoroughly enough to know everything there is to know--you may appreciate a handy reference guide to the types of textiles found commonly in cloth diapers.

Textiles 101

So, it's important to know that there are certain terms you'll hear that refer to fibers and raw materials, and there certain terms you'll hear that refer to the way a fiber or raw material is woven, knit, matted, interlaced, or otherwise put together in order to achieve the texture, behavior, and other physical properties characteristic to the textile. Often the resulting textile can be made from a number of possible fibers or raw materials. 

One such example is the term 'fleece.' 'Fleece' does not describe one single type of fabric; it is not in itself a fiber. Fleece is a textile that can be made from many types of fibers and/or raw materials: synthetics like polyethelene (made from a plastic resin) or even the components of recycled plastic bottles, but also hemp and cotton. Microfleece, also known as polar fleece, is a synthetic textile that was invented in 1979 and is a commonly used stay-dry (or "wicking") fabric used in cloth diapers.

Flannel and velour are other examples of textiles that can be made from various fibers.

So what puts the 'cloth' in cloth diapers? 

There are two things a diaper must be to function as a diaper: absorbent and waterproof. After that, some parents may choose a diaper system that pulls moisture away from their baby's skin for comfort reasons as well as to prevent diaper rash; this component is certainly one of the many conveniences of modern cloth diapers, but a diaper can be a diaper without it.

We'll start this week with... 

Absorbent materials

Synthetic textiles are textiles that are manufactured from already manufactured components. Sometimes one component of the raw materials can be found in nature, but, by and large, synthetic textiles are the result of modern chemistry. There is some argument that, despite their association with plastics and plastics manufacturing, their production is 'greener' than textiles woven from natural fibers, which must be farmed, and are often conventionally farmed using pesticides, and then shipped. The cost of synthetic textiles is more easily regulated and slower to rise than the cost of natural fibers, which are in higher demand and lower supply.
Microfiber terry - commonly referred to as simply "microfiber," this material is, more accurately, a high-pile, tight-loop version of the synthetic textile microfiber made into a terry (which is why it feels different than, say, your microfiber-covered couch). Terries are absorbent because the loops act as small sponges. Microfiber terry is commonly used to make automobile and kitchen towels! 
The Thirsties Duo AIO uses microfiber terry as its absorbent core material.
Its most common use in the cloth diaper world is as a cut, stacked, and serged-together insert for pocket diapers. It also appears inside All-in-Twos, All-in-Ones, and even in some fitteds. Microfiber terry diapers reach peak absorbency after about 10 washes, although most families find that they are absorbent enough to be usable after only one or two high-agitation washes. Pros: It's inexpensive, durable, and heavily absorbent. Cons: Some mothers frequently express that microfiber terry holds onto minerals from hard water and becomes stinky more quickly than other materials commonly used for absorbency. Microfiber cannot be worn against the skin and is reportedly prone to compression leaking if it becomes saturated.

Zorb and Zorb II - Zorb is a synthetic absorbent textile invented and patented by Wazoodle, an online fabric supplier that specializes in cloth diaper fabrics. It is not all that different than microfiber--it's a blend of poly/micro fibers, viscose of bamboo, and cotton. Pros: According to the manufacturer, it is hemp-free (Wazoodle is an advocate for eliminating hemp from the diaper and healthcare product markets) and trimmer than microfiber terry. It is also manufactured in the US and Canada. Cons: It's weighty, which makes it expensive to ship and thus to source; no mainstream industry manufacturers are using Zorb at this time. Zorb cannot be worn against the skin and is, like microfiber terry, reportedly prone to compression leaking.

Sherpa - Sherpa is a cotton/polyester blend that is processed into a knit terry. It is more commonly used among WAHM cloth diaper manufacturers than mainstream industry manufacturers. Pros: Sherpa can be found in colors other than 'white' and 'natural,' which can be a lot of fun! Cons: Sherpa's plushness makes it, like many other synthetic absorbent textiles, fall prey to that tendency towards compression leaking.

Absorbent minky - Fairly new to the cloth-diaper-absorbent-core scene, absorbent minky is all the rage these days because of its fast drying time and soft feel. "Mothers Against Microfiber" prefer it because it doesn't feel rough on their hands when they're stuffing it into pockets--it feels incredibly soft and luxurious, actually... because it is synthetic mink

Tots Bots EasyFit: minky!
Some sources tout absorbent minky as stay-dry, and it is often used as the inner layer of WAHM pocket diapers. However, it is my opinion that a distinction should be made between "quick-drying" and "stay-dry." The fabric that makes up a stay-dry layer (also called a "wicking layer") actually pushes moisture quickly past itself and directs it onto the layer underneath it, the absorbent core. Minky merely dries quickly, so if a diaper is used once and left on the baby over a period of time--say, during a nap--the urine will dry fairly quickly and your baby's diaper may not feel wet unless it is highly saturated. It does not perform the same function that a traditional wicking fabric does. Pros: Though synthetic, it can be safely and comfortably worn against the skin. Cons: Some moms do not find that its typical configuration of three or four stacked layers is absorbent enough on its own and must use a doubler with it.

Bamboozle, made from stretch rayon.
Rayon from bamboo - Also known as "viscose of bamboo," this is a synthetic textile, despite its derivation from a plant. Bamboo itself is farmed in a comparatively green and sustainable way, although the manufacturing process is no more or less green or toxin-free than the process associated with any synthetic textile; some of the chemicals used to process rayon include lye and carbon disulfide. The plant contains anti-microbial properties, but the resulting fabrics do not. 

Rayon from bamboo (or from any plant) can be made to mimic silk, wool, cotton, and linen. The version of the fabric that appears in cloth diapers, HVM rayon, is usually napped, giving it more textural similarity to a fleece or even a terry than to a smooth, woven fabric. It can also be made into a velour.

Rayon from bamboo is reported to be slower to absorb than terries, which are made from large loops and thus act more effectively as 'sponges.' Because of this, it is often paired with or layered underneath microfiber terry to catch what is 'squeezed out' of the microfiber layers. HVM rayon is more durable and retains its appearance for longer than the conventionally processed version. Pros: Rayon from bamboo is soft, thin, and absorbent. It does not compress as profoundly when layered like a high-pile fabric such as microfiber does. It can be worn against the skin. Cons: Claims that this is a naturally anti-microbial, natural-fiber material simply are not true.

Natural fiber textiles are often considered more "high-end" than their synthetic counterparts. Some families find that they are more difficult to clean than diapers made from synthetics, while others find that they are more easily cleaned; this is so dependent upon the makeup of a household's water supply that a generalization really can't be made fairly or accurately. 

Natural fibers can be configured in several different ways to form the absorbent textiles that become the absorbent core of a cloth diapering system--they can be woven and smooth, knotted into a velour or French terry, and even blended together. Natural fibers are farmed and then shipped to factories where they are made into various usable textiles, including the types of textiles used in cloth diaper manufacturing. There is concern among fair trade activists that most of the labor on these farms falls to severely underpaid workers and even to slaves.

All diapers made from natural fibers require additional "prepping" before first use. This prep process is accomplished in a number of ways, usually involving hot water and often a de-greasing agent. The goal of prepping is to remove as much of the natural oils and waxes inherent to the fibers as possible in order to achieve maximum absorbency and prevent repelling. 

Cotton - Who doesn't know about cotton? Cotton, like other natural textiles, has the benefit of being, well, natural. Absorbent cotton is made by removing the fiber's naturally occurring wax. 

It's rare to run across a cotton allergy, and there's a reason cotton has been used for diapering for centuries. It's highly absorbent and highly durable. It can be made into a number of textiles: flannel or a flannelette, a fleece, or even a velour, but a simple birdseye weave is its most common manifestation in the cloth diapering world. It is typically bleached, which is effective in removing its oils and waxes, but it can also be purchased unbleached. Pros: Woven cotton, like birdseye, is porous and breathable while still being highly absorbent. Most cotton products, especially Chinese or Indian cotton prefolds and birdseye flats, are inexpensive. Cons: Conventionally farmed cotton is regarded as a problematic crop for a number of reasons, both environmental and human rights-related. Because of this, many consumers feel ethically convicted not to purchase it.

Organic cotton - Cotton that has been farmed according to certified organic farming practices, using minimal to no chemical pesticides, is classified as organic cotton. Because it is more rare than conventionally grown cotton, it is often more expensive. It is considered less durable than conventional cotton and is prone to tearing or forming holes near its seams when it is sewn or serged. Pros: There are significantly fewer environmental concerns regarding the farming and harvesting of organic cotton than conventionally grown cotton. Cons: Fair Trade organic cotton can be darned near impossible to source; even organically grown cotton is associated with labor practices that would not fly in the United States. Additionally, its sustainability as a crop remains a concern--while grown without chemicals, organic cotton still carries a hefty footprint because of the amount of land and water its farming requires.

Hemp - Hemp is a little controversial in the textile world, but it is certainly popular in the cloth diapering world. To be softened enough to be usable as a textile, hemp fibers must be blended with cotton fibers. According to some sources, this hemp/cotton blend is up to eight times more absorbent than cotton alone, and it is regarded as more durable.
Thirsties hemp prefolds.
Hemp, like bamboo, is an anti-microbial plant, but once it is manipulated and processed and blended with other fibers to become a textile, there is no evidence that it retains any anti-microbial properties. In fact, because hemp is so strong and absorbent, it is prone to stinking if it is not 100% cleansed and subsequently dried completely before its next use. Pros: Hemp's tensile strength and durability make it a great candidate for workhorse diapering. Cons: Because its production is limited to certain countries (in light of its association with marijuana), hemp fabrics are expensive for manufacturers to source, and that cost gets added to the price tag. Hemp blends that have less cotton in them, while more absorbent, are prone to stiffness.

Wool - Wool deserves a mention. It's most frequently used as a water-resistant outer, but wool makes an appearance from time to time as an insert or part of an insert. Why? Because it is absorbent! In fact, wool, an animal-derived fiber, can hold up to 30% of its own weight in liquid without feeling damp--that's because it consists of overlapping cuticles that repel water, but beneath those cuticles is a porous absorbent core. Pros: Wool is breathable and (it's true!) somewhat self-cleaning, and the types of wool used in diapering (like merino) are usually hypoallergenic. Wool is a fantastic option for babies who present a reactive sensitivity to other textiles popularly used in cloth diapers. Cons: Even machine-washable wools require some special laundry care. Wool is also more costly than plant-derived or synthetic fibers, and if you are passionate about animal rights, then wool presents a problem.

So is there a perfect absorbent textile for cloth diapers?

The perfect absorbent material for your cloth diapers is the textile that you like the best. It's what functions well for your child and cleans well in your washer, with your water. It's what your budget can handle, and it's what fits into your family's consumer ethics. 

Chances are, you'll love whatever you try first, because there's nothing popular on the market that just plain doesn't work. And if, like many mamas, you start with microfiber terry and then get the itch to try new things, well, that's great, too!

(Next time, we'll talk about waterproof textiles! Laminates and nylons, fleeces and wools--ever wondered what "interlock" means? Or what the difference between PUL and TPU is? Check back to find out!)

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