Indulgent yet responsible fabrics

Here’s to new beginnings and fresh starts! I hope you are all looking forward to a fulfilling 2013.

Zydex Industries

Zydex Industries

Everybody seems to be up in arms about chemicals used in fabrics, some of which have gotten lots of media attention recently, such as PBDE’s, which were featured in the Chicago Tribune series “Playing with Fire” and NPE’s, featured in Greenpeace’s “Toxic Threads” campaign. But why are these chemicals in our fabrics – how are they used, and why? What do they do to us – if anything?

We thought it would be a good idea to take a look, individually, at some of the chemicals used in textile processing and try to answer those questions: what the chemicals are designed to do, what they can do to us – and whether we can avoid using them.

One thing I know for sure – the textile industry uses lots of chemicals. During manufacturing, it takes from 10% to 100% of the weight of the fabric in chemicals to produce that fabric.(1) And the final fabric, if made of 100% natural fibers (such as cotton or linen), contains about 27% , by weight, chemicals.(2) And many of those chemicals are simply not benign.

Why does the industry use so many chemicals? What are they used for?

Most fabrics are finished in what is called “wet processing” where the process is accomplished by applying a liquid – which accomplishes some sort of chemical action to the textile – as opposed to “dry processing”, which is a mechanical/physical treatment, such as brushing. It is a series of innumerable steps leading to the finished textile, each one of which also has a complex number of variables, in which a special chemical product is applied, impregnated or soaked with the textile fiber of the fabric. A defined sequence of treatments can then be followed by another sequence of treatments using another chemical substance. Typically, treatments are arranged to permit a continuous mode of sequences.

The chemicals used can be subdivided into:
Textile auxiliaries – this covers a wide range of functions, from cleaning natural fibers and smoothing agents to improving easy care properties. Included are such things as:
o Complexing agents, which form stable water-soluble complexes
o Surfactants, which lowers the surface tension of water so grease and oil to be removed more easily
o Wetting agents, which accelerates the penetration of finishing liquors
o Sequestering agents
o Dispersing agents
o Emulsifiers
Textile chemicals (basic chemicals such as acids, bases and salts)
• Colorants, such as:

o Dyes
o Dye-protective agents
o Fixing agents
o Leveling agents
o pH regulators
o Carriers
o UV absorbers
The 2010 AATCC (American Association of Textile Chemists and Colorists) Buyer’s Guide lists about 2,000 chemical specialties in over 100 categories offered for sale by about 66 companies, not including dyes. The types of products offered run the gamut from antimicrobial agents and binders to UV stabilizers and wetting agents.

The chemicals used get very specific: for example, Lankem Ltd. is one such manufacturer of a range of textile chemicals. According to their website, their Kemtex AP, for example, is an “anti-precipitant” to be used “where dyes of opposing ionicity may be present in the same bath” and their Kemtex TAL is a levelling agent for wool which is a “highly effective level dyeing assistant for acid, acid milling and prematallised dyes on wool.”

In addition to the branded products supplied by chemical companies, which are made of unknown components because they’re proprietary, we know many chemicals are necessary to achieve certain effects, such as PBDEs for fire retardants, formaldehyde resins for crease resistance or PFOA’s for stain protection. (Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances are both included as PFAS.)

The chemicals used in these branded products to create the effects above include chemicals which have been proven to be toxic, or to cause cancers or genetic mutations in mammals (i.e., us too). The following is by no means an all-inclusive list of these chemicals:
• Alkylphenolethoxylates (APEOs)
• Pentachlorophenols (PCP)
• Toluene and other aromatic amines
• Dichloromethane (DCM)
• Formaldehyde
• Phthalates
• Polybrominated diphenyl ethers ( PBDE’s)
• Perfluorooctane sulfonates (PFOS)
• Heavy metals – copper, cadmium, lead, antimony, mercury among others
So starting next week, we’ll begin by looking at the some of the chemicals used in textile processing, to give you an idea of why we’re making all the fuss about organic fabrics.

(1) Environmental Hazards of the Textile Industry, Hazardous Substances Research Centers, South and Southwest Outreach Program, US EPA funded consortium, June 2006.
(2) Lacasse and Baumann, Textile Chemicals: Environmental Data and Facts; German Environmental Protection Agency, Springer, New York, 2004, page 609.

14 thoughts on “Chemicals used in textile processing

  1. Andy says:

    Love your website. How DO we persuade manufacturers around the world that our globe is a home, not a resource to plunder for gain. How DO we persuade the consumer that cheap clothing & textiles generally mean harming the planet. We have several supply partners that embrace green initiatives in a massive way – why? – BECAUSE IT SAVES THEM MONEY. One of our dyehouses puts cleaner water back into the river than it took out!

  2. Thank you so much for all this great information. My daughter has been working in a fabric store for 6 months. She’s asthmatic (previously not severe) and a few weeks ago ended up in the ER with severe chest pain and difficulty breathing. The Doc’s said it was a combination of her asthma & hyperventilating…. however since that day she has not been able to work as every time she has tried, she’s in the store about an hour maybe two -her chest starts hurting again and it’s painful for her to breath. Remembering some strange & awful smells that have come out of clothes & fabrics after washing them, I did some research in a book I’ve had for 20+ years (Is This Your Child by Doris Rapp, M.D.), I came across info on chemicals in fabrics. My daughter’s store managers (a national chain fabric store) and her doctor, along with ourselves did not realize just how MANY chemicals are actually in the fabric’s that she has constantly handled in the store. Although now she will have to find another job, we all learned a huge lesson here!
    Thank you .. thank you… thank you!!

    ~have a peaceful, pleasant, positive & prosperous day~!~

    1. Sadly, this is not the first time we’ve heard this story. We’ve talked to people like your daughter who work in fabric stores and showrooms, or who unpack boxes of new clothing and hang them on the sales floor, and people who must wear uniforms for their jobs – all these people develop a variety of problems from mildly irritating to life changing. I hope your daughter is well now.

  3. Sandy P says:

    Aug. 2014: I am assuming this is a live website & blog. I taught quiltmaking for ten years during the ’70’s when the only quilt cloth readily available to us was polyester/cotton broadcloth. After several years of teaching, 10 mos. of the year, I found that I began shaking after my classes. Having attended teachers college I was not uncomfortable teaching and found that walking in the outside air (I won’t say fresh air as we lived in the city) alleviated the trembling. As time went on, I found myself sensitive to medical procedures (swallowing a liquid before an X-ray), Gravol (disorientation, shortness of breath) and in 1985, during emergency surgery, I had a serious reaction under the anaesthetics and afterward. I ended up with neuro-toxicity and what I came to understand, finally, was Multiple Chemical Sensitivities (MCS) which the Chemical Industry claims is Idiopathic, trying to avoid responsibility for what chemicals can do to the human body, through skin contact or inhalation (as I had though a hot steam iron on my cloth). I still suffer from MCS today and now live in the country away from the pollution of the city, but in having my blood tested many years ago, two chemicals that showed up were Touluene and Pentachlorolphenol. I’ve signed on for your newsletters.
    S.P., Canada

    1. Hi Sandy: I’m so sorry to hear about your chemical sensitivities. Unfortunately, we have heard many others who, like you, worked with textiles – for example, unpacking clothing from boxes and then hanging for display, or in showrooms where new lines might trigger symptoms. We’re canaries in the coal mine. I hope we can somehow realize the effects that chemicals (in many products, not just textiles) have on our health and do something about it!

      Leigh Anne

  4. Devidjbrown says:

    Tnx 4ur great information

  5. Pamela Greet says:

    Hi there. I found you while doing some research on chemicals used to process ‘natural’ fibres such as cotton, linen, silk and wool. You information is terrific. Thanks so much.

    I also found that someone has lifted information wholesale from your site and posted on his blog.



    1. Thanks for notifying us. Attribution would be nice, but we’re happy that the word is getting out. The most important thing is that people become aware of the chemicals that are used in textile processing, and what those chemicals are doing to us.

  6. Pure Chemicals says:

    Well organized set of information to have an insight on the industry. Pon Pure Chemicals Group caters to the entire chemical need of the textile industry with latest technology incorporated.

  7. Lynne P Heilbrun says:

    I am doing research on chemicals in textiles and wanted to know if there is a comprehensive list of textile chemicals and how they are used?

    1. The book, Textile Chemicals: Environmental Data and Facts by Lacasse and Baumann published by Springer is one. There are lots and lots. We have complied a slightly aged but easier use spreadsheet – if you’d like a copy please email me at service@twosistersecotextiles.com. Patty

    2. Hello Lynne. Thanks for your patience with our late reply. Sorry about that. Have you seen this yet? https://www.twosistersecotextiles.com/pages/what-chemicals-are-unsafe-in-my-fabric

  8. Very Good Blog on textile processing,Useful information for all textile person.want to more information,please share further

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