The Soybean’s Latest Adventure:
From Milk to Silk
Think of soybeans and you’ll probably think of tofu, plant-based milk, or one of the latest dairy-free ice creams. But did you know that the soybean is rising in popularity as one of the new, environmentally friendly fabrics? Yes, taking its place beside organic cotton, along with bamboo trousers and shirts made of corn sugar, and even sustainable fashions in seaweed, soybeans are appearing in stylish boutiques.
There are now hundreds of “ecodesigners” worldwide. Most of the customers who wander into Greenloop, a boutique devoted to sustainable fashion in West Linn, Ore., are attracted by a window display. Some are surprised at the prices. Using organic rather than regular cotton can cost a designer up to 30 percent more. Thus, the 100% organic cotton chinos cost $159 at the online store (www.thegreenloop.com), although people who shop and order by computer are deliberately searching for ecofashion.
Why are they willing to pay extra? Because d espite cotton’s natural and pure image, conventional cotton farming takes a heavy toll on the earth, air, water and people who live in cotton growing areas. According to the Organic Consumers Association, a third of a pound of agricultural chemicals are typically used in the production of a single cotton T-shirt.
At least half of the work by Brooklyn designer Nina Valenti of Nature vs. Future is constructed from sustainable fabrics including bamboo, soy, and recycled soda bottles. The Christian Science Monitor recently highlighted one of Valenti’s shirt-dresses, styled in the manner of a form-fitting trenchcoat and made from cotton and ingeo, a fabric derived from corn sugar. As the Monitor predicted, “For those constantly on the lookout for the new black, green may be it.” And last May, Elle devoted an entire issue -- printed on recycled paper -- to green fashion.
A trend to watch will involve a new invention involving a familiar bean. So far, it’s mainly available in thread form, so take note, all you spinners. According to one company in North Carolina, it “truly resembles silk in appearance and handling” and can be dyed with natural dyes, resulting in bright and strong hues. It can be spun on its own (commercially available threads are sometimes, but not always, mixed with wool). It can also be used unspun to make paper or beautiful felted fabric.
The thread is marketed as Soysilk ®due to its smooth, velvety appearance and texture; and in the fashion industry it’s considered a substitute for silk or for cashmere wool.
Why should we be concerned with finding alternatives to silk? Sericulture, the cultivation of the caterpillar (often the Bombyx mori -- cultivated over many centuries and no longer living anywhere in a free state) involves killing these beings before they become moths -- usually by immersion in boiling water, steaming or drying in an oven. According to the Vegan Society, it takes hundreds of tiny lives to produce just one silk scarf or tie. As with other types of animal farming industries, biotechnology is well established. Interestingly, the Society notes that threads from the pineapple may be made into fabrics as strong and lustrous as any silk.
Why should we be concerned about cashmere wool? Like all types of wool, cashmere wool means animals themselves are treated as items of commerce. The popularity of this particularly soft wool has meant the use of many a C ashmere goat in Asia and elsewhere. Cashmere wool’s warmth was meant to protect goats from the cold of their mountain habitats. Not only do businesses confine and use goats for wool; those animals whose coats are deemed substandard are sold to the meat market or sometimes treated as substitutes for chemicals in the Australian weed control market.
So the introduction of soy-based thread is welcome news indeed for advocates of free-living animals.
Remarkably, it’s made from by-products of the tofu-making process.
In 1999, Chinese scientist Li Guanqi developed the soy-based thread, resulting in a prize-winning patent. Thus emerged the innovative ShangHai Winshow Soybean Fibre Industry Company, which today exports this material to the United States and Europe.
To order Phoenix 100% Soysilk ® yarn, visit www.soysilk.com and look for retailers internationally, or check auction sites such as E-Bay. Also stocking ribbon-style knitting yarn in worsted weight is Warm Threads of Utah at 1-801-699-2487. Note: There are soy-wool mixes, so to obtain pure soy, you’ll need to look for the 100% content.
- Teresa Méndez, “Soy Replaces Silk in the World of Sustainable Fashion” - Christian Science Monitor (18 Aug. 2006).
- To order, see North Carolina’s Earth Guild company; available at http://www.earthguild.com/products/spinning/spsoycor.htm or by telephone at 1-800-327-8448.
- Lloyd Davies and Geof Murray, “The Economics of a Commercial Cashmere Goat Enterprise” - Rural Industries Research & Development Corporation Research Paper Series (Jan. 1997); Kris McGuire, Capricorn Cashmere, “Cashmere Characteristics” (undated).
- The home company is located at Zhongshan West Road, Shanghai; find out more at www.soybeanfibre.com.