Fabrics Field of Soybeans

Published on April 13th, 2010 | by Becky Striepe

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Fab Fabrics: What’s the Scoop on Soy?

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Field of Soybeans

Soy gets a lot of love as an eco-friendly fabric option. But does it live up to the hype?

Like bamboo fabric, soy is produced from plant material and advertised as being extremely eco-friendly. We’ve looked at the pros and cons of bamboo fabric before, and it turns out that bamboo isn’t the wonder-fabric it’s touted to be. With careful label-reading, it’s possible to find bamboo that’s more responsibly produced. Still, organic cotton or hemp seem like much better options.

I’d been seeing a lot of companies boasting products made from soy fabric and thought it was time to look into it.

The Upsides

Soy fabric has a great feel to it. In fact, some folks are calling it an eco-friendly alternative to silk. The fabric is soft, sort of like cashmere.

One of the coolest things about soy fiber is that it’s made using the byproducts from the creation of soy foods like tofu. That means soy isn’t grown just for fabric purposes, and that soy fabric production helps reduce waste.

The process for making the fabric sounds similar to bamboo: “Soy protein is liquefied and then extruded into long, continuous fibers that are then cut and processed like any other spinning fiber.”

This process is very chemical-heavy, but unlike a lot of rayon made from bamboo, it’s a closed-loop system, meaning they reuse the chemicals over and over rather than dumping them.

The Downsides

Although the process does reuse the chemicals involved, it still means that workers are exposed to these toxins on a daily basis. It also makes you wonder how much of the chemicals from the extruding process remain as residue in the finished soy fabric.

It was tough to dig up information on how the extruding process works and what chemicals specifically are involved, so if anyone has more info about that, please share!

There are a couple of other issues with soy. Unlike bamboo or hemp, it does require a lot of water and pesticides to grow. Soy crops are also responsible for deforestation in the Amazon, and the plants are often genetically engineered.

After doing the research, it feels like soy has one more thing in common with bamboo: its status as an eco-fabric is not cut and dry. If you do want to give soy fabric a whirl, I’d look for fabric made from organic soybeans.

What’s your take on soy fabric? Do the upsides outweigh the downsides?

[Image Credit of a field of soybeans growing in Argentina: Creative Commons photo by amicor]


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About the Author

Hi there! I'm Becky Striepe, a green crafter and vegan foodie living in Atlanta, Georgia with my husband and two cats. My mission is to make eco-friendly crafts and vegan food accessible to anyone who wants to give them a go. If you like my work, you can also find me on Twitter, Facebook, and .



12 Responses to Fab Fabrics: What’s the Scoop on Soy?

  1. Nicole says:

    This was an interesting read. I’ve been doing a lot more work with yarns lately, resisting the temptation to buy synthetic yarns and stick with cottons as much as I can, organic when I can afford it. I quite like bamboo and soy, though I thought that cotton, particularly non-organic cotton, was just as chemically-dependant as soy when it comes to pesticides, as well as being an equally thirsty crop. Also, I can’t help but wonder if soy yarn being a by-product of food production isn’t better than cotton, as cotton is grown primarily for non-food purposes and is not a by-product of food production like soy is. Compared to soy and bamboo, do you know how many chemicals are used in the production of cotton into fabric and yarn?

    All of this said, when it comes to the safety of people and their human rights (and especially those of child slaves), I do think I have the responsibility to think about these things and make the most responsible purchases I can when I have the choice to do so. If I’m in a shop with fair-trade organic cotton yarns, I would choose those over non-organic, non-fair trade cotton.

    I think, though, that I will be more cautious with my soy and bamboo yarn purchases in the future, looking for organic yarns as you’ve suggested.

    Thanks for the great article!

  2. Kara says:

    This is all I could find: “Firstly, the spherical protein is distilled from the soybean cake and refined. Secondly, under the functioning of auxiliary agent and biological enzyme, the space structure of spherical protein changes, and then protein spinning liquid is confected by adding high polymers, and then thirdly, after the liquid is cooked, the 0.9~3.0dtex fiber is produced by wet spinning, and stabilized by acetalizing, and finally cut into short staples after curling and thermoforming.” http://www.swicofil.com/soybeanproteinfiber.html

    While a lot of soy is technically GM because of the molecular propagation techniques used to bring them to market faster, many varieties commonly grown in the US were bred conventionally before molecular genetic modification techniques were anything but lab experiments. I guess it’s a distinction that only matters to molecular biologists, but to me, using molecular techniques to propagate a gene set that has been bred into a plant the same way ALL of our food plants have been bred is not the same as directly altering the genes of an organism without knowing what all the results will be. (Sorry, off my soapbox now)

  3. Interesting read indeed(from both author and respondants). As a rep for a company that distributes both synthetic and organic fabrics, I am often asked about their origins and as such, find myself desiring to do a little extra homework of my own to give our customers an educated and informative answer when required. And while my personal preference is for natural fabrics, when weighed against the con’s of manufacturing the fibers to get the finished product, it really comes down to being as responsible as possible to ourselves and our planet in our choices, without becoming obsessed with personal ideals or socialized self-identifying labels. Thank you for your sharing.

  4. karen says:

    This is as disappointing as when I first found out about bamboo fabric. Although I don’t own any clothes made of soy (or bamboo) because I haven’t bought any new clothes in years, it’s good to know the facts if I decided to buy clothing made of soy.

    But I do have a question for Netfah from J&O Fabrics,

    What do you mean by “being as responsible as possible to ourselves and our planet in our choices, without becoming obsessed with personal ideals or socialized self-identifying labels.”?? Are you implying that this article is about being “obsessed with personal ideals or socialized self-identifying labels”? Because I thought the article is all about being an “educated” consumer.

  5. Thank you guys so much for the thoughtful, informative comments on this post! I’m really enjoying the discussion and learning some new things, too!

    @Nicole – If you’re talking organic cotton, I think it probably beats soy or bamboo in terms of chemicals, but conventional cotton is another story. Conventional cotton farming uses a huge amount of pesticides. Not only that, but a large part of the conventional cotton on the market comes from India, where Monsanto takes horrible advantage of the farmers. This article goes into more detail about the Indian cotton situation
    :
    http://www.dnaindia.com/india/report_one-suicide-every-8-hours_1049554

    @Kara – Thank you so much for the information about soy fabric and GM soy in general! If you have any suggestions for articles I can read about soy production, I’m definitely up for it!

  6. Kara says:

    Oh, Monsanto (and a few other agri companies) treats ALL farmers that way. My family goes through the most unbelievable cycle of buying seeds and selling the resulting crop to buy more seeds, because we are not allowed to keep any trademarked varieties (GM or not) in storage to plant the next year. We do use much smaller amounts of much fewer chemicals now though as a result. Our frogs, fish, and birds are back!

    @ Becky, I don’t know how technical you’d like to get, but here’s more reading –
    National Soybean Research Lab: http://www.nsrl.illinois.edu/general.html
    USDA Data on GM Crops in the US: http://www.ers.usda.gov/data/biotechcrops/
    National Center for Soybean Biotechnology: http://soybiotechcenter.org/soyimprovement/
    A more technical look at current GM projects in soybeans: http://www.soybeangenomics.org/nutritional_genomics.php

  7. Jane says:

    It would be very good to know the facts before slandering a fabrication. No one to my knowledge has ever done a statistical comparision between eco fibres and it is a bit early in the process to toss out what is essentially an eco option. Who says the workers are “exposed to chemicals”??? Most factories have very clear safely guidelines and protection that I have been in so I am curious where your disinformation comes from. Also, organic cotton uses extensive water and caustic soda to finish – does this mean it is not eco? We must stay open and keep asking questions but throwing out missinformation only hurts our industry. Keep looking and when you have actual proof – please feel free to post it. Until then, quite slandering people who are trying to find a better way to produce fashion!
    PS – there is no SLAVE labour that I am aware of in my industry except for that which was found in the USA last year and had no connection to eco clothing. Again, tarring the entire industry because of 1-2 circumstances in the US market is not the way to go.
    thank you

  8. Stacey says:

    Thanks so much for this article!
    For me, that soy is made from by-products at least puts it above a lot of other fibers… but I agree, there doesn’t seem to be a perfect fiber!
    Thanks for pointing out that there is a lot more to the issue than whether a fiber is ‘organic’ or not!

  9. Kathy says:

    Thanks for the article. I’m a home sewer and had no idea that soy fiber existed!

    And Jane, no one was slandering an industry, she was just explaining the facts as they are at this time, based on the information available. Everyone knows that all fabric production at this time involves some caustic chemicals. This is not a perfect world, and history has shown us that much of the world does not have good standards of safety for their employees. Since you seem to be so defensive and knowledgeable about it, why don’t you write an article with the “correct” information? Perhaps you could do the comparison of the products. We would all love to read it. Anything that will help people to make informed choices is good.

  10. Carolyn Young says:

    I’m trying to find out how clothing labels are represented when soy fabric is used. In the US, do the manufactures have to disclose that the soy fabric was used in making the clothing article? I have two daughters that have an intolerance to soybean oil. Yesterday, one put on pajamas that she got as a christmas gift and started coughing a lot and getting hives. The label says “100% Fleece”. Doing some research I found that this Soy Fabric can be found in clothing, blankets, etc…Sure would solve some mysterious coughing outbreaks at my house. If anyone could advise, I’d certainly appreciate it it. Thanks.

    • Bethany says:

      Carolyn,
      A lot of PJs have flame retardant and other nasty chemicals in them… perhaps that is what caused the hives?
      I’ve refused all the flame retardant pjs we’ve come across and I’ve been stocking up on organic cotton for my toddler.

  11. Felicity says:

    Thanks for the great article. It’s so frustrating trying to figure out true “green” alternatives when there are so many parts of the process to consider and either no information or way too much, often conflicting, information.

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