Cloth diaper fabric -
Which nappy materials are best for your baby's comfort?
Here's a brief introduction to the different materials used in modern cloth nappies. Most of the focus is on natural materials.
Cotton is the traditional material of nappies - usually in the of terry towelling. If you are not familiar with the name terry towelling, it's the looped fabric which is commonly found in ordinary towels and bathrobes.
It is a good choice of material because it is fairly absorbent and it's soft - at least to begin with. It is also cheap. Cotton flannel is sometimes used instead of terry towelling - it is less bulky but still soft because of the nap which the woven cloth is given during manufacture.
However, the disadvantages of cotton terry towelling (as a cloth diaper fabric) are considerable. It becomes rough with use so fabric softeners are often needed to soften it up. It can chafe your baby's skin when wet. The wetness does not wick away, so urine may be in contact with the skin for some time, especially in the night.
It is also a very intensively produced crop, requiring huge inputs of chemical fertilisers and pesticides when grown the modern conventional way. Cotton also needs a lot of irrigation so it can place heavy demands upon water supplies.
Organic cottons are now widely available and are a better choice, both environmentally and for your baby.
If you use organic cotton you know there is no risk of chemical sprays still being present in the cloth. Organic cottons are often produced without bleach, too.
In north America you can buy diapers such as Softbums Organic One-Size Cloth Diaper Basics Pack from Amazon.
If you are in the UK check out my page Cloth nappies UK which includes some organic options.
Bamboo is developing a great reputation for its softness and absorbency. It is a very breathable fabric so it's great for keeping your baby cool and comfortable in hot weather. It is often combined with cotton and hemp in nappy products.
Bamboo is also a relatively environmentally-friendly cloth diaper fabric because it requires very few agricultural inputs - and virtually no pesticides. Bamboo grows very quickly and bamboo plantations help prevent erosion. Bamboo also absorbs (sequesters) greenhouse gases as it grows - a truly useful plant! Its production is more sustainable than most other products - cotton, for example.
Bamboo fleece is a soft material made from a combination of bamboo with a small amount of cotton. It is soft and fluffy on one side and usually smooth and silky on the other. As a cloth diaper fabric it has all the benefits of bamboo with the added comfort of fleece.
There are many excellent bamboo baby diapers and other products now on the market. Bummis Bamboozles are well regarded.
Hemp is becoming a popular material as its remarkable qualities become better known. It is hard wearing, absorbent and can be quite soft. On the downside, it can be rather slow to dry.
As an agricultural product hemp is valuable because it has such a short growing cycle. Hemp for cloth can be harvested about 4 months after it has been sown!
Not to be confused with...
The hemp involved should not be confused with the hemp used as a recreational drug. You would need to smoke practically a field of this hemp to get high! In fact, it contains a THC antagonist that makes it completely useless for THC production. (THC is the active component in marijuana.)
Because it looks very similar to the Cannabis sativa plant that provides marijuana, (a close relative - a subspecies) some countries (including the USA) are reluctant to allow farmers to grow it. This is a shame as it is one of the most environmentally friendly crops. Canada and Germany are now allowing industrial hemp growing.
In the UK the Home Office now licenses hemp growing for industrial purposes.
Less land use
Hemp uses far less land than cotton or flax. You can get more than double the crop from an area, as compared to cotton. Hemp is a great product for the environment in other ways, too.
It needs few inputs as it suppresses weeds by its vigorous growth and brings up nutrients from the sub-soil. It is drought resistant and its long roots help prevent soil erosion and condition the soil.
The fibres can be bleached without the use of chlorine. Hemp fabric is resistant to moulds and to bright light (ultraviolet).
As a material for nappies and children's clothes it is ideal because it is long-lasting, strong, yet soft. Hemp fibres have good insulation properties so hemp clothing and hemp diapers can be cool in hot weather and warm in cold weather.
Mixtures are available with cotton, linen and other fibres. Hemp becomes softer with wear - it wears in rather than wears out! If you need to soften up new nappies or other hemp items, a hot wash followed by tumble drying will speed the natural softening process.
Here's a very successful man-made cloth diaper fabric.
Microfibre (or microfiber) towelling is also used as an absorbent insert in many nappy systems.
Microfibre diaper inserts are generally composed of polyester and polyamide mixes. They are reputed to hold as much as 7 times their own weight of water. They also wick moisture away from the skin, leaving the baby feeling dry and comfortable.
Microfibres are not from renewable resources - they are usually constructed from the chemicals from petroleum - and they are not biodegradable. They last well with care and can always be recycled as cleaning cloths.
One other advantage is that you do not need any detergents or cleaning agents if you are using them for cleaning or as nappy liners. Just use soapy water - anything else makes them less effective.
You can buy microfibre overpants in the UK from Natural Collection. They can be used with any nappy system and they are quite inexpensive.
Polyurethane laminate (Pul) is an interlocked fabric which has polyurethane fleece on one side and a polyurethane layer laminated to it which provides water-proofing.
It is used in the construction of many of the nappy pouch systems to provide a leak-proof shell which is still comfortable for the baby wearing it.
Many parents rate these "Thirsties" diaper covers from BunnyburyBaby.
Wool has its merits as a cloth diaper fabric - it is warm and breathable and can also be quite cool in hot weather. After all, in the days of the British Empire colonial types used to wear woolen underwear! They presumably were not entirely "barking" mad!
Wool makes a great outer nappy and some parents find them very baby-friendly. You can buy wool outers from Amazon.
Silk is a useful material for nappy liners, especially if your baby is prone to nappy rash. Some nappies are also made with an mixture of silk and other fibres.
Vegans avoid silk as it is produced by hard-working silk worms.
Other cloth diaper fabrics which have green credentials may be out there! If you know of a good natural or synthetic fabric which is sustainably produced or hard wearing and recyclable, please use the Your Tips! section to share. Thank you!
Cloth Diaper Fabric - copyright greenfootsteps.com 2009
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