Can Stretch Fabric Be Compostable? Rohner Textil Thinks So

Swimsuits hanging on a wash line near the ocean

Anne Ackermann / Getty Images 

Last year we were approached by a designer wanting to develop a line of sustainable swimwear. We observed that one very tricky element would be doing away with the stretch element: elastane or spandex, what most of us more commonly know as Lycra, DuPont's heavily promoted trademark.

Lycra has many worthy attributes, and has thus become ubiquitous, particularly throughout our clothing wardrobes of women and active folk. However it also has some considerable drawbacks.

Strengths and Weaknesses

First the reasons why designers love elastomeric yarns: "Compared to rubber, elastane has both greater tear resistance and durability and a tension capacity two or three times greater, at a third of the weight." But the real reason it is so well liked? "Elastane fibres can be stretched from four to seven times their length, reverting to their original length when the tension is relaxed."

But even as Superman goes weak around kryptonite, so Lycra has its own Achilles Heel. It loses its famed stretch recovery after prolonged exposure to chlorinated water and the ultraviolet rays found in sunlight. It goes all baggy and saggy.

And elastane being a synthetic imitation of rubber or latex is derived from polyurethane, a petrochemical derivative. Meaning it will last almost forever, which kinda goes against the ethos of most organic textile products, whereby they can be returned to the soil from which they came -- a biological nutrient. Lycra will always be Lycra. It won't decompose.

Swiss Ingenuity

Rohner Textil, of Switzerland, make the Climatex Lifecycle upholstery fabrics long touted by William McDonough as emblematic of how commerce can address the triple bottom line of people, profit and planet. Whilst producing a product that can safely travel from 'cradle to cradle.' As furniture and seating designs become more stylistic so to does the need for fabrics that stretch.

But Rohner had an enviable reputation to uphold and have developed a 'Natural Stretch' version of their Climatex fabrics that provides cloth elasticity without need of elastane fabrics, like Lycra. Apparently it was not an easy hurdle to jump, taking them eight years to figure out how to tease out wool's inherent stretch, yet still retain the durability required for upholstery cloth. The elastic wool is anchored to another natural fibre, Ramie. Special weaving constructions and novel chemical-free finishing methods were required to pull off the feat.

Hard Yards

Such effort has been beyond most companies, who've taken the less painful route of mixing a little spandex/elastane with their organic cotton. At least Rohner have demonstrated what can be achieved with determination. Environmentally benign swimwear might indeed be possible, if designers and swimmers can demonstrate the same degree of gumption.

::Rohner Textil, via Popular Mechanics