How I Got Bamboo-zled by Baby Clothes

So soft, so stretchy, so breathable? “Bamboo” is just an old fabric rebranded as something new and magical.

A row of baby onesies: one pink, one green, and one blue, each covered in a similar bamboo print.
Illustration by The Atlantic. Source: Getty.
A row of baby onesies: one pink, one green, and one blue, each covered in a similar bamboo print.

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To be pregnant for the first time is to be the world’s most anxious, needy, and ignorant consumer all at once. Good luck buying a pile of stuff whose uses are still hypothetical to you! What, for instance, is the best sleep sack? When I was four months pregnant and still barely aware of the existence of sleep sacks, a mom giving recommendations handed me one made of bamboo. “Feel—soooo soft,” she said. I reached out to caress, and it really was soooo soft. This was my introduction to the cult of bamboo.

Over the next several months, gifts of bamboo clothing from more experienced parent friends started to arrive, and I became indoctrinated in its superiority. Bamboo is breathable, I was told, smooth, and so stretchy that it grows with your kid. I heard of moms who exclusively dressed their babies in bamboo. One night after my baby was born, while high on hormones and low on sleep, I wanted to splurge on something nice. Add to cart: $33 for a pair of bamboo pajamas in the color “blush.” Yes, this was more than I’ve spent on my own adult pajamas. But these were bamboo.

Thirty-three dollars, I would later learn, is a relatively, uhh, reasonable price to pay for bamboo baby clothes? The Instagram brands that popularized bamboo for babies have also perfected the art of scarcity-induced demand: Every so often, they drop limited-edition prints that can sell out in minutes. So intense is the competition that moms resell them on Facebook for three, five, even 10 times the retail price; one confessed to reselling a $98 blanket for $1,000.

This all seemed a bit much to me, but let she whose baby is without bamboo cast the first stone. Imagine my surprise, though, when I committed the act of serious investigative journalism that is reading a clothing label. The “magical,” “buttery soft” bamboo fabric that so many moms have been obsessing over? It’s rayon. Yes, rayon, the material best known as what cheap blouses are made of. Rebranded as “bamboo,” rayon has taken on an improbable second life as the stuff of premium, collectible baby clothes.

There is nothing particularly special about rayon made from bamboo. “Bamboo rayon is just rayon,” Ajoy Sarkar, a textiles expert at the Fashion Institute of Technology, told me. And there is no reason this material should inspire so much hoopla. “The world is insane,” said Preeti Gopinath, a textiles expert at the Parsons School of Design, not at all suppressing a laugh when I told her about the hype over bamboo for babies.

And what exactly is rayon? It is neither natural like cotton nor synthetic like polyester. Rayon is in-between, a semisynthetic material made of the cellulose extracted from plants. A century ago, manufacturers used wood as feedstock, but these days they also use bamboo. The basic process used to make most rayon is still the same: The plant material is treated with lye and a chemical called carbon disulfide, which turns any cellulose into a viscous syrup that can be extruded into long, thin strands. Carbon disulfide is especially toxic, known to cause dizziness, vision problems, even psychosis in workers without proper protection (but it shouldn’t remain in the finished product). This entire process of turning bamboo into rayon is energy and chemical intensive, which makes sense. When I see hard stalks of bamboo, I don’t immediately think soft or silky. Bamboo might sound natural, says Maxine Bédat, the founder and director of the sustainable-fashion think tank New Standard Institute, but the fabric is highly processed. The end product is the same regardless of starting material. But no one is out there hawking expensive “wood chip” baby clothing.

These days, manufacturers can make rayon exceptionally soft by finely tuning the way the cellulose fibers are extruded. This feat of engineering turns wood or bamboo into fabric that does, in fact, feel nice enough to lay against baby skin. Some moms seek out the softness of bamboo specifically to keep their babies’ eczema at bay. (Cotton and rayon are both recommended for eczema.) The material is also absorbent and cool, particularly comfortable for warm weather. But rayon is a “weak fiber,” Sarkar told me. When rubbed together, the fibers tend to break and curl—a.k.a. pilling—which explains why bamboo baby clothes come with unrealistically fussy laundry instructions: line dry, lay flat to dry. Who has time when your newborn is pooping on three outfits a day? I tossed it all in the dryer, and sure enough, the bamboo clothing started to pill.

I did, however, continue marveling at the stretch in the bamboo—sorry, I mean rayon—pajamas. I found myself reaching for them over cotton ones because they were simply easier to stuff my baby’s ever-chunkier thighs into. But rayon isn’t inherently that stretchy, Gopinath told me. The stretch in “bamboo” baby clothes comes from the 3 to 5 percent of spandex blended into their fabric; 100 percent cotton clothes obviously contain no spandex. “Manufactured rayon is very cheap”—usually cheaper than cotton—“so you can add a little bit of spandex and it will still be cheaper than a cotton-spandex blend,” Sarkar said. This is not what I wanted to hear after spending $33 on already pilling baby pajamas.

The cost of fabric is, of course, only a small fraction of the price of any garment. When we’re paying for bamboo, we’re not just paying for the bamboo. We’re paying for exclusivity. We’re paying for the feeling that we’ve made the right choice for our helpless little babies. We’re paying for the softness of fabric against sensitive baby skin, even if that means clothing so delicate, it can’t go through standard wash and dry cycles. We’re paying for breathability that keeps babies warm but not too warm, which is a risk factor for the terrifying prospect of SIDS. The stakes can feel very high, and we’re trying our best. Is our best really rayon? Hmm, sounds better to call it bamboo.

The bamboo brands aren’t exactly keeping their use of rayon a deep secret. It’s right there on the clothing labels and on websites touting the superiority of bamboo. But you also wouldn’t necessarily know from a casual perusal of their marketing copy, especially when they use the more obscure name of “viscose.” (Viscose is technically just one kind of rayon, but it’s by far the most common, so the terms are used more or less interchangeably.) You would think bamboo is luxe, exclusive, and so natural. Outside of the world of baby clothes, the Federal Trade Commission last year fined Kohl’s and Walmart $2.5 million and $3 million, respectively, over their “bogus marketing” of so-called bamboo sheets, towels, and rugs. It’s just rayon, the FTC contended, and they had to call it such.

So, if you’re looking, I have some used rayon baby clothes to sell you.