Every day it feels like there is a new ‘eco-friendly fabric’ hitting the market. From Lyocell that is harvested from sustainably managed forests to ethical wool sourced from farms that treat their animals with respect and kindness. I love to see more and more fabric options like these that aren’t sourced from petrochemicals or harming animals. So, when I heard 'vegan silk' my head turned, and I knew I had to learn more about cupro fabric.
What is cupro fabric?
Cupro fabric (also known as Cuprammonium rayon or Bemberg fabric) is part of the Rayon family of fabrics. It’s semi-synthetic and comes mainly from recycled cotton linter (the tiny fibers around the seeds of the cotton plant). Since linter fibers are too short to spin, they are usually discarded as a byproduct during the production of cotton.
Cupro has been around for over a hundred years but has become more popular in the last few decades as we have turned our attention towards more sustainable clothing material options. Known for being super soft and lightweight, cupro is a popular alternative for silk and polyester-based garments.
How is cupro fabric manufactured?
Cupro fabric is produced almost exclusively in China by a Japanese company called Asahi Kasei Corporation.
To make cupro fabric, the linter fibers are first chemically processed and are dissolved into a viscous solution of copper oxide – also known as cuprammonium. This is how cupro fabric gets its name! The cellulose is then added to caustic soda (or sulfuric acid) and passed through a machine called a spinneret. The final step involves coagulating the filament shapes in a hardening bath to wash out the copper and neutralize the sulfuric acid. Finally, the linter can then be spun into new fibers and woven to make beautiful, smooth, super soft fabric.
Is cupro eco-friendly?
There are elements to cupro fabric that make it an eco-friendlier option than, say, polyester, but it still isn’t without its issues. So, first what makes cupro fabric eco-friendly?
- It's cruelty-free. Unlike silk and leather, no animals are involved in the production of cupro fabric.
- It’s biodegradable. Because cupro fabric is derived fully from plant-based materials, it will break down if it ends up in a landfill.
- Producing cupro fabric finds another use for a byproduct that would have otherwise been thrown away.
- Cupro fabric uses less dye than traditional materials because it absorbs color more easily.
But that is just one side of the story here. Manufacturing Cupro needs high amounts of copper, ammonia, caustic soda, and other toxic chemicals that are VERY challenging to dispose of properly and are hazardous in the long term to the workers that must handle them every day. And with only 50% of all hazardous waste being recaptured and reused, it’s tough to call Cupro truly eco-friendly.
While producing cupro is helping divert waste that would have gone to a landfill by using pre-consumer fibers, it isn’t solving the big ethical and environmental problems that come with the fast fashion industry and standard supply chains.
While there are some environmental benefits to cupro fabric, its true eco-friendliness is greenwashed by marketers since these chemicals are often not disposed of properly. In my opinion, Cupro has many of the same issues as bamboo viscose, another fabric currently marketed as ‘eco friendly’. Both require a toxic soup of chemicals that are awful for people and the environment.
What are cupro fabrics used for?
Cupro fabric is quick-drying, skin-friendly, and ultra-soft, making it a good fabric option for formal dresses (an ethical wedding dress? Yes please!), scarves, shawls, nightgowns, and lingerie. Cupro fabric is also often found in the lining of men’s suits and winter coats since it feels so luxurious on the skin.
While cupro fabric isn’t known for being super stretchy like elastane or spandex, it does have a reputation for blending well with other fabrics (including spandex). Because of this quality, cupro would also work well for eco-friendly yoga clothes due to its moisture-wicking properties or for around-the-house sustainable sweatpants!
Benefits of cupro fabric
While cupro probably isn’t all it’s made out to be in terms of sustainability, there are other reasons to love cupro fabric!
- Cupro fabric is said to be good for people with sensitive skin since it's hypoallergenic.
- Cupro fabric is anti-static and machine washable.
- Cupro fabric is lightweight, breathable, and soft.
- Cupro fabric is affordable.
- Cupro fabric will last a long time since it has good elasticity and toughness.
- Cupro fabric helps draw user attention to the emerging market of sustainable fabrics!
- Cupro fabric is easy to clean.
How to wash cupro fabric?
You can usually wash cupro fabric in the washing machine, but I would suggest looking at the instructions on the garment first in case it is a blend.
When you wash your cupro fabric in the washing machine, set the dial to the delicate setting and turn your garment inside out so it isn't exposed to other clothing or zippers and buttons during the wash cycle (this material likes to pill). I would also recommend setting the water temp to cold or warm, not hot, so the garment doesn’t shrink.
Once clean, lay your garment out flat to air dry. I would avoid hanging it or wringing it out so it doesn’t lose its shape. If the material is still too wet, you can press down on it with a towel.
Since cupro is wrinkle-resistant, you shouldn’t need to iron it out once it dries. If you do, keep the dial on a lower setting and do a test patch first where people are less likely to notice in case it becomes damaged.
Cupro vs. other types of fabrics
Cupro vs. Silk
By look and feel alone, cupro fabric is the most comparable to silk. I would even go as far to say it’s shinier than silk. One major difference between the two is that cupro fabric can be washed in the washing machine which is a huge bonus if you ask me. But perhaps the biggest (and most obvious) difference between cupro and silk is that cupro is vegan and silk comes from silkworms.
Cupro vs. Cotton
While cupro and cotton technically come from the same plant, the treatment and production lead to two very different materials. While conventional cotton is more versatile for everyday wear, it's not as strong as cupro fabric. Unfortunately, cupro also requires 70% more energy to produce, so there is that. If you are curious about other more eco-friendly options to replace conventional cotton or cupro, I would suggest looking into organic cotton! It requires less energy and less water than regular cotton.
Cupro vs. Hemp
Hemp is really one of the most sustainable fabrics around. It performs like traditional cotton and is also very durable similar to cupro. One downside with hemp is it's usually more expensive compared to cupro.
Cupro vs. Viscose
Viscose also comes from a plant (like bamboo viscose for example). The term "viscose" actually references regenerated cellulose fiber obtained through the viscose process. However, cupro is much stronger than Viscose because of the strength of the cotton fibers. It also has a higher sheen and you don’t need to wash it as much.
Cupro vs. Polyester
Polyester is one of the most common fabrics out there since it's cheap to produce (it accounts for 80% of ALL synthetic fiber). Polyester is also a versatile fabric and can be used to mimic other fabrics like traditional satin or cupro. But unlike cupro, polyester is a fully synthetic fabric that comes from a chemical reaction involving petroleum, air, and water. Cupro is semi-synthetic and can biodegrade while polyester will sit in landfills for years and years.
Cupro vs. Nylon
Nylon and Cupro are both flexible and durable fabrics. However, nylon is also derived from petroleum making it a less eco-friendly option compared to Cupro. The production of Nylon creates nitrous oxide – a greenhouse gas that has 300 times the warming potential compared to carbon dioxide.
Is cupro still sold in the United States?
Because of the harmful chemicals that go into the manufacture of cupro fabric, some governments have banned its production completely. The US is an example of this.
Is cupro biodegradable?
Yes! While chemically intensive to produce, ammonia, sodium hydroxide, and sulfuric acid are not found in the final fabric making cupro biodegradable. Sitting in a landfill (or when burned) will also generate lower levels of greenhouse gasses compared to polyester.
Is cupro expensive?
Cupro fabric, and rayon fabrics in general, are a much more adorable substitute for real silk. The affordability of clothes from cupro fabrics will ultimately depend on where you shop, but in general, I find it to be an affordable fabric option.
Brands that use cupro
Here are some of my favorite brands that are using cupro right now.
2. Whimsy & Row
3. Amour Vert
A final word on cupro fabric
While cupro fabric is better than polyester or nylon in terms of emissions, or silk and leather in terms of animal welfare, it still has issues and is chemically intensive to produce.
In my opinion, there are other alternatives out there that are worth looking into that have the same look and feel as rayon, like modal. If skin sensitivity is your main concern, check out TENCEL™! Or, take a look at my full list of the most and least sustainable fabrics. Good luck 🙂