What are my inserts made out of?
The cloth nappy world can be hard to navigate when you are just starting out, hey it can still be hard even when you feel like a seasoned expert. Understanding the material our inserts are made out of seems to be a pain point for many cloth users.
You see not all material is created equal and it’s understandable to wonder things like ‘why is organic cotton better than standard cotton, how come my hemp nappy is not entirely hemp but blended with cotton? And Bamboo…where do I even start?’
The below is a basic run down of the most common material found in cloth nappy inserts and the good or not so good about each one.
Microfiber is abundant in nappies. It is a man made synthetic fibre that absorbs quickly to hold liquid. Microfibers can vary in thickness, the average is 10-50 times thinner than a strand of human hair. Top of the line microfiber is 1/200 the width of a human hair. As with most things, cheaper microfiber does not absorb as well or as much as the more expensive microfiber. Good quality ultra microfiber cloths can absorb 4 – 7 times its weight in water. Microfiber is measured in Grams per square meter (gsm), the higher the gsm the more absorption power it has.
Microfiber is used in nappies as it absorbs liquid quickly and dry’s a lot faster than cotton or bamboo so good for colder climates especially the winter months. The downside to microfiber inserts are that they are prone to leaking when full. Microfiber acts like a sponge, any compression when it’s full and the water just falls out. This is due to the way the fibres work, the construction of microfiber means that liquid is held in pockets in between the fibres themselves, which is why when you press down on it, any liquid contained in these pockets squeezes out.
 Explain That Stuff – Microfiber Cleaning Cloths, Chris Woodford, https://www.explainthatstuff.com/microfibercloths.html
 ULTRA MICROFIBER OUTSHINES TRADITIONAL CLEANING METHODS, http://www.ultramicrofibers.com/comparison
Cotton is one of oldest fabrics in the world and a traditional material used in cloth nappies. It’s a natural fibre which allows the skin to stay cool and breathe when worn. Cotton absorbs liquid by wicking and storing it in between the fibres and even up into the wall of the fibre itself. In cloth nappies cotton lies somewhere in the middle of all the materials used for absorbency, it is better at holding liquid than microfiber, but not as absorbent as bamboo or hemp.
Cotton is a durable material that lasts and lasts and nappies like prefolds/flats or cotton inserts for MCNs can easily get through multiple children with little wear and tear.
In terms of environmental factors organic cotton is best, as an organic cotton crop uses less water, pesticides, insecticides, fungacides and no GMOs. It’s also worthwhile looking for material that has the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) certification. The aim of the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) is to define requirements to ensure organic status of textiles, from harvesting of the raw materials, through environmentally and socially responsible manufacturing up to labeling.
Cotton nappies and inserts can usually come as a brushed cotton or a terry cotton (like towels).
 Global Organic Textile Standards – https://www.ota.com/advocacy/fiber-and-textiles/global-organic-textile-standard-gots
Bamboo material is technically a manmade rayon, however as it is a cellulose fiber (like cotton) it is able to absorb liquid in between and up into the fibre’s themselves. Bamboo has been quoted as being up to 40% more absorbent than cotton. Bamboo also breathes like cotton which makes it an ideal fabric to make nappies out of as you can get much more absorbency with less bulk. Bamboo on its own is quite fragile and would not stand up well to the rigours to cloth nappying. It is usually blended with cotton to give it more durability. Ratios can be 60/40, 70/30 or 80/20. Bamboo is one of the most absorbent material used in cloth nappies. More absorbent than cotton and microfiber but a little less absorbent than hemp.
Bamboo is an easily renewable crop that doesn’t need much water to grow, in terms of environmental factors this is a plus, however the downside is that the process to turn bamboo into a rayon is environmentally intensive and uses harmful chemicals like sodium hydroxide and Carbon Disulphide which are heated during the process. The fumes end up in the atmosphere and run off can enter the local waterways.
Bamboo fabric can come in many forms for nappies including:
Brushed Bamboo, Bamboo Terry, Bamboo Velour and Bamboo Fleece, each of these has a different feel about them though all are lovely and soft.
A word on ‘charcoal bamboo’ a charcoal bamboo insert is made when a factory takes the bamboo off cuts and essentially burns them to a choarcoal, they then take these fibers and impregnate them into a polyester knit. These inserts are usually 3 or 5 layer microfiber wrapped up in the charcoal bamboo material. The term is pretty misleading as what you are really buying is microfiber and not bamboo.
Hemp is probably the most sustainable crop that cloth nappy inserts can be made out of. Hemp grows quickly and doesn’t needs loads of pesticides or water to grow, and it can actually return nutrients back into the soil. Hemp is super absorbent, the most absorbent material we have for cloth nappies, however it is not soft at all and is actually quite rough so it is usually blended with cotton to soften it up.
Hemp manufacturing is also has the least amount of impact to the environment compared to cotton and bamboo and the fiber itself is biodegradable.
Knowing which material to look for in your nappies is an important step in successfully using cloth. A heavy wetter is going to have difficulty using all microfiber inserts so understanding how the absorbency of material differs is crucial to getting it right. It also gives you a start on troubleshooting if you are having leaks. As always the safest bet is to choose reputable brands or purchase separate inserts which have been tried and tested by the market.
 Material Guide – How sustainable is hemp?, https://goodonyou.eco/material-guide-hemp/