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Bamboo is the new silk

I’ve been an enthusiastic customer of Ashland-based YALA since the release of its first product, the Dreamsack, a silk sleeping-bag liner that world travelers can use in place of questionable hotel bedsheets.

I recently met with the company owners, Tif Zohara and Rachel Davis, to learn how YALA expanded from producing silk bedding to designing clothing from eco-friendly bamboo fabric.

The original Dreamsack was the brainchild of Ashlander Nancy Morgan, who conceived it while she was teaching English in China during the 1990s.

Morgan’s idea for portable bedding took shape when she befriended a local family who owned a silk factory. Dreamsacks caught the eye of Sunset Magazine, which catapulted the company into public awareness. Then, as Morgan began designing clothing out of leftover silk, she met a family who operated a bamboo fabric factory outside of Shanghai.

At the time, the Chinese government had recently patented a process of making rayon-like fabric from bamboo. As factory spokesperson Anthony Quin pointed out, in the early 1990s China was faced with grain shortages, even as demand for cotton textiles was on the rise. Without sufficient land to cultivate both, some visionaries grasped how they could make fabric from bamboo growing wild in the southeastern part of the country.

For millennia, woven cloth had been made from a handful of natural plant and animal sources. Europe, North Africa and Central Asia produced linen from flax, and wool from sheep, camels, yaks and other domesticated animals. Hemp was utilized from Mesopotamia to China. Ancient China also developed a means of turning boiled silkworm cocoons into thread, while India wove fabric from cotton. (Fun Fact: In 1492, Columbus discovered cotton growing in the Caribbean.)

In the 1880s, a Frenchman, Count Hillaire de Chardonnet, invented a textile made from cellulose derived from rags and wood pulp (eventually called rayon). In the 20th century, American manufacturers employed similar techniques to fabricate tencel (from birch) and modal (from eucalyptus).

Unlike other labor-intensive “natural” fabric sources, bamboo (a form of grass) is readily available without additional cultivation. Mature canes can be harvested without damaging roots or the younger, leafy canes that sequester carbon. Bamboo does not require watering, fertilization or pesticides. Most importantly, unlike cotton, it can be processed into fabric in the same region where it is grown, significantly reducing greenhouse gases created through transportation.

Like all types of rayon, bamboo is turned into wood chips, then pressboard, then pulp. At that point sodium hydroxide is added so fibers can be spun into thread. Critics have pointed out that sodium hydroxide is a harsh chemical that can cause health problems for factory workers. Zohara indicated that YALA’s Chinese supplier recently made safety improvements to its factory, primarily in order to meet European Union safety standards, but satisfying YALA’s ethical values as well.

A fan of ecologically sound manufacturing, Morgan had added bamboo clothing to her Dreamsack line, then returned to run the company from Ashland. Davis joined the business in 2006, after attending SOU, while Zohara moved here from California to work under Morgan’s guidance.

Dreamsacks changed its name to YALA in 2009. (YALA does not have a particular meaning, but Davis and Zohara joke that it is an acronym for “Your Adventure Lies Ahead.”)

In 2015, Morgan sold the company to new owners, who moved it to Eugene. Encouraged by a friend, Joe Chermesino, now an employee, Davis and Zohara developed a business plan and purchased YALA back from the Eugene proprietor, returning it to Ashland in September.

Davis and Zohara design comfy, loose-fitting tops, dresses and nightclothes. Though most of YALA’s clothing and bedding are made from bamboo, some products incorporate other materials, including organic cotton and spandex. The company recently began importing alpaca wool ponchos from Peru.

YALA’s products are sold in stores all over the U.S. and Canada, as well as online. Customers who sign up for YALA’s mailing list (at www.yaladesigns.com) receive information about new products and specials. YALA’s products are available locally at Travel Essentials in downtown Ashland.

The owners will take time out from organizing their new warehouse near the Ashland Food Bank to host a sale at the Historic Ashland Armory, 208 Oak St., from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 16. Past-season and closeout items will be on sale for up to 90% off.

YALA's new proprietors, Rachel Davis and Tif Zohara, bring the business back to Ashland.