By AFP Global Edition

Eco-fashion is not just a cool concept but is proving a useful economic tool for Japan's textile manufacturers.

Environment-friendly new products from recycled cotton to organically-dyed cashmere and a revolutionary treatment to make wool shrink-resistant without using chemicals were among the innovations showcased at a trade fair in Paris to woo the fashion capital's top designers.

"These are the survivors. The low quality textile manufacturers have all disappeared because they could not compete with China on price," explained Seiko Fujii-Lesage at the J-Tex salon.

They have identified the emerging eco-friendly market as one way of staying ahead of the game.

Fujitex, which built its reputation on luxury - it has two entries in the Guinness Book of Records for paying the highest ever price for Australian merino wool and for selling the world's most expensive material, vicuna - has a new range of cashmere dyed with plant extracts, such as pomegranate, acacia and cloves.

"We are trying to deploy natural dyes instead of chemicals in consideration of the environmental issues which the whole world should address," Fujitex president Toru Fujita said.

He was also at pains to emphasise that the company's stocks of Andes vicuna, which is considered endangered, had been acquired legally through the Peruvian government's scheme to combat poaching.

Vicunas, related to llamas and alpacas, only produce tiny quantities of ultra-fine wool so the wild animal can only be shorn every three years. Hence its rarity and eye-watering price of 4,600 euros (6,700 dollars) a metre.

Tarui textiles uses soil pigments to dye its organically-grown cottons. All the range is sourced geographically, from yellow from the southern French region of Provence to a red from Ayers rock in Australia and benigara, a red oxide traditionally used to preserve wood from Nakatome in Japan.

-- We never stop researching --

Tarui textiles is also a convert of "eco.wash", which its inventors say is the world's first environmentally-friendly process to prevent wool shrinking when it comes into contact with water.

It uses ozone, a naturally occurring substance, instead of the chemical chlorine, which causes environmental pollution while safer ozone returns naturally to oxygen. Ozone is also less harsh on the fibres, leaving a softer feel.

As well as using 100 percent recycled cotton for its terry towelling and sportswear fabrics, knitwear specialist Minami has found a way of recuperating the sweepings discarded in the making of mink coats. It weaves the soft, inside fur, which is normally wasted, with organic cotton into discretely luxurious textiles that would not immediately attract the attention of the anti-fur lobby.

Miyashin is experimenting with combining bamboo and traditional Japanese paper with silk. The resulting fabrics can look heavy but are in fact incredibly light, some with a "peach skin" finish. "These are still prototypes. We are improving all the time," the company told AFP.

Meanwhile the Takahashi firm has found a new use for the very strong hard-wearing cottons worn by judo players for high-end coats and furnishing fabrics to cover sofas.

Toa-Knit and Aona Pile are both pioneering techniques to produce new versions of jacquards. Toa-Knit uses circular machines to produce jacquards with geometric patterns on an industrial scale which look as delicate as lace although nylon is used to give them strength. "People can't believe they are not devore," where chemicals are used to eat away the surface of the fabric, the company said.

Aona Pile, which specialises in ultra-high gauge fabrics, produces jacquards in dense velours which are extremely lightweight alongside fake furs, which sales manager Nobuaki Ando predicts are the future.

The real key to survival, he believes, is innovation. "We never stop researching and producing new materials. We can't afford to."

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