We like to use hemp even more than organic cotton. Hemp is always grown organically, is more durable than cotton, can be grown almost anywhere, and does not deplete the soil (even organic cotton causes some soil depletion). Unfortunately, hemp is artificially expensive because it must be imported (its growth is banned here in the US). Most hemp is imported from Hungary, Romania and China. We used hemp to cover some of our “salvaged” chairs, and to make some of our curtains. Unfortunately, it was a too expensive for use throughout the house.
In one of our many attempts to keep things as natural as possible we tried to use hemp rope soaked in linseed oil as a caulk. Historically hemp was used for nautical purposes and holds up quite well when wet. However, our cats enjoyed playing with the hemp rope and quickly pulled it out of position. We made our peace with “green” caulk (often silicone caulk) and have used it instead.
Because of its ability to handle moisture, we wanted to use hemp burlap to reinforce the straw around the windows. Due to the prohibitive expense, we opted for burlap made of jute, a fiber that grows naturally in hot climates like India and Indonesia.
In addition to hemp, we also used organic cotton, naturally-dyed silk and wool, and recycled fabric (like old saris) for curtains and bedspreads. Our mattress is made of organic cotton and wool. When we have used traditional cotton , we have washed it first with environmentally friendly soap, hot water and vinegar to take off the chemical finish.
Non-toxic paints and finishes were used for our floors and cabinets. No plywood or other treated wood was used anywhere in the house or furniture. We tested many paints and finishes when building our original home and have continued to test products every time we have built something new ( ie bookcases, closets).
An early attempt at making homemade floor finish from tung oil and naturally derived turpentine was moderately successful but the floor and trim finishes we have found to be the most pleasant to work with are from OSMO and are made in Germany. The entire line of oil based OSMO products (available through ecohaus.com) is excellent, but like many high quality “green finishes” is quite expensive. When we can, we have avoided finishes (as in our unfinished bathroom walls), and when we must use a finish we look for the most durable environmentally finish we can find. In the long run durability is more important as most toxicity occurs during application. Luckily, OSMO has proved to be more durable than even comparable mainstream finishes!
Most of our house does not have regular walls that need to be painted. Our exterior walls are made from straw bales covered in plaster and whitewash, and our interior partition walls are old fashioned plaster and lathe, also whitewashed. When large expanses of sheet rocked surface needed to be painted ( as in our attic/office ceiling) we experimented with various low VOC paints and have found them all to be comparable. We prefer to use as natural a product as possible and in a bedroom would definitely opt for a more natural product than one that says simply “low VOC”.
Even low VOC products can off gas over time and can be deceptive because we cannot smell them. I would prefer an obvious VOC smell for a few days followed by a totally cured product to an apparently odorless product that still may be releasing harmful substances into the air. In our new building we are using a bit more sheetrock, along with both painted and unpainted wood. We will be experimenting with a few finishes and will report our findings here.