The BioCouture project uses living organisms like bacteria to make fibre, creating material that can be cut and sewn or formed around a three-dimensional shape to create clothes and perhaps one day, objects such as lamps or furniture
Fashion designers and biologists are weaving together their talents to create a new sustainable fibre that is biodegradable and wearable.
Using synthetic biology, they can engineer organisms for growing consumer products. One process creates a gel-like film made from a byproduct of kombucha tea to make clothing, shoes and handbags.
The recipe is a symbiotic mix of micro-organisms, such as bacteria and yeasts, which spin cellulose in a fermentation process. These tiny threads form layers in the liquid and, over time, produce a mat on the surface.
The process has transformed the way Suzanne Lee looks at clothes and creates them.
The fashion designer started the BioCouture research project, which is an idea she presented in her book, Fashioning the Future: Tomorrow’s Wardrobe.
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Lee works with scientist David Hepworth in the United Kingdom, who develops materials made from non-hydrocarbon-based feedstock.
Instead of taking an agricultural approach for producing fibre from sources such as cotton in a field or wool from sheep, Hepworth is focused on living organisms like bacteria to make fibre.
Their commercial business aims to bring living, bio-based materials to the textile and fashion industry.
Lee explained their recipe, as well as the future applications, during a TED talk video presentation.
The fabric farm process starts by brewing tea and then adding sugar, which is poured into a growth bath. After it cools, a living organism and acetic acid is mixed in. An optimum temperature must be maintained, but the process can be taken outside during hot weather.
Several days later, the fermenting goop bubbles away as bacteria feed on sugar nutrients in the liquid.
“So, they’re spinning these tiny nano fibres of pure cellulose and they’re sticking together, forming layers and giving us a sheet on the surface,” she said.
About two weeks later, the static culture is about 2.5 centimetres thick and left alone to grow on its own.
To harvest, it is taken out of the bath, washed and spread on a wooden sheet to air dry.
As it dries, it compresses to something that looks like transparent paper or vegetable leather, which Lee said also resembles human skin.
“You can either cut that out and sew it conventionally, or you can use the wet material to form it around a three-dimensional shape. And as it evaporates, it will knit itself together, forming seams,” she said.
However, there are shortcomings.
“If I was to walk outside in the rain wearing this dress today, I would immediately start to absorb huge amounts of water. The dress would get really heavy, and eventually the seams would probably fall apart, leaving me feeling rather naked,” she said.
Another limitation is that in cold conditions, the cellulosic fibre becomes brittle and falls apart.
Mass production is another challenge of working with the fibre because its growth cycle in the lab takes three to four weeks, which could bottleneck manufacturing.
Other researchers have designed prototypes of vests, shoes and handbags using the same kombucha tea process.
Young-A Lee, author of the book, Sustainable Fibers for Fashion Industry said the new cellulose-based fabric is completely biodegradable in the soil. It can also reduce waste by creating a continuous cycle of reuse and regeneration termed a “cradle to cradle” system.
Ananas Anam, based in the United Kingdom, has adopted biomimetics by taking waste from pineapples.
The organization uses the leaf fibre from pineapples to make a leather alternative to try and offset mass leather production and chemical tanning.
According to the company’s website, founder Carmen Hijosa was inspired by the use of plant fibres in traditional weaving such as Barong Tagalog garments in the Philippines.
Their research showed that the strength, flexibility and fineness of the pineapple leaf fibres stood out as a raw material. The company has developed a non-woven textile that can be commercially produced.
Designers are using the textile to craft products such as footwear, clothing, interior furniture and automotive upholstery.
The pineapple industry produces about 13 million tonnes of pineapple leaves as a byproduct each year, which are often discarded to rot or be burned.
Harvesting and selling the fibres from the pineapple leaves provides an additional income for Philippine farmers.
Stuart Smyth from the University of Saskatchewan’s College of Agriculture and Bioresources said this idea has huge potential for the Prairies if researchers could find a way to use existing biomass to create the cellulose.
“I think it would provide an opportunity for some biomass that would essentially not have any market value, to now have market value in the proximity of 200 or 300 kilometres from any plant that was going to set up to try and enter into this market,” said Smyth, who also holds the industry research chair in agri-food innovation at the university.
“That could be as simple as a livestock producer who has a bunch of old bales that are no longer valuable as animal feed and they could load them up and sell them for a little bit instead of spreading them or having them rot on a field.”
Sustainability fibres in clothing are driving popular clothing companies to find ways to transform.
Levi Straus is spinning recycled plastic bottles into its denim jeans and is working with other companies on an initiative to find sources of more sustainable cotton. However, it’s unlikely that microbial cellulose will replace cotton, leather or other textiles on a mass scale any time soon.
Still, growing clothes and making fibres in a factory is a viable alternative, which would reduce waste caused by disposable clothing, and reduce society’s reliance on natural resources.
“Ultimately, maybe it won’t even be fashion where we see these microbes have their impact. We could, for example, imagine growing a lamp, a chair or maybe even a house,” said Suzanne Lee.
“So, I guess what my question to you is: in the future, what would you choose to grow?”