By Staff Writer Brendan Pringle.
Regardless, harvested bacterial culture may be the way of the future for the fashion industry. In a world that depends more and more upon microbial organisms, fashion may too find itself victim to this growing trend. And trendy it shall be, under the creative direction of high-profile fashion designer and innovator Suzanne Lee, who has dedicated recent years to the development of microbial textile wear. Whether or not we must wait until the Space Age for the final product is an entirely different question.
We have all heard about the new green fashion trends of using bamboo and hemp as eco-friendly substitutes for everyday materials. These solutions will hopefully lessen the massive environmental impact of fashion waste. But while more eco-friendly and sustainable, these substitutes still suffer from the waste demanded by industrial agricultural production.
Currently, the average household dumps 26 items of “wearable clothing” in the trash every year. Synthetic materials degrade only after centuries, and while natural materials disintegrate faster, they release methane and toxic dyes into the environment. As the constantly changing world of fashion takes its impact on the environment, new materials must replace traditional fabrics.
But is it really possible to produce biodegradable clothing without producing so much waste? Or the more ambitious question: Could clothes be grown rather than manufactured?
This last question may seem unreasonable to most, but not to Lee—a fashion designer turned researcher at London’s Central Saint Martin’s College of Art and Design. Lee has teamed up with Prof. Paul Freemont, a synthetic biologist, and Prof. Alexander Bismarck, a chemical engineer, as she attempts to create a new, sustainable pièce de résistance for the world of fashion.
The technique is simple and the ingredients are fairly basic. A mat of kombucha bacteria culture, which is a “symbiotic mix of yeast and bacteria,” is placed in a tub of sugary green tea, along with some acetic acid. While in the tub, the bacteria culture feasts on the nutrients of the green tea solution, and through fermentation, “microfibrils of pure cellulose form a dense layer that can be harvested.”
This layer is subsequently laid out on a wooden body (which can also be lined with texture-forming material). Once dry, the material has the consistency of vegetable leather. And due to the incredible flexibility and resilience of this bio-fabric,” the possibilities for design are endless. For fashion gurus and environmentalists alike, this is the substance of dreams.
There would be numerous practical advantages to this method of clothing production. First of all, sewing would become a thing of the past. Pieces of the mat can actually be attached as sleeves without a single stitch while the material is wet, and bond as it dries. Second, it would save endless amounts of harmful dye from being disposed into the environment. The hyper-absorbency of the material makes for less frequent dye immersions. Currently, dye is the largest waste product of the fashion industry with more than 70 toxic chemicals released into the environment during production. This “currently accounts for a whopping 17-20 percent of worldwide industrial water pollution.” And sadly, these chemicals remain in the water cycle forever. Finally, discarded pieces of the cellulose quickly and easily dissolve into sugar water when they are composted, while previously fermented liquid can be recycled.
So why hasn’t textile biomaterial production “taken off”? Well, there are a couple major obstacles inhibiting product development. One obvious challenge is that the “fabric” isn’t waterproof. In fact, at this point, it’s water-soluble. As Prof. Bismarck notes, “The problem with bacterial cellulose is that it [absorbs] massive amounts of water . . . up to 98% of its own weight, which makes it . . . if you want to wear it . . . heavy and gooey.” Can you say “wardrobe malfunction”?
Lee and her team of researchers are restlessly searching for an eco-friendly, hydrophobic substance to apply to the fabric. Obviously, countless waterproofing agents exist in today’s world, but most are harmful to the environment, and would defeat the whole purpose of producing “green” clothing.
The other problem lies in producing the fabric at a consistent quality level. Lee and her team of researchers have encountered inconsistent quality regardless of experiment controls. As Prof. Fremont explains, “What we’re hoping to do is try and explore how we might increase the production of the material, and how we might change its properties a little bit” so that every batch has the same quality.
As of now, these problems still remain unsolved.
Once perfected, will microbial textile wear become du jour or be shed as another fashion faux pas? Time will only tell. In any case, the face of eco-haute couture will never be the same.