New plant-based textiles will restore fashion’s poor environmental reputation
Written by Zenda Nel
Sustainability Fashion Writer
If you thought that buying secondhand, reselling, and upcycling your clothes are ultimate fashion sustainability actions that will save the environment, think again. The ultimate fashion sustainability measures are clothes that breathe in CO2 and produce oxygen. And if your clothes could completely disappear after they’ve served their purpose, that’s true sustainability.
How on earth can this be achieved? The answer lies in the magic of new biomaterials being developed. From algae, cacti, and coffee grounds to mushrooms and spider webs – nothing seems to escape the ingenuity of modern-day scientists and creators.
Let’s investigate some of these marvels.
First, we must learn a new word: biogarmentry. Biogarmentry is a discipline that brings nature, design and science together. It involves the living organisms of algae in the process of creating a living and photosynthesizing textile.
The living organisms form the actual textile itself and remain alive while you are using it. So, when you wear a garment made from this material, it will continue its photosynthesis process, cleaning the air around you. Imagine, just by wearing these clothes, people will reduce the carbon in the air.
Canadian-Iranian designer Roya Aghighi, a multidisciplinary designer from Emily Carr University of Art has been collaborating with material engineers, scientists and biologists at the University of British Columbia for years to promote bio-design practices in Canada. Together, they have developed a garment made from algae. Aghighi wants to change how people relate to their clothes – in her world, we will have to care for our clothes, so they stay alive.
Her algae garments are still at the proof-of-concept stage, so we won’t see them in the stores soon. Should it come to fruition, biogarmentry will be the ultimate sustainable clothes. Local Threads
Assistant Professor of industrial design at Rhode Island School of Design, Charlotte McCurdy, has won wide acclaim for her transparent carbon-negative raincoat made from marine algae and other biodegradable components.
McCurdy followed that project up with an equally impressive dress adorned with green sequins made out of the same biomaterial. Algae has the quality in real life to sequester carbon while it grows, photosynthesizing and capturing carbon dioxide from the air. The idea is that when it’s made into a fabric, the algae will continue its air-cleaning process.
This project was part of the One X One incubator initiative by the Slow Factory Foundation, which brings fashion designers and sustainability pioneers together. McCurdy collaborated on the project with Phillip Lim, creative director and co-founder. Local Threads
Photo by Phoenix Han on Unsplash
Here we have to learn another new word: bio-fabrication. That is to say, the process of growing materials from small organisms like bacteria and fungi. In terms of fabric created from mushrooms, biofabrication refers to the production of fabric from the roots of mushrooms, called mycelia.
Dutch firm NEFFA grows the fungi in discs that are then stuck together to form garments without seams. The making of the garment contributes to its sustainability by eliminating the spinning and weaving of threads and the sewing of the textile. In addition, this natural fabric uses considerably less water than cotton in the production process.
The best part? After you’ve worn it, you can simply throw your mushroom dress on the compost heap. Isn't that just great! While NEFFA grows its mushrooms in discs, other companies grow theirs on bio-substrates of various thicknesses. The bio-substrates can be anything from straw and sawdust to tiny pieces of wood. Growers can manipulate the thickness of the substrate to produce different thicknesses. The fabric will also vary depending on the substrate it feeds on. It can be as thick or as thin as needed. Manufacturers can alter the appearance of the resulting fabric to have the same texture and look as any animal leather.
And how is the leather dyed to reach the desired hue of tanned hide? It’s steeped in a brew of English Breakfast tea, eliminating harmful chemicals.
The final material is referred to in the trade as vegan leather and is used in the place of animal leather to produce shoes, belts, handbags, watch straps, and more.
A Bay Area biotech company, Bolt Threads, is a leading player in the vegan leather market. The company calls its leather Mylo and it’s the first company that has been able to produce vegan leather at scale. Products made from Mylo will be available for sale from early 2022.
Bolt Threads has formed partnerships with prominent designers and retailers to promote the adoption of vegan leather in the fashion industry. Designer Stella McCartney, Adidas and Lululemon, the French luxury group behind Gucci, Yves Saint Lauren and Bottega Veneta, have all announced their intention to use Mylo in upcoming lines. Local Threads
Bolt Threads first attracted the fashion world’s attention with its microsilk, a synthetic version of spider fibers. Spider silk fibers are extremely strong but also soft, so they are ideal as a fiber for textiles.
Bolt Threads CEO Dan Widmaier, a biochemist, and his team of fellow scientists work with DNA samples that mimic spider silk proteins. They make a yeast of it, which they can then grow as needed. The resulting powder is a polymer that needs to be turned into a thick liquid before it can be extruded into long strands of synthetic silk, which can be woven into fabric.
The company’s achievement attracted the attention of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, that commissioned the company to make a dress from their silk. Widmaier approached Stella McCartney for the project, and she produced the iconic yellow shift dress that was exhibited at the museum’s ‘’Items: Is Fashion Modern?’’ exhibition in 2018.
Another company that produces spider-inspired fabric is the German company AMSilk. The company has engineered bacteria that produce spider silk protein, which can be spun into fibers.
The end product is a sustainable, high-performance textile that is 100% biodegradable. AMSilk biotech materials are being used in industries other than fashion as well. The company has produced high-performance sports clothing and is working with Airbus to develop the next generation of composite fibers for lightweight, high-performance planes. AMSilk’s bionic high-performance Biosteel® fiber will be used for the project.
The company’s versatile silk technology has also found application in the medical industry, where it’s used to coat various materials and devices.
At the bottom of your coffee cup lies the beginning of your next pair of jeans. Those coffee grounds have been the source for the textile produced by Taiwanese textile company, Singtex since 2009. Their textile, called S.Café, is the result of a patented procedure that involves the mixture of used coffee grounds with recycled plastic bottles.
The resultant fabric is not only soft, light and breathable, but also has unique additional advantages. One of its advanced features is the ability to wick moisture away from the body, so any garment made from S.Café dries quickly, even in very hot or humid conditions. Also, the embedded nano-sized coffee granules in the fiber absorb any odor the wearer’s body produces – great for long walks on hot days. According to the company, the fabric can actually cool down one’s body temperature.
The Singtex technology uses an efficient process that doesn’t require high temperature for carbonization, turning coffee waste into a 100% biodegradable textile.
There are few things in the world as peaceful and quietly inspiring as a lotus pond. When in bloom, the lotus produces magnificent flowers towering over a sea of large round leaves. Cultures in the East have long used the fibers in the tall lotus stems to create rare textiles.
Samatoa Lotus Textiles in Cambodia is famous for its soft, breathable, and almost wrinkle-free fabric fashioned from lotus stems. To produce the fabric, the lotus stems are cut, the fibers extracted and dried, and then they are woven on traditional looms into cloth.
According to the company website, it takes 40,000 stems to produce 3,000 meters of thread to end up with only one meter of lotus fabric.
Third-generation textile company, Hero’s Fashion Pvt Ltd in Jaipur, India, has come up with the ultimate white shirt made from lotus material. Called the NoMark Lotus shirt, it is lightweight, soft, silky, breathable and stain-resistant.
The shirt gets its stain-resistant qualities from the hydrophobic nanotechnology that the company uses. So, when you spill coffee on your shirt, you can just let it roll off. The fact that the shirt doesn’t have to be washed very often contributes to its sustainability profile. Local Threads
The promise of new eco-friendly fabrics to choose from is great news for Australians who are eager to purchase products that are produced ethically and sustainably. Australians are becoming more conscious shoppers and are showing a preference for alternative plant-based textiles that promise a more sustainable fashion industry. Using clothes made from sustainable fabrics is part of eco-friendly living, which is an important step to protecting the environment.