Growing Clothes From Your Cup of Tea

The fashion industry, by its very nature, generates lots of waste, way too much to be ignored. The problem is, even if the present clothing material can be recycled or repurposed, it still eventually ends up in the trash bin. So, this brings us to the obvious question: Is it possible to have a truly sustainable fabric that is 100 percent biodegradable and can be returned back to the soil as a nutrient rather than occupying space in a landfill?

Researchers working in the field of synthetic biology say the solution could be found in a novel sustainable film made from a by-product of kombucha tea. They believe that this new material could be the material for clothing, shoes or handbags in the near future.

Young-A Lee and her research team have designed a vest and shoe prototype from the cellulosic fiber grown in this lab. Image credit: Christopher Gannon
Young-A Lee and her research team have designed a vest and shoe prototype from the cellulosic fiber grown in this lab. Image credit: Christopher Gannon

The gel-like film composed of cellulose fibers is grown by using a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast and has properties similar to that of leather. The material has already been tested for many applications such as cosmetics, foods and as biomedical tissue for wound dressing, but is fairly new to the fashion industry.

Cellulosic fiber growing in the lab. Image credit: Christopher Gannon
Cellulosic fiber growing in the lab. Image credit: Christopher Gannon

“Fashion, to most people, is an ephemeral expression of culture, art, and technology manifesting itself in form. Fashion companies keep producing new materials and clothing, from season to season, year to year, to fulfill consumers’ desire and needs,” says, Young-A Lee, an associate professor of apparel, merchandising and design at Iowa State University. “Think about where these items eventually go. They will take tremendous underground spaces of the Earth like other trash.”

Lee, author of the book, ‘Sustainable Fibers for Fashion Industry,’ believes that the new cellulose fiber has the potential to reduce waste by creating a continuous cycle of reuse/regeneration – known as the cradle to cradle design. In addition to giving a new purpose to the tea by-product, Lee envisions that it will lessen the apparel industries dependence on non-renewable materials.

Harvested and dried cellulosic fiber. Image credit: Christopher Gannon
Harvested and dried cellulosic fiber. Image credit: Christopher Gannon

How to grow my shirt?

Growing this bio-degradable fabric is quite simple. All you need is some green tea, sugar, a few micro-organisms and a little bit of time. Firstly, kombucha tea is brewed in a container and when it is still hot, sugar is added and stirred well until it dissolves completely. Next, it is poured into a growth tub and allowed to cool. Once the temperature is below 30 deg Celsius, microbes such as bacteria-yeast are added and a little bit of vinegar. And this is when the real action begins.

After about 3 days, bubble starts to appear on the surface, indicating that fermentation has kick-started. Bacteria feeding on the sugar starts spinning nanofibers of pure cellulose which combine together to form layers. Later after 3-4 weeks, this by-product of fermentation presents as a mat — about an inch in thickness, at the top of the fluid syrup.

That’s it, your piece of cloth is ready for stitching. Once it is ready, you take it out of the bath and wash it with cold soap water. At this point, 90 percent of its mass is water and it is really heavy. So you dry it under the sun. Once dried, the final product depends on your initial recipe. It can range from being as thin as a sheet of transparent paper to as thick as flexible vegetable leather. From here on, you can cut it through and sew it conventionally, or wrap the wet sheet around a 3-dimensional prototype — to make shoes for example, and allow it to dry. As water evaporates, it will knit itself together, forming seams.

Biobomber jacket. Image via naturalblaze
Biobomber jacket. Image via naturalblaze

The color of the cloth comes purely from green tea and it looks a little bit like human skin. Suzanne Lee, fashion designer and author of the book, ‘Fashioning the Future: Tomorrow’s Wardrobe’ says, “Since it’s organic, I’m really keen to try and minimize the addition of any chemicals. I can make it change color without using dye by a process called iron oxidation. Using fruit and vegetable staining create organic patterning. And using indigo, make it anti-microbial. In fact, cotton would take up to 18 dips in it to achieve the required darkness. And because of the super-absorbency of this kind of cellulose, it just takes one, and a really short one at that.”

Not all aspects of this novel fiber are ideal and perfect. There a few challenges to be confronted, before it can be certified as a viable alternative to leather for the fashion industry.

One of the main limitations of this new fiber is that it cannot be made water resistant. It absorbs moisture at a rapid rate from the atmosphere and the person wearing the jacket or shoes. So, if I were to wear this jacket and go out in rain, it will start to absorb a huge amount of water, get soaked, become heavy and eventually the seams will give away, leaving me standing naked in the street. It could possibly be a good performance piece but still not yet ideal for day to day wear.

Another observed limitation is that in cold conditions the cellulosic fiber becomes brittle and falls apart. Also, the time duration of 3-4 weeks which the fiber takes to grow could turn out to be a bottle-neck during mass production. Researchers are working to come up with a tangible solution to reduce the growth cycle for mass production.

Shoes made from the cellulosic fiber. Image credit: Christopher Gannon
Shoes made from the cellulosic fiber. Image credit: Christopher Gannon

“It does not take that long to make certain synthetic materials, but for this new material we are proposing, it requires a certain amount of time to grow, dry, and treat the material within specific conditions,” Lee says. “If our experimental effort from this project is successful, this cellulose based renewable fabric can be an alternate future where we move to a cradle to cradle system, instead of relying on materials derived from unsustainable sources.”

What consumers say?

For a new fabric to be commercially successful apart from the eco-friendly brand, the look, and feel of the material matters. So to know what the general public has to say, a survey was conducted among college students. The outcome of the survey was quite interesting.

The majority of them perceived that the cellulosic fiber vest was made of leather, rawhide, paper or plastic. Though they felt good about the sustainable quality of the new material and it being an interesting alternative for leather, they had some serious concern about the color and texture of the material. Some questioned the comfort, durability and care it demands to maintain it. When asked whether they are willing to buy a product made from this new material, many were not that enthusiastic to do so.

Vest prototype. Image credit: Christopher Gannon
Vest prototype. Image credit: Christopher Gannon

Despite the not so positive response from the consumers, professor Young A Lee is confident that with a little bit of further research, most of the public concerns can be worked through and a safer, viable options can be found to meet people expectations.

This is a much needed positive step forward in making the fashion industry sustainable and eco-friendly. Such alternatives not only will eliminate the waste from cheap, disposable clothing but also will drastically reduce the contamination of water and soil by the chemicals used to make the synthetic materials and dye fabrics.

But to make this green revolution in the fashion industry a success, not only the researchers, but consumers and the employees working in the fashion industry should be on board.

As Dr. Lee says, “Socially conscious awareness from the consumer end plays a lot. Employees who work in the fashion industry need to be fully educated on this movement. The industry cannot shift things at one time. It is all about people in this industry. The key is changing their values to consider the betterment of people and the planet in a long run, instead of focusing on a consumer’s shortcoming interest.”

Ravindra Krishnamurthy

Ravindra Krishnamurthy is a freelance science writer covering science, tech, the environment, health, food, and culture.

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