By Juno Kelly

Designers are embracing textile alternatives like mushroom leather and live bacteria. But what’s the difference between them, and which have the potential to go all the way?

Over the past decade, myriad sustainable solutions to the fashion industry’s infamously unsustainable supply chain have emerged, raking in billions of dollars in investments as fashion brands continue to court increasingly environmentally conscious consumers.

One such solution is “biomaterials,” a blanket term which refers to textiles made from microbes like bacteria, kelp, fungi, yeast, and plants. These biomaterials, loosely speaking, fall under three categories: eco fibers (like Algiknit or orange fiber), fibers and textiles created from gene-edited microbes (like collagen and spider silk), and garments that remain “alive” when consumers take them home, requiring moisture and sunlight to survive.

Eco Fibers 

Eco Fibers, in layman’s terms, are fibers made out of natural materials like pineapple and orange fibers, which can be utilized to create clothing. Notable eco fibers include a renewable yarn by AlgiKnit created from kelp, one of the fastest growing plants on the planet, and Piñatex, an eco-friendly fabric made of waste from pineapple farms.

Bio-fabricated materials 

The microbial fermentation of materials is to thank for textiles like mushroom leather, arguably the most widely disseminated biomaterial thus far. “Microbial fermentation is being used to create an array of materials for textiles, from spider silk to squid protein and biopolyester, mycelium, and nanocellulose,” says Dr. Theanine Schiros, an associate professor at FIT and the co-founder and former scientific advisor at AlgiKnit and co-founder and CSO of Werewool. “Werewool uses microbes to brew designer proteins that replicate nature’s amazing functionality, like vivid colors or waterproofing, in regenerative textile fibers,” explains Schiros. 

Central Saint Martins Senior Research Fellow Suzanne Lee, a leader in the field of “biocouture,” as it’s loosely known, has worked closely with scientist David Hepworth over the last decade to grow new materials.

Living organisms as clothing 

In the above process, microbes are used to create materials but not incorporated, live, into the textiles. However, an emerging batch of scientists and designers are seeing what happens if the bacteria in our clothing remains “alive,” as we wear it. Knitwear designer Olivia Rubens works alongside Post Carbon Lab to create clothes with a photosynthesis coating, meaning the garments become more akin to plants than clothing as we know it. Each piece comes with complex aftercare instructions. “Photosynthetic pieces should be misted once to twice a day and kept in the shade, like in a darker bathroom, a hallway with no windows, or behind a door. They can’t be submerged in water, so they can’t be hand washed in a regular way; they should be cleaned with a cloth using pH-neutral detergent, and they can’t be ironed or steamed as this will directly kill the living pieces,” explains Rubens. 

However, the garments are high-maintenance for good reason— a plethora of benefits come from wearing living organisms, with more continually being discovered. A study by Laure Carey, Chris Callewaert, and Rosie Broadhead found that garments infused with bacteria have a positive impact on the wearer’s skin and can reduce body odor. “Designing microbiome-smart textiles can be a novel and alternative way to advance the functionality of clothing and to combat odor development or potential textile-related skin conditions,” the study concludes. As such, Skin 11, a clothing line designed by Rosie Broadhead in collaboration with microbiologist Dr. Callewaert, incorporates probiotic bacteria into clothing fibers.

But when it comes to the environment, it’s not only living garments, but all biomaterials that harbor benefits. When discarded, biomaterials break down into non toxic substances, unlike fabrics like polyester, which can take up to 200 years to decompose in a landfill. Furthermore, as the materials are being created solely for a specific garment, fabric waste can be almost entirely diminished—no need for dead stock materials on the cutting room floor. 

Inevitably, biomaterials have their drawbacks. Due to the complexity of the processes involved, traditional designers have to partner with labs run by bioengineering experts to make clothing, adding time and money to the process. Olivia Rubens’ coating process takes 4-6 weeks. The pieces then need to be constantly “looked after” to be kept alive until they’re sold. “The cost can be on the higher end as this is a new technology, so perhaps it might go down in the future,” Rubens tells Mission

Extra time, money, and ample red tape can defer emerging designers, as their desire to attract sustainable consumers often fails to override their desire for creative control and freedom, especially as they can often get equal credit just by greenwashing. Furthermore, if biomaterials were to replace their traditional counterparts, it would reduce blue-collar jobs in garment factories, as producing them warrants highly skilled workers with scientific backgrounds. 

Although eco fibers and bio-fabricated materials like mushroom leather are relatively easy to maintain, living breathing biocouture requires great care. These aren’t toss-it-in-the-wash-every-week cotton tees. For fashionistas used to high-maintenance couture garments (with a lot of time on their hands), this aftercare may be manageable, but for the average consumer, it can be a lot to ask. Furthermore, the idea of wearing bacteria may seem grotesque to many buyers. As such, Schiros sees these pieces as being more akin to “inspiring provocations” than the future of fashion. 

Of bio-materials, bio-fabricated textiles (like mushroom leather) appear to hold the most promise. Schiros notes that the amount of cellulose produced by eucalyptus (which would be used to create an eco fiber) in 10,000 m2 in a decade can be produced in a 500m3 bioreactor in just one month (and at a higher purity). Despite this, she believes that sustainable designers should continue to make use of existing textiles, “from a sustainability perspective, designers should prioritize the environment and social ethics, and choose the lowest impact material, which oftentimes is a conventional textile which would otherwise go to waste.” 

As for Rubens? She still has hope that living garments hold infinite potential, “the point of these pieces is to care for them over a lifetime, just as you would a plant: name them, love them, and care for them. These pieces are value-based and are important so we can make these types of scientific innovations the norm.”

Images courtesy of Olivia Rubens

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