Grow your own clothes?Posted: June 20, 2011
How to Grow Your Own Clothes
My project sprang from an idea in my book“Fashioning The Future: Tomorrow’s Wardrobe.”
I was questioning what science could “fashion” for us in the future.
As a fashion designer, I’ve always tended to think of making clothing from conventional materials. But then I met a biologist, and now I think of a completely different recipe — green tea, sugar, a few microbes and a little time.
I’m essentially using a kombucha recipe, which is a symbiotic mix of bacteria, yeasts and other microorganisms, which spin cellulose in a fermentation process. Over time, these tiny threads form in the liquid into layers and produce a mat on the surface.
We start by brewing the tea. I brew up to about 30 liters of tea at a time, and then while it’s still hot, add a couple of kilos of sugar. We stir this in until it’s completely dissolved and then pour it into a growth bath. We need to check that the temperature has cooled to below 30 degrees Celsius. And then we’re ready to add the living organism, and along with that, some acetic acid.
We need to maintain an optimum temperature for the growth. I use a heat mat to sit the bath on and a thermostat to regulate it.
After about three days, the bubbles will appear on the surface of the liquid — the fermentation is in full swing. And the bacteria are feeding on the sugar nutrients in the liquid.
So they’re spinning these tiny nanofibers of pure cellulose. And they’re sticking together, forming layers and giving us a sheet on the surface. After about two to three weeks, we’re looking at something which is about an inch in thickness. This is a static culture. You don’t have to do anything to it; you just literally watch it grow. It doesn’t need light.
And when it’s ready to harvest, you take it out of the bath and you wash it in cold, soapy water. At this point, it’s really heavy. It’s over 90 percent water, so we need to let that evaporate. So I spread it out onto a wooden sheet.
As it’s drying, it’s compressing, so what you’re left with, depending on the recipe, is something that’s either like a really lightweight, transparent paper, or something which is much more like a flexible vegetable leather. And then 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.
I started to grow microbial cellulose to explore an ecofriendly textile for clothing and accessories but, very quickly, I realized this method had potential for all sorts of other biodegradable consumer products.