Grow Your Own Fabric


If you love textiles, you probably know quite a few ways of creating fabric, but did you know you can also grow it? The secret lies in the same bacteria that are responsible for the delightfully controversial fermented tea drink, Kombucha. The process is fairly simple, requiring  just some green tea, sugar, yeast and a sampling of the kombucha microbe, available online, of course!

Suzanne Lee, Director of the BioCouture Research Project and the Senior Research Fellow at the School of Fashion and Textiles at Central Saint Martins College, is the brilliant originator of this application for the bacterium, but you can do it at home. If it’s hot, you can even do it outside. You can hear her on the amazing Ted Talks, and what follows is a summary of the steps as outlined there:

I am sure there must be some finesse required but essentially you must brew a big batch of green tea (she’s British so let’s convert her 30 liters to our 8 gallons), add a few kilos of sugar (say, 7lbs?) and dissolve in a tub by stirring. When the temp drops below 30 degrees Celsius (86F), add acetic acid and the living things- Kombucha microorganisms and yeast. Now maintain the tub at a constant warm but not hot temperature, watch for bubbles that indicate that the fermentation process is active, and within 2-3 weeks you should have produced an inch-thick sheet of cellulose on top of the liquid.

Skim the sheet off, then mold it around a 3D form or cut it like leather when it’s dry. It will be thick, slippery and full of water when you lift it, but will turn into a tough and see-through material most easily comparable to seaweed left above the high-tide mark at the beach. The material is absolutely sustainable, waste-free and biodegradable, and it has a million applications, but raincoat is not one. Get caught in the rain and it will sponge up the moisture returning to it’s more frightening wet seaweed texture.

Suzanne Lee has experimented with dying her fabric using natural ingredients in keeping with the green philosophy behind the process. She has dyed it using iron oxide and vegetable matter. She has also used indigo with beautiful results, pointing out that the material soaks up the dye far more efficiently than cotton does, thereby conserving energy and materials required. And the results are gorgeous.


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