Who doesn’t love a good old cup of tea? I certainly do. It’s the answer to a lot of problems, but I never thought it might be a biodegradable sustainable fashion solution… until now!
As the world is becoming more and more aware of the devastating effects on the planet of both natural (see our article about the effects of cotton production), and synthetic fabrics (polyester particles polluting the ocean), production science is advancing many innovative ways to create new and exciting alternatives. To be honest, fabric made from tea is just the start – Food Waste Fashion is the hottest new trend!
Don’t Drink It Wear It
There have been multiple, successful efforts of harvesting fabrics from tea cellulose fibres. One of the first to come up with a real-life manifestation of this break-through innovation, six years ago, was BioCouture’s Suzanne Lee. As a senior research fellow at the Central St. Martins school of fashion, Lee collaborated with various scientists including a group of researchers from Imperial College London in order to explore the idea of creating a useable fabric from cellulose fibres.
The fabric was made out of a green tea mixture that, once dried out, looked and felt like real leather. The tea leather started life as a kind of soupy mixture of green tea with nutrients and sugar. Bacteria was then added in batches over the course of several days, turning the mixture into long filaments of cellulose that clumped together to form a film that floated over the top of the mixture. Although some issues became apparent, such as the uneven texture it created, the final garment (seen above) was an exciting success.
Another more recent innovation came from Young-A Lee, an associate professor at Iowa State University (and no, not related to Suzanne Lee above!). This Lee has also researched this process and has developed prototypes of shoes and vests.
The fabric is harvested using the symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast (SCOBY). As it dries, it replicates leather. Young-A Lee has been using this technique to create handbags, shoes and clothing.
The real advantage of developing this fabric is that it is 100% biodegradable. Landfill waste in the clothing and textile industry is a major problem, so if clothes and handbags can be made to be biodegradable it would open a whole new world of opportunities. The cellulose fibre allows for reduced waste through a cycle of regeneration called cradle-to-cradle design.
Getting Down To The Real Facts
The cellulose fibre has been tested in the manufacturing of shoes and jackets that look just like real leather, but working with a new fibre isn’t without its challenges. Young-A Lee has been working on her research through a grant from Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to create sustainable clothing. Since then, several tests have been conducted to check for the sustainability of cellulose fibre as a viable alternative to leather.
The tests have revealed some problems that would need further development before SCOBY fibre could really make the jump into mass production. The foremost is the fibre’s vulnerability to air and moisture: the wearer may experience a softening of the material, making it less durable. The other issue is the brittleness of the fibre under cold conditions.
Once researchers are able to deal with the aforementioned issues, they will have to come up with a way of making it suitable for mass production. For now, SCOBY fibre takes four weeks to grow in a lab, however, Young-A Lee’s team has been working on how to reduce the incubation period to make it suitable for mass production.
Because synthetic fibres are so easy to produce, the challenges for this new material are immense. This new technique requires a lot of time in order to grow, dry and treat the material to give it a finish as close to leather as possible. There are other challenges too, the consumers and the producers both need to be educated about the social benefits of this new movement, because the industry can’t shift to something like this and expect the long run survival of the material unless the there is a base of high social awareness already in place.
What Do Consumers Think?
The initial product testing amongst the college students has gauged mixed reviews. The majority thought that the prototype vest was made out of paper, leather, rawhide or plastic. The participants were more concerned with the durability, strength, texture and colour of the fibre. Their attitude was generally positive about the material due to its sustainability, but it’s true that pure leather products are sold for their strength and durability.