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December 22, 2014
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Source: bioalloy.org.

When science meets fashion, anything can happen. To wit, a bottle of wine can even be turned into a dress. The Micro'be' project by contemporary textile artist and lecturer Donna Franklin, and scientist Gary Cass, explores fashion and technology's newest frontier: garments made from the bacterial fermentation of wine and beer.

The project's eureka moment came about through a vat of Australian red wine that had become contaminated with microbes and, essentially, spoiled. "At my friend's winery, in Western Australia, I noticed a skin-like layer on the surface of the wine in the vat; it was micro-fibre cellulose - chemically similar to cotton. Assuming that the skin-like material was microbial cotton and cotton is used for clothing, [we thought] we could easily start producing garments from it!" Cass exclaims.

 The innovative Micro'be' project could change the production system of woven materials.

When making the clothes, the Micro'be' researchers use vats of different sizes and shapes, suitable to the garment they have in mind, and fill them with cheap Australian "goon" (an Aussie term for cask wine). How does the fermentation process work? A culture of living acetobacter is added to a vat. Then, within a few days, the culture ferments the wine into Mother of Vinegar - a soft, skin-like cellulose sludge that forms in fermented alcohols.

In 2007, the very thin skin extracted from a vat was fashioned into the first dress prototype. Using 2-D mats, the team draped the cellulose layer over an inflatable mannequin so that when it was deflated, they were able to remove a ready-formed dress. "We have now perfected a culturing technique that will allow the bacteria to form a 3-D garment that will be seamless; it can also be formed to fit the wearer like a second skin," Cass adds.

The colour of the fabric depends on the wine used in the process: fermented red wine results in a red material (the darker the red (e.g. shiraz), the darker the colour), while white wine results in translucent fabric. The Micro'be' team also produced an amber-coloured, opaque dress from Guinness beer, which they brought to the Techno Threads future fashion exhibition at the Science Gallery in Dublin, in 2008. The show exhibited cutting edge products from all over the world that were manufactured by combining bio- and nano-technology with traditional craft and haute couture skills. However, in the long term, "fermented fabric" made from Guinness beer is likely unviable. The beer's thickness (which makes it a delight to drink) results in a cellulose material that is too stiff and brittle to be worn. "We have had most success from good old cheap Australian goon wine," elaborates Cass.

Although you can't get inebriated from your dress, you do risk walking around town smelling like a hangover. A main disadvantage of the fermentation process is the fabric's very pungent smell. But Cass reassures prospective wearers, "After a few chemical trials, the aroma of stale alcohol happens to go away, the same way the problem of weak flexibility of the fabric will be chemically solved very soon - by producing a more resistant garment suitable for the market."

On the mannequin.
Source: bioalloy.org.

So what are the benefits of fermented fashion? Aside from producing its own colour and structure, it's also biodegradable. The innovative Micro'be' project could change the production system of woven materials. Synthetic fabrics may well be replaced with organic, low-cost ones and, when the 3-D seamless dress is available, the use of weaving machines and labour costs could be reduced as a result of not requiring the patterning, cutting and stitching associated with normal garment production.

The new wine dress is expected to be released later this year or in early 2013. Cass and his team hope that when it does leave their laboratory it will take the fashion industry by storm, as well as inspire other disciplines, such as medicine, engineering, dentistry and architecture. "We have processed and are researching the fermented fashion as a medical bandage. The advantage of the microbial cellulose as a dressing is that it has nano-porosity which will keep a wound sterile from outside infections but one can still see how the wound is healing under the dressing. And one of its biggest advantages is that it doesn't need any adhesives; it covers the skin and wound so closely - as it shrinks it holds its own position on the body. It is also very cooling for burns," he explains.

When the wine dress is officially on the market, the traditional interaction between body and clothing will surely evolve. Microbial bio-products might seem unusual at first, but it may well be one more fashionable way to preserve the environment. Who knows, it might not be long until we see Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay fermented collections parading down the runway.

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