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December 12, 2017
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Do You Take Sugar With Your Tea? So Do Clothes

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To a sugary green tea solution we add a mixed culture of bacterial cellulose, yeasts and other microorganisms to produce a flexible cellulose mat (Source: BioCouture).

Recount the steps you would take to make a nice, hot cup of tea. You brew the tea, and while it's still hot, you might stir in some sugar. In a newfound world of making clothes, the same ritual applies, with a dollop of live organisms. Who knew that organic clothing could take on new meaning? We've seen environment hugging brands like Donna Brown Yogawear boast natural fabrics as part of their raison d'être. We have also witnessed modest shops work meticulously to produce the finest detail a dandy man can find in a suit. What hasn't been seen, until recently, is the amplified synergy between the two. Suzanne Lee, a fashion designer who has taken to biology with the BioCouture research project, gives new meaning to sustainability and craftsmanship by growing, yes growing, her own clothes.

Lee grows a "fabric farm", she explained in a TED talk last March, where she uses baths at set temperatures, either indoors with the aid of heat maps or outdoors when it's hot, to grow clothes. The growth cycle begins by brewing 30 litres of green tea, adding sugar and measured doses of microbes. It's a culture she calls Kombucha, which is a symbiotic mix of bacteria, yeasts and other micro-organisms, which spin tiny threads of cellulose in a fermentation process. Over time, these threads form into layers in the liquid and produce a mat on the surface.[1]

Less maintenance than growing a plant, one need not water the organisms or expose it to light. It's simply a matter of watching it grow.

Finished product (Source: BioCouture).

In her TED presentation, Lee outlines the final steps necessary to give these clothes meaningful form. When the material is ready to harvest, she takes it out of the bath, washes it in cold, soapy water, and "hangs it to dry", so to speak. The near final result looks somewhat akin to a lightweight, transparent paper, or human skin. It can either be cut or sewn to form a shape, as one does traditionally. However, if one desires to follow suit, pun intended, au naturale, the wet material can be used to form around a three-dimensional shape. As the water evaporates, the material will knit itself together. 

Colouring the material has proven to be more efficient than applying the same method to cotton, for example. With cotton, one needs to dip it 18 times in indigo to achieve the same colour that would only take one dip to achieve with the bacterial-cellulose. Unlike cotton, however, it cannot absorb water, which means that one would go from fully clothed to naked in a short amount of time when heavily rained on. Note to those who are interested in trying this at home. 

In her blog, Biocouture - or how to grow a frock, Lee documents the process she took in creating a prototype tote bag as part of her research on leather-like qualities of microbial cellulose. The bag and its journey in creation was part of an installation called "The Power of Making" at the V&A in London. 

Prototype Tote Bag 
(Source: BioCouture Blog)

With Lee's method of growing garments from start to finish, nothing goes to waste. The sugar used in early stage tea brewing can come from local waste streams. About 50% of previously fermented liquid can get recycled. According to Lee, her method needs 50 litres of water to make a garment like a t-shirt, and the water required to produce a cotton t-shirt is anything between 400 to 4,000 litres. 

Beyond material sustainability, one cannot ignore how producing clothes this way can challenge the outstanding debate on the human costs of making clothes. In response to a TED online comment that these clothes might be thrown away by people who are no longer allured by it's novelty, Lee argues that mass produced clothes in general are now coming to us at such cheap prices that people are discarding them after a single wear. She goes on to comment that it is better to design clothes to benignly biodegrade than leach toxins into landfill. 

Lee's research project transcends the mere novelty of growing clothes. In fact, these clothes are not even meant to be a wardrobe replacement. It's the bigger picture of using bacterial and microbial fermentation to make other products that we can use, such as furniture, or as Lee would have us imagine, a car. Knowing that bacterial cellulose is also being put to alternative uses - the best kind - in the healing of wounds, imagining a reality where consumers can design and make sustainable products they desire is not far fetched. These types of innovative and disruptive processes to making things are what design dreams are made of.


[1] "Grow your own clothes". TED, March 2011. 

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