/Techstyler X Bottletop: Grown Materials for Fashion – Past, Present and Future

Techstyler X Bottletop: Grown Materials for Fashion – Past, Present and Future

Growing materials to use in fashion products may be new to most, but the panellists of the Techstyler X Bottletop Speaker Series discussion on ‘Biomaterials and Biodesign: The Next Generation of Sustainable Materials’ have been working in this sector for several years and it is bearing interesting fruit.

Carole Collet, Professor in Design for Sustainable Futures and CSM-LVMH Director of Sustainable Innovation at Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts, London has spent a decade researching biomimicry, biofabrication and biodesign.  Her work gave rise to the MA Materials Futures course at CSM and will soon see the launch of the MA Biodesign degree at the same institution.  Education, ethics and robust frameworks for the future industrialisation of materials grown in living systems are what Carole sees as current imperatives for the responsible and safe development of this sector. In addition to her academic research, Professor Collet has recently supervised the PhD work of Amy Congdon, now a member or the Modern Meadow team, founded by biodesign pioneer Suzanne Lee.  

Image: Carole Collet: Biolace

When asked why the past two years have seen an explosion in biodesign and grown materials she stated that accessibility of ‘recipes’ and equipment, which are fairly rudimentary in the initial phases, have given rise to a surge in interest and experimentation by designers, usually with basic kitchen equipment in their own homes.  She goes on to say that designers remain ill equipped, however, to navigate and document their developments due to a biology and scientific process knowledge gap. The MA Biodesign course aims to fill this gap.

Ex-Adidas designer, Jen Keane, just completed her MA Material Futures degree, during which time she grew a nanocellulose trainer upper, using a hybrid of manually warped threads with a weft grown by bacteria.  Essentially, the process of growing a material requires a sterile environment, into which a living organism (bacteria from Kombucha, for example) and a sugar and water solution is introduced.  The organism then creates the material – in the case of Jen’s material, the nanocellulose weft. The resulting material has a papery feel, but once treated with oil it is smooth and flexible with a semi-translucent finish.  Jen spoke about the challenges in interpreting the biological building blocks of her experiments and controlling the easily contaminated environment (sterilised dishes) used to grow her materials. Household mould was her biggest challenge, but she managed to successfully develop samples in her kitchen and bathroom which she presented to the audience.  

Image: Jen Keane

Having recently visited Bolt Threads to see their synthetic spider silk developments and the scale of their operation, and armed with industry standard experience for materials approval at Adidas, she estimates that her material requires five more years of research and development before reaching commercial readiness.

Imparting a scientific voice and reasoning was Tom Meany, CEO of Cell-Free Tech and Director of Open Cell.bio – the new lab and workspace initiative that supports designers and scientists to rapid test and prototype in lab facilities, usually the preserve of industry or established educational institutions.  Tearing down barriers to entry by allowing quick experimentation, Open Cell residents include Chip[s] Board, who are turning potato waste into an MDF-equivalent material that is 100% biodegradable and sustainable from an as yet un-exploited waste stream.  In addition to the bio-lab space, there is a Maker Space and shipping container space available for residents to set up their own dedicated small-scale labs or production facilities – as the Chip[s] Board team (comprised of two designers and a biochemist) have.

Image: Open Cell.bio

Tom warned against hype-driven new or prospective materials which create ‘Instagram attention’ but are founded on shaky or unproven science.  He points to a danger that this can create unrealistic expectations on those trying to genuinely move the industry forward. The discussion turned to fashion’s propensity for storytelling to sell products, which may lead to style over substance where science is concerned.

While materials grown from living systems offer clean and efficient alternatives to currently polluting material production methods, Professor Collet warned that they currently have severe limitations in terms of cost effectiveness, performance and scalability.  She warned against viewing materials grown from living systems as “saviours” for our urgent sustainability and environmental woes. Using newly created Mylo ‘leather’ from mycelium as an example, she said that we do not know how this leather equivalent will look and perform throughout its life – it may not be a durable long-term replacement for existing leathers.  Additional research and development into biodesign and biofabrication and materials from living systems cannot be rushed, she concluded.

To hear the full panel discussion, listen to the podcast here.

The next talk in the Techstyler X Bottletop Speaker Series with be held at the Bottletop store in November, entitled ‘Sustainability Driven by New Technologies: Reducing Waste using 3D Design and Mixed Reality’.

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