How Can Natural Fabrics Be Engineered to Perform Like Synthetic Materials?

Originally published on Eco Age.

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Images by Mirum™ by NFW

Techstyler founder Brooke Roberts-Islam looks into the technological innovation of Nature Fibre Welding Inc. that creates recycled natural materials with the durability of synthetic fibres. 

There is an inbuilt (and frustrating) trade-off when choosing textiles for fashion design. There are, broadly, two options: natural fibres, which offer a luxurious feel and biodegradability (including wool, cashmere and cotton), and there are synthetic fibres, which tend to outperform natural fibres due to their hardy, abrasion resistant properties and offer a more technical look and feel perfect for sportswear, for example. Both fibre types have merits (which is why they are so often blended together), but this forces a compromise either on the sustainability credentials or performance of the final product. What if we could harness the performance characteristics of synthetic fibres and apply this to natural fibres? What would that mean for the use of synthetic textiles in the future?

A US-based tech company has come up with one such solution. Nature Fibre Welding Inc. (NFW) uses textile bioengineering to not only recycle natural materials, including cotton, but to align the fibres into yarns to enhance their performance characteristics. To do this, NFW uses a closed-loop chemical process (using intrinsically safe chemicals) to open the fibers at a molecular level and then fuse them together. It’s this ‘rearrangement’ that gives the natural fibres synthetic-like performance properties. To say that this is a potential game-changer is an understatement. Funded by the US Department of Defense (DoD) and part of the Fashion For Good Scaling Programme, NFW have expanded the limits of biology, chemistry and in doing so, the limits of fashion.

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Their patented scalable processes has been described as being able to “tune” natural materials in ways not possible with any other technology. This tuning is possible because their chemical process effectively glues fibres together (without using synthetics or resins), connecting natural fibres in the way that synthetic fibres are typically formed. Tuning is used to describe the welding process because performance and functionality of the fabrics can be precisely controlled, meaning the resulting natural fibres can replace man-made fibres previously best able to deliver such characteristics. As a result, with natural performance fabrics able to replace petroleum-based ones, the problems associated with plastic microfiber pollution can be eliminated. This is an incredible break-through in terms of circular economy, as the fibres, and NFW fabrics, remain 100% biodegradable and recyclable.

In addition to making performance fabrics, NFW is also utilising textile waste to create materials that look, feel and perform like leather. Unlike many other vegan leather-like materials on the market, Natural Fiber Welding is able to achieve high performance luxury materials using plant-based sources only, eliminating all synthetics. This is in contrast to popular vegan leather alternatives currently on the market which typically contain polyurethane. “Unfortunately, many new vegan and faux leather products are really just natural fibers coated with polyurethane and other non-biodegradable plastics.” explained Dr. Luke Haverhals, Founder and CEO, Natural Fiber Welding Inc.

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Digging into scalability and commerciality, NFW have established waste channels from discarded textiles already being collected and available within the textile supply chain. They have worked extensively on their leather-alternative, launched as Mirum, but not yet commercially available. On the subject of pricing, although this information is not yet available, Haverhals recently said in an interview that only large scale adoption can have the large scale impact on the environment they seek to achieve, and subsequently “To change the world, you have to have price points that are relevant to the masses.” This underlines the company’s commitment to creating materials suitable for brands spanning all market sectors, from luxury through to value fashion brands.

In terms of relative energy use and the carbon footprint of the materials NFW creates (which are not yet commercially available, as mentioned) this is currently difficult to determine. A full Life Cycle Analysis upon commercial launch of the materials would be the definitive way of hailing this as the most viable solution for achieving global material circularity in the fashion industry. Happily, all elements of their process point to low impact and superior performance. NFW are one to watch for 2020.

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