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.

‘Prêt-a-Toucher’ – Inside A Very Special Fashion Archive

Fashion exhibitions are generally curated and presented is such a way as to distance the clothing from the viewer – a ‘do not touch’ rule applies.  It’s not hard to understand why, considering the need to preserve and protect the fabrics and construction.  However, it significantly limits our ability to understand the garments and to a degree forces us to see them only as aesthetic objects in static form.  So much about clothes is in the construction, underpinnings, drape, weight, linings and stitching – the heart, the soul – especially in couture, which is made entirely by hand.  You need to look inside to see it through the eyes of the craftsmen and women who made it.

The Temporary Fashion Museum at Het Nieuwe Instituut in Rotterdam allows just that.  With an exhibition presenting the archive of Eva Maria Hatschek, a Swiss woman who had an extraordinary collection of clothes designed, but (oddly in today’s terms) not made, by designers including Hubert de Givenchy, Coco Chanel and other couture masters of the 1940’s and beyond.

tmm_collected_by_1_foto_johannes_schwartzCollected by Eva Maria Hatschek – Image: Johannes Schwartz

Eva Maria Hatschek was a great appreciator of fabrics, colour and texture and from the 1960’s to 1980’s kept a diary of swatches, photographs and notes about outfits she would have designed by the great designers mentioned above then created by her own seamstresses, usually from Swiss textiles.  Incredibly, at that time (from the late 1940’s)  she would buy the paper patterns for the garments from the great designers and her staff would amend and cut them out and construct them in the fabric of her choosing.  She never threw anything away and the collection is comprised of 1700 pieces in total. 

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While discussing Mrs Hatschek’s collection with the museum staff they explained that it was unclear as to whether there were any limitations on the fabric selection imposed by the designers.  Given our current age of intense copyright and IP protection the selling of fashion house-created patterns to individuals to use at their will seems strangely open and relaxed, although it was very typical of that time.  Some of the fashion houses even provided labels for Mrs Hatschek to have sewn into the garments. 

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Eva Maria Hatschek not only wore custom made pieces by her seamstresses, but she had a vast collection of couture created by Yves Saint Laurent, Hubert de Givenchy and Coco Chanel.   Incredibly, Mrs Hatchek wore most pieces once only or not at all.  She was a true collector and appreciator of clothing for the sake of the beauty of the textiles, the techniques and craft, not ‘fashion’ as a notion of perpetual newness.  There were no fashion magazines found at her residence, only hundreds of archive boxes and her sketchbooks full of notes on the pieces she had bought and had made.

The fascinating exhibition is displayed as an industrial shelved archive and was made possible by the Swiss Textile Collection, which took custody of the immense collection (of which only one third is available to view in this exhibition) from Mrs Hatschek’s family after she died.  The Swiss Textile Collection wished for viewers to be able to interact with the textiles and understand the nature of the garments through close inspection and touch.  It’s a great privilege to be able to inspect in detail the work of such skilled crafts-people and understand the techniques of stitching and finishing they employed.

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There is a beautiful ceremony around the process of viewing the pieces.  You are first presented with a catalogue, from which you can select garments/outfits to view.  The exhibition staff then locate the appropriate box in the open-shelved archive and once gloved, lay the garments out on tissue paper for the viewer to unfold and inspect.  I see a Chanel three-piece boucle suit which is archived as an ensemble with a silk shirt and matching scarf and boucle shawl.  The textiles are incredible and it is evident that the boucle’ yarn has been woven for the three piece suit, knitted for the shawl and crocheted for the shawl trim.  It shows a great understanding and exploration of textile techniques and creation of complimentary pieces – the same way a fashion designer might explore textiles within a collection and extend their use in different ways across different garments.  It is also a reminder of a historic way of dressing where an outfit was designed and created to be worn as a whole, without styling variation, in stark contrast to the contemporary way of dressing. 

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The Chanel suit reveals inner markings on the waistband which are believed to be the signature of one of Mrs Hatschek’s seamstresses – a star-like motif that can be found on a number of garments.  It’s a hallmark of pride and craft and is a wonderful secret that would have been contained had these garments been exhibited in a traditional way on mannequins. 

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Exclusive fashion made inclusive.  The way it should be and poignantly in line with fashion’s current digital evolution.

The exhibition entitled Collected by Eva Maria Hatschek runs until May 8th.  For further insight into the great fashion collector read the Instituut’s interview with Rosmarie Amacher of the Swiss Textile Collection.  

Header image by Johannes Schwartz

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