Lee says, “I’ve been using a basic Kombucha recipe. It is a symbiotic mix of yeast and other bacterial organisms that spin cellulose threads – cellulose, a natural polymer, is a byproduct of the fermentation process. So you can start with something like green tea, you add sugar as a nutrient and then you introduce another culture which is a living organism and that basically feeds on the sugar and the green tea and it spins threads of cellulose.”
It is these threads of cellulose that form a layer on top of the liquid. In East Asian cultures they drink Kombucha, as it is believed it has various health benefits and they discard the cellulose mat. Lee on the other hand is fermenting Kombucha purely to create what they discard.
They are actually compostable which is better than biodegradable because they don’t require any extra chemicals to break down
This cellulose layer is then dried out where it turns into a kind of flexible, vegetable leather. It is either cut up and sown in the conventional manner or shaped around a three dimensional object such as a tailor’s dummy.
Growing clothes is not that strange a concept when you think that non-synthetic clothes are all grown at one stage or another, whether it be cotton (90% of which is cellulose) or tanned leather from animal skin. However, growing large amounts of cotton or feeding methane-producing animals in order to makes clothes is not environmentally sound. It is estimated that 210,000 billion litres of water is used annually in the production of cotton alone.
As well as the clothes being environmentally friendly to make, unlike synthetic materials, they decompose naturally. Lee says, “They are actually compostable which is better than biodegradable because they don’t require any extra chemicals to break down.”
Of course, this too has its downsides. If you open your wardrobe and find your clothes a decomposing mess you may be wanting your money back. Lee says, “It still needs more work from a material point of view because it does change over time so you need to try and control the quality so it doesn’t degrade or at least so you can control when and how it degrades.”
There are serious problems if the clothes are left in damp conditions as the material will absorb water and turn into a jelly mush. That said, Lee still has garments that she made over five years ago which have been exhibited and widely handled but remain in a fairly good condition.
The quality of clothes grown from bacteria can be improved by the application of a rather nascent field of science called Synthetic Biology, which involves engineering microorganisms to create new biological systems not found in nature. This is largely being investigated for biomedical purposes. Take, for example, the spider-goat from Utah University, that has been genetically engineered to produce spider silk protein in its milk. The idea is to use these silk proteins for ligament repair in humans.
In the context of growing clothes Lee says, “You could also take the gene from an organism that produces colour for example and implant that into this kind of bacteria so that it actually spins the cellulose in pink or green. This would mean you wouldn’t need to dye the materials afterwards. Synthetic Biology is a hugely exciting area when you are thinking about designing the products of the future because you can engineer and design in all the qualities that you want in this living structure.”
If I did another book now I would dump all of the other stuff and just write about design and biology. That is the future of design
The idea was brought about when Lee was writing a book on what fashion would look like in the future. Most of the chapters were devoted to how smart clothing and advances in technology would shape the way our clothes looked but after some research she came upon the idea of biological clothes and included a chapter on it in the book.
Lee admits, “If I did another book now I would dump all of the other stuff and just write about design and biology. That is the future of design.”