In this fascinating TED Talk, Suzanne Lee talks about an exciting new technology that would allow designers to grow clothing in a process similar to making kombucha at home.
The fabric is actually created by bacteria, yeast, and other microbes that “spin” a cellulose fiber as part of their life cycle under certain conditions, and if this process caught on it would significantly cut the impact of fabric production. Instead of growing plants or raising animals then shipping and processing the materials all over the world to create finished products, the technology that Suzanne Lee describes would allow designers to grow their own microbe fabric using a very low-energy process and form it into shape.
The microbe fabric is very good at absorbing dyes, which makes it a great candidate for vegetable dyes, but even higher impact dyes like indigo require much less dye to achieve the same color. She explains in the video that it takes one dip in indigo to get a very dark blue, whereas a cotton garment would take up to eight dips to get the same shade.
Not only does it use less dye and cut many steps out of the production process, but you can re-use the liquid from the last batch of fabric to create the next one, so it’s a very low-waste process in that respect, as well!
So, why isn’t this fabric in production yet?
Suzanne Lee describes the resulting fabric as a “flexible vegetable leather,” which means this fabric coule be a great vegan alternative to vinyl once they work out the kinks. Unfortunately, there’s a bit of a snag with this fabric that they’ll need to address before it will be ready to sell. The fabric is not water resistant, which is a big problem. A top that swells and falls apart in a rainstorm is not really a commercially viable option. YET.
Suzanne Lee is hesitant to add chemicals to the mix, since this is such an eco-friendly process right now, and she’s working with biologists to try to sort out this problem.