From as far back as the story of Adam and Eve, who used fig leaves as makeshift clothing in the Garden of Eden, humans have been imagining ways to use natural materials to clothe themselves. Today’s textiles are more inventive and technically advanced than ever as new synthetic-natural hybrids with cradle-to-cradle principles make their mark.
Many of the examples here use existing waste streams or manufacturing byproducts to create unique materials. Makers and manufacturers are also increasingly growing a social conscience and moving beyond environmental impact alone. The process of making sustainable textiles and textile-related products requires buy-in at multiple levels – from raw materials, manufacturing and distribution to design, branding and consumer preferences.
Crabyon® is made by blending viscose with chitosan, a derivative of chitin. Chitin is a natural compound found in the shells of crabs and shellfish that protect them from their environment. Like cellulose from plant fibres, chitin is easy to process into textiles, because it has a soft texture and dyes easily. Crabyon® has antibacterial and odour control properties. It’s sourced from the waste of crabmeat manufacturing and is fully biodegradable. The Swiss-based company, Swicofil asserts that the chitin used in the fabric has been scientifically processed, and the resulting fabric is safe and hypoallergenic for people with sensitive skin. This is good news for people with shellfish allergies. Chitosan typically makes up about 5 to 20% of final fabric blends. Chitin derivatives are also used in things like contact lens, surgical stitches and artificial skin.
For over 1,400 years, Japanese artisans have been making traditional paper called washi, which is made from the fibres of plants and trees. Sasawashi® is a natural material made by combining Japanese paper with kumazasa, a hearty type of bamboo that grows in the highlands of Japan. Kumazasa has antibacterial, deodorant and moisture wicking properties. Similar to linen, Sasawashi® is used to make slippers, bath towels, bedding and stuffed animals. The SASAWASHI Company in Japan started as a joint venture with Dr Mitsuo Kimura of Mie University, who originally conducted research on how to make washi out of kumazasa. “We can add cultural value to our products, because kumazasa grows only in Japan and has been used for wrapping sushi etc from ancient times,” said Toshinori Itoi of the Sasawashi Company.
When researchers at Taiwan-based SINGTEX became interested in the odour control properties of coffee and how it could be integrated into fabrics, they started collecting leftover coffee grinds from coffeehouses near their homes and offices. With continued expansion, they plan to source coffee from coffee factories. The coffee cloth, called S.Café® is used in outerware and activeware because it provides UV protection, dries quickly and naturally absorbs odours – think of the coffee beans that are sometimes available at store perfume counters for customers to sniff and recover from olfactory overload. The textile is being used in clothing brands like Hugo Boss, Timberland and Warrior. S.Café® mylithe™ fabric won a Taiwan Excellence Award in April this year.
Wool and synthetic hybrid
Natural and synthetic fibres are typically not woven together in sustainable fabric design, because it can be difficult to pull them apart at the end of use phase, said Deidre Hoguet, director of sustainability and materials exploration at Designtex. The company announced this month that they’ve created a new line, Vox, from their hybrid material called Climatex® Dualcycle™ that combines both wool and a technically produced synthetic. The front part of the fabric is made out of softer wool that can be recycled or biodegraded and the back side is made out of a stronger synthetic material called Cradura™. At the end of its lifecycle, the fabric is designed to separate into its original two components using autoclave, a common steam sterilisation process used in doctors and dentists offices to sterilise medical instruments. Designtex’s Vox fabric styles will be available for purchase in September.
Plastic bottles from Haiti
Making fabric out of recycled bottles is not new. But Thread, a Pittsburgh-based B Corp, is taking fabric sourced from plastic bottles to the next level by creating a closed loop waste system with a positive, measurable social impact on the poorest communities. After seeing the effects of the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the company’s CEO and founder Ian Rosenberger had an idea: What if trash could be a natural resource for Haitians? Today Thread has collection centres in nearly a dozen Haitian cities, and collectors have access to training and waste education in their neighborhoods, Rosenberger explained. “We’re focusing on the bottom end of the supply chain and reaching up,” he said. After collection and basic processing, Haitian plastics are taken to the US to create 100% post-consumer recycled fabric that is used to consumer goods like messenger bags. Thread estimates that it has removed over 200m bottles from the streets of Haiti.
Materials from materials
Ford estimates that it uses about two pairs of recycled blue jeans in every Ford Fusion and nearly 42 recycled water bottles in things like seat covers, which are made from a sustainable fabric called Repreve. “Post-consumer recycled materials perform just as well as the virgin materials, and they reduce the life cycle impact in the material production phase and the use phase of our vehicles,” said Dr Ellen Lee, plastics research technical specialist at Ford. More and more companies are collaborating to make and share materials in unusual ways. Ford recently partnered with Heinz to make car parts out of leftover tomato fibres from ketchup production.
But as more companies close the loop, will we see even stranger collaborations? Will there be textiles that never die in an endless circle of old polyester clothing recycled back into new polyester clothing? The future of fabrics is about to get even weirder.
Rachael Post is a writer, digital strategist and teaches about emerging media in Los Angeles.
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