Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Biobased Future: BioCouture

The ‘Leading IB: A UK Showcase’ event that took place in London on 22 – 23 January highlighted many inspirational developments and opportunities in industrial biotechnology, biobased products and sustainable manufacturing. But one presentation in particular took SusChem’s eye as an excellent insight into the possibilities that new biobased materials can bring to high fashion and design.

Suzanne Lee is founder and Director of BioCouture Limited, a small UK-based fashion business, which has a literally huge potential for growth. Her fascinating presentation on the future for biobased materials from a design perspective was a highlight of the second morning of the ‘Leading: IB’ event.

Suzanne was until recently a Senior Research Fellow in the School of Fashion and Textiles, Central Saint Martins London and her BioCouture project was initiated there working with scientific colleagues at Imperial College London.

Green tea
The biobased material that Suzanne uses to assemble her clothes has the texture of fine leather but is grown by the bacteria that are usually used to turn green tea into the fermented beverage kombucha. As the bacteria digest sugar added to a fermenting broth of green tea they produce a mat of cellulose (the same base material of fabrics such as cotton), which Lee harvests and dries. Suzanne talks about the process in a video recorded at a TED event in 2011 below.

The resulting fabric, a flexible ‘vegetable-leather’ that has a novel skin-like texture and appearance, can be moulded or sewn into apparel such as shirts and coats. It can also be easily dyed using, for example, iron pigments or indigo.

A current drawback is the hydrophilic nature of the material, but that is being worked on with expert advice from Imperial College and others on using alternative bacteria to introduce hydrophobic properties and also to better align the cellulose molecules as the fabric grows.

Biobased beauty
But the fabric has excellent sustainability credentials. Although the volumes of material being produced are, at the moment, small and Lee uses them to produce apparel and luxury products, the resources needed to make the fabric are minimal: just a few microbes that can multiply and feed on waste.

The process is considerably lighter on resources than conventional textiles. If you compare a BioCouture jacket with one made with conventional cotton the BioCouture item uses around 50 litres of water compared to many thousands of litres used in the normal process.

From all angles BioCouture looks like a potentially smart and sustainable addition to the global wardrobe.

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