When I hear the words “green” and “fashion” in the same sentence, I immediately think of organic cotton and hemp. From you vantage point, what are some of the coolest innovations in sustainable fibers happening right now?
Organic cotton and hemp have been the mainstays of the sustainable textiles industry, but the market is beginning to diversify, especially as the definition of “sustainable fashion” starts to expand. I’ve chosen to highlight five cool fabric picks. Most of these fabrics have not hit the commercial market yet – but will give you an idea on where the world of sustainable textiles is heading – or could head.
nanosilver particles embedded into medical fabric
Silver (yes the metal not the color) is commonly used in the medical and healthcare fields due to its known healing properties, but is slowly making its way into consumer markets, particularly in undergarments and athletic wear. Silver is a conductive element, which means it is naturally antimicrobial, thermally conductive, and electrically conductive. “The silver particles attach to the microbes and short-circuit them. Basically they suffocate,” says Bennett Fisher from Carolina Silver. Silver is generally applied or woven into a fabric in three principal ways and not all silver fibers are created equally (continue reading).
Nanoparticle silver finishes adhere to the surface and can easily come off. It may be touted as a “permanent finish,” but the manufacturer is counting on the silver, which has been chemically bound to the fiber, to outlast the garment, which is not quite “sustainable.” Our bodies can’t easily get rid of metallic silver or silver oxide, so medical professionals normally steer clear of those finishes. Additionally, cheap finishes may permanently discolor the skin a grayish-blue.
As fiber is extruded through machinery, manufacturers can put silver particles into the fiber and embed it in the final stages of the process. Silver, however, is often “covered up” with the fiber, which doesn’t make it electrically conductive and is thus rendered ineffective, or at least not as effective.
Embedded Elemental Silver
The safest, most sensible and effective way silver is applied to a fabric is embedding enough pure silver into the material. Silver nitrate goes through a reduction process and embeds the pure silver on 99.9 percent of the surface. From there, silver ions—the invisible healing agents that make silver so effective—are released.
“We put enough silver to build a sheath around each fiber that is 4/10 to 5/10 microns thick,” says Nelson Oakes from Carolina Silver Techonologies. “That ensures that the fiber remains conductive runways like wires in a wall.” The fiber is so electrically conductive he says that if you stick it into a light socket, you’re bound to get shocked and/or electrocuted, which I suggest you do not try. “Approximately 20 percent of the fabric’s weight is pure silver and because it is pure silver, it is often recycled and used into new materials,” comments Bennett Fisher. Both the elemental silver and wastewater from the Carolina Silver factory is recycled.
Teijin Fibers Limited of Japan has recently produced Morphotex®. The biomimetic fabric refracts light like the wings of the Morpho blue butterfly, completely eliminating any need for pigment or dyes, which has always been a challenge for sustainable designers who love and want color. All the color seen on the fabric’s surface is created by the strength and angle of the light refraction against the material. Though extra dye is not used in the fabric, the material itself is made out of 85 percent polyester and 15 percent nylon. There is no word whether the manufacturers are using recycled polyester and nylon, which they have available in other products.
Natural rubber is obtained by the same mechanisms as it was over a thousand years ago: By making horizontal incisions into trees and letting the sticky white sap drip into containers, which is an inefficient system. Today, the world gets most of its natural rubber from Asia. The continent accounts for around 94 percent of the total output in 2005. New forms of rubber for products – both from naturally-derived sources and recycled/reclaimed rubber – is just beginning to hit the market.
According to Discovery News, scientists from Ohio State University’s Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center (OARDC) and the Ohio BioProducts Innovation Center (OBIC) recently received a $3 million grant to design and build a processing plant that would turn sticky white dandelion root from Russian dandelion (Taraxacum kok-saghyz) sap into a high quality natural rubber that rivals tree rubber in price.
Artificial rubber is far less superior to its natural counterpart, which is why it is important to find new sources of natural rubber. According to Discovery News, the price for rubber has doubled in recent years, making alternative sources of natural rubber more attractive than past efforts, which reach all the way back to World War II, when the Soviets made rubber from dandelions.
Datuk Vinod Sekhar was recently awarded a Sustainable Design award at Global Green’s NYC fundraiser this past year. Green Rubber, a division of the Petra Group, has successfully figured out how to devulcanise and recycle rubber, a technology that has not been perfected until now. For so long, rubber in materials could only be partially recycled in order to maintain its original properties. According to Sekhar, the cost of a ton of Green Rubber is significantly below current market prices for the virgin rubber compound, which gives it a definite market benefit.
I was first introduced to nettle fabric by Norwegian designer, Leila Hafzi, who commonly works with artisans in Nepal. It was there where she saw craftswomen spinning the Himalayan Giant Nettle (also known as Allo), which grows in the mountains. Fabric from nettle has been used for thousands of years, but it fell out of favor as cotton became the fabric-of-choice. Nettle has many properties similar to linen, but it’s long staple can provide for some interesting fabrications if proper technology and scale is brought to the industry. Like many newly-introduced natural, sustainable fabrics on the market, this can initially make a big entrance especially since you can say, “Can you believe that this soft fabric is made out of stinging nettle?” As someone who has seen nettle firsthand, I do believe it’s a great fabric and a good opportunity to diversify the sustainable fiber portfolio – as well as act as a promising sustainable development tool. Currently Camira Fabrics has begun producing some nettle fabrics for interiors and The Natural Fiber Nepal supplies handspun organic nettle.
5. VICTIMLESS LEATHER
Though not a consumer product, the idea of “victimless leather” is no doubt an intriguing one: Can you make a leather-based product without exploiting or killing animals? The “victimless leather” is grown out of cell lines, which when cultured, form a living layer of tissue supported by a biodegradable polymer matrix to form a coat. This is the type of technology Victor Frankenstein would have a field day with or modern day Hiroshi Ishiguro, who manufactures real-life robots with voice recognition and human emotions, may be keen to incorporate into the “skin” of his prototypes.
The R&D of “Victimless Leather” has been conducted in SymbioticA: the Art and Science Collaborative Research Laboratory, School of Anatomy and Human Biology at the University of Western Australia and in consultation with Professor Arunasalam Dharmarajan from the School of Anatomy and Human Biology as well as Verigen, a Perth based company that specializes in tissue engineered cartilage for clinical applications.