Making Clothes from Microbes

Image credit: 
ROBERTA RIDOLFI

With her "biocouture" fashion line, Suzanne Lee is growing the clothes of tomorrow in a lab.

By Jessica Grose

The studio smells like vinegar. Inside, Suzanne Lee is fermenting fabric in a vast temperature-controlled tub of yeast, bacteria, and a sugary green tea solution. But she’s not soaking cotton or polyester; she’s actually creating new fabric from this noxious concoction. The material is a by-product of the fermentation process, and after it stews in the tub for about two weeks, it will be thick enough to make into clothes. At that point, Lee will either mold the wet material around a dress form and let it dry into a seamless frock or allow the fabric to dry out in large sheets before she stitches it together like cotton. (She favors patterned bomber jackets and vaguely Victorian ruffled coats.)

Lee, 44, didn’t study science in school. Growing up in England, she loved the subject until her teens, when an abrasive teacher pushed her away from it. So instead, she pursued art. Then, as she began contemplating the future of fashion and environmentalism, her passion was reignited.

In 2003, as a researcher at Central Saint Martins College in London, she coined the term “biocouture.” The word refers to the process of growing fabric from naturally sustainable materials—not just microorganisms like bacteria but also plant matter like cellulose and chitin, found in the walls of mushrooms and the exoskeletons of lobsters.

At first, Lee’s work was purely a mental exercise—Where is fashion going to be in 50 years?—but over the past decade, with the help of biologist David Hepworth, Lee has transformed her curiosity into clothing. The results are striking. The material she uses—which Lee has described as “a kind of vegetable leather”—gives the clothes a high-fashion sheen. But are they marketable to the masses?

To produce a simple microbial dress on an industrial scale, a company would have to create a 3-D dress mold and drop it into an enormous fermentation vat so the bacteria could grow around it. For shoppers, the downside is that clothes made this way do biodegrade, but depending on how the materials were treated, it could take years for them to do so, Lee says. In fact, they’d still probably last longer than a cheap T-shirt.

But facilities that could produce a dress this way don’t exist yet. “You can find giant fermentation vats, but they’re not focused on or designed for individual objects,” Lee says. “They’re designed to make an enormous soup of enzymes,” like the vegan protein Quorn.

Nonetheless, right now, Lee sees biomaterials as “an emerging landscape.” In 2012, she launched a consulting business, also called Biocouture, that advises brands on how to manufacture clothing from biological materials. Confidentiality agreements prevent her from talking in depth about the brands she works with and the specific materials they’re using, but she predicts clothing made from these biomanufactured materials could be in stores within the next two to three years.

In fact, she hypothesizes that at some point, we may use the technique to make products as complicated as shoes—which involve multiple materials for structure and stretch. When they first hit shelves, these items will be expensive. But Lee expects the market to drive prices down within 10 to 20 years. The trick will be to find a process that has a cheap food stock, say, a waste stream of sugar, which could fuel the vat of bacteria—for “very simple, easily scalable manufacturing.”

At a time when traditional materials and labor are so expensive that manufacturing tends to be dominated by large corporations, it’s reassuring to think that one day we will be able to grow our own wardrobes—one microscopic creature at a time.

This story originally appeared in mental_floss magazine. Subscribe to our print edition here, and our iPad edition here.

More from mental_floss...

March 4, 2014 - 8:00am
submit to reddit