It’s pretty obvious that we love fashion. What we don’t love, however, is the negative impact it seems to be having on the environment.
We were pretty excited when we heard about the discovery of pineapple leather, and even more so when we learnt you can grow your own fabric from bacteria.
And that’s exactly what James Greenway did.
After graduating from Whitehouse Institute of Design and starting his label, Atelier Harlem, the emerging designer is now growing his own fabric from biodynamic bacteria. The process is only in the early stages of development, but James hopes the future of biodynamic bacteria could positively impact climate change and carbon pollution. Pretty cool hey?
We caught up with James to find out more.
We hear you’ve started growing biodynamic bacteria to make fabric. Can you tell us a little about this?
Sure thing! Without getting too ~technical~ Acetobacter are a biodynamic rod-shaped bacteria. They’re non-hazardous, non-pathogenic and 1-4μm (micron) in size. Acetobacter synthesise large quantities of micro fibrils of pure cellulose.
Sounds pretty technical. How did this come about? What was the catalyst?
I definitely wasn’t the first to do this. I started the research in my last year of university for my thesis. I was actually making Kombucha – a byproduct of the fibre – as an experimental process for some health problems (thank you, Dr. Google).
I’ve never had a science background. It was actually my worst subject in school because as a person, I am more tactile and like pretty, shiny things. But I started to think about this cellulose as a fabric and I made a 1/3 scale dress out of it. A quick Google search later and I realised that I was so far behind in the Acetobacter game and that scientists have been researching the fabric for years.
There were still so many questions to be answered about the fabric, so I used it as the base for my thesis, Grow Your Own Dress.
So what’s the process?
Basically you make yourself a huge vat of sweet tea, like the true ~southern belle~ you are, but in an incredibly sterile environment: everything has to be cleaned and rinsed with vinegar.
After its cooled, you transfer tea to a large vessel. This could range anywhere in size from a large jar to a bath tub, depending on how large you want your ‘fabric’ (it will mirror the shape of the vessel).
You then add the starter fluid (an acidic fluid to balance the pH levels and prevent mould inhabitation) and what the ~seasoned brewers~ call a S.C.O.B.Y (Symbiotic Culture Of Bacteria and Yeast) to the tea.
It’s then left to ferment for at least 14 days and what is left behind is a cellulose raft and some sweet Kombucha tea, which is v healthy.
You can buy all of this stuff on eBay and Gumtree for around $10 so it’s really accessible. It does take a while to get the hang of it and understand the chemistry of things, but it’s much easier than it sounds.
How practical is the outcome?
One major problem with the fermented fabric is that when it’s dry it lacks flexibility, which in turn reduces wearability.
The fibre can hold 200 times its weight in water, which is a huge amount of water, to the point where it’s incredibly hard to dry. In this state, it is extremely flexible and feels sort of embryonic.
Once dried, it becomes very brittle. It will break and this becomes a problem for the fashion industry.
I interviewed a scientist for my thesis and he has been in the lab using chemicals to try and make it flexible. But public perception is that chemicals are ‘bad’ and are ‘nasty and hazardous’. So, there have been experiments using organic chemicals to make it flexible.
So is it a sustainable alternative?
This is really the million dollar question.
What we’re doing is we’re using, or harnessing, what the bacteria’s natural ability is – much like we harness yeast in an anaerobic condition to convert sugar into alcohol.
We have to ask: what are the options? What are the things that could go wrong and is it worthwhile? Hindsight is always 20/20. Society can always look at this positively and say this is a great alternative, and that it’s environmentally friendly. But what, if any, are the negative downfalls of this? Is it going to start producing too many gases that we didn’t think about? Is it going to start obstructing river ways?
Any other innovative fabrications in the works?
A few little secrets are in the works.
What advice would you give to someone considering undertaking a degree in fashion design?
You are going to face a lot of criticism and it really sucks, but it ultimately does make you a better person – not just in your design process but in your interpersonal relationships. Having the ability to take a problem that someone has with your product and being able to turn it into a positive outcome is an incredible asset. At the same time, try to remember that when you’re in fashion school, you’re in this strange bubble. You’re facing a certain set of opinions about what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’.
At the end of the day, you can design whatever you want but you have to be able to sell your product. The greatest asset you could possibly have is not just an understanding of your consumer market but an intimate relationship with them. Everything you do will be for them. Start now.
Anything else to add?
Follow me on Instagram @atelierharlem :)