Make some tea with sugar. Let it cool down, then add kombucha and vinegar. Cover it up, wait for 2 to 4 weeks and: Congratulations! You’ve just grown your own cloth. In our talk of the week, Suzanne Lee illustrates her motivations for finding alternatives to conventional fabric production – and how she found her solution in microbes.
Cellulose is, chemically speaking, merely an incredibly long chain of glucose units – meaning it is made up entirely of sugar. However, it is an important structural component of plant cells. For instance, cotton fiber consists almost entirely of cellulose, in wood or dried hemp it makes up a little less than half of the material. We can therefore conclude that many of our clothes are held together by cellulose. But why does this matter?
The cellulose brewery
Because plants are not the only organisms capable of producing it: microbes – such as yeast – can do it as well. When Suzanne Lee heard about this, the light bulb floating over her head suddenly switched on. If microbes can produce cellulose just like plants do, she can use this skill in a D.I.Y. fermentation process – as seen in dairy products, wine or beer – to make her own clothes.
The current approach of the clothing industry is in dire need of change. Both the environment and people are being exploited, merely to cater for the human need of dressing up. Being a fashion designer herself, Suzanne Lee obviously still wants us to wear clothes. She only wants us to reconsider where those clothes come from: dubious factories in Asia, run by voracious multinational companies – or your own bathtub.
If you’re intrigued by the thought of D.I.Y clothes, check out Suzanne Lee’s talk at TED2011, where she explains the exact recipe and the entire process of growing her own fabric.