Beautiful Bacteria

This story appears in the Summer 2014 issue of Eidé Magazine. Read it here, or click to read it in the issue below.

Story by Jaime Lin Weinstein

Despite the ubiquitous visuals of stunning, silk gowns flowing down runways or studded, leather jackets featured in the latest editorial spreads, the origins of these garments bear little resemblance to the end product ready for wear. The beauty of fashion, you see, is often born from something less traditionally beautiful. Silk, for instance, comes from insect larvae; leather, from cattle hide. Perhaps, then, it’s not so strange to imagine fabric made from bacteria.

A new breed of textiles is emerging thanks to fashion visionaries like Suzanne Lee, founder of design consultancy BioCouture and former research fellow at the School of Fashion & Textiles at Central Saint Martin’s College of Art & Design — one that is biologically derived from living organisms (bacteria, yeast, fungi, etc.) — and offering a potential alternative to our wasteful wearing ways.

Lee uses a fermentation method enacted by a symbiotic mix of yeast, bacteria and sweetened green tea. As the bacteria digest sugar, they produce fibers that eventually form thin sheets of bacterial cellulose that can be molded into the shapes of jackets, dresses, even shoes. As the sheets dry, overlapping edges fuse together to create seams, and once the moisture has evaporated the result resembles a leather-like material, ready to be bleached or stained.

Cellulose, it turns out, is the most abundant renewable resource on the planet, and exists in fibers we already use to make clothing materials, like cotton. With a 90-percent cellulose content, cotton is almost pure cellulose. But “traditional production of natural [fibers] like cotton can be wasteful and energy inefficient since the plant has to be broken down to extract the cellulose [fiber] and the remainder discarded ... bioengineered materials will offer a sustainable alternative,” Lee explains in her 2007 book “Fashioning the Future: Tomorrow’s Wardrobe.” What’s more? Bioengineered materials would be biodegradable, recyclable and compostable. “In the future, we might compost our wardrobes and grow something new, or, at the very least, return it to the store for recycling.”

It’s not quite “ready-to-wear” yet. If the material gets wet, it absorbs the liquid and resorts back to its gooey, malleable origins. But water-repellent cultures and other solutions are already in the works. Essentially, biotechnology could be transforming fashion in the very near future, and bio-manufactured materials could be making their debut in clothing stores in the next two to three years. And bacteria will join the ranks of breeders of fashion beauty. We just might have to get over any qualms about wearing living organisms first.