A fabric revolution in the fashion industry

Long before Carmen Hijosa developed a new sustainable fabric – one that looks and feels like leather, but is made from pineapple leaves – there was a life-changing business trip.

In 1993, Hijosa went on a tour of leather tanneries in the Philippines as a textile design consultant to the World Bank. She knew the disadvantages of leather – the resources required to raise and slaughter cattle, and the toxic chemicals used in tanneries that endanger workers and pollute land and waterways. What she didn’t quite expect was the smell.

“It was pretty shocking,” recalls Hijosa. She had worked with leather manufacturers for 15 years but had never experienced such poor working conditions. “All of a sudden I realized, oh my god, that’s really what it means.”

She wondered how she could continue to support a fashion industry so devastating to the planet. And so she quit her job without a plan – just with the persistent feeling that she had to be part of the solution, not the problem.

She is not alone. Hijosa belongs to a growing group of solution seekers eager to change the clothes we wear by offering a new selection of materials and textiles. We’re talking about more than just organic cotton and recycled fibers that help but don’t go far enough. Luxury brands are testing more innovative materials that can waste less, wear out better and significantly improve the social and environmental impact of the industry.

Alt-fabric research is in high demand today, driven by concerns about high-demand textiles. In addition to the toxic chemicals in leather production, cotton requires huge amounts of land and pesticides; and polyester, which is made from petroleum, releases tiny plastic microfibers when washed, pollutes waterways and ends up in the food chain.

So what alternatives look promising? Consider those that are more at home in your shopping cart than in your closet.

Pineapple leaves

Hijosa twisted pineapple leaves around her fingers when she realized that the long fibers inside the leaves used in Filipino ceremonial robes could be used to create a durable, pliable mesh that is covered with a leather-like cover. In 2016 she founded Ananas Anam, manufacturer of piñatex, also known as “pineapple leather”, which recycles the waste from the pineapple harvest. Since then, Chanel, Hugo Boss, Paul Smith, H&M and Nike have been using Piñatex.

mushrooms

Mycelium, the subterranean thread-like filaments that mushrooms produce, can also make a leather-like material. Mylo, a promising “mushroom leather” from the Californian start-up Bolt Threads, debuted this year in collections by Stella McCartney (bustier and pants), Adidas (Stan Smith sneakers) and Lululemon (yoga mats). Expect more in 2022.

Roses

Traditional silk is made from silkworms, which are usually killed. Rose flower silk comes from waste leaves. BITE Studios, an up-and-coming brand based in London and Stockholm, presented this fabric in dresses and items in their spring 2021 collection.

Coffee grounds

Java rejuvenators include Finnish label Rens Originals (which offers elegant sneakers with a coffee-soaked upper), Keen shoes (soles and footbeds) from Oregon, and Taiwanese textile company Singtex (yarn for sports equipment, which is said to have natural odor-inhibiting properties and UV protection offers .) ).

The leather of the Italian company Vegea, which is made from Italian grape waste (remaining stalks, seeds, hides), appeared on H&M boots and environmentally friendly Pangaia sneakers this year.

At London Fashion Week 2019, the British label Vin + Omi showed dresses made from nettle that were harvested and spun into yarn on the Highgrove Estate of Prince Charles. Pangaia currently uses nettle along with other fast growing plants (eucalyptus, bamboo, algae) in its new PlntFiber collection of hoodies, t-shirts, training pants and shorts.

Banana leaves

The Musa fiber made from banana leaves is waterproof and tear-resistant and was used in H&M sneakers. Pangaia’s FrutFiber line of t-shirts, shorts and dresses is made from a fiber extracted from bananas, pineapples and bamboo.

The ultimate challenge for these innovators is to convince designers and consumers alike.

“These materials are promoted for environmental reasons, but that doesn’t mean practical improvements in people’s daily lives,” says Valerie Steele, director of the museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. It points to the fundamental shift in fashion in the 1940s and 50s when buyers looked for a new fiber – polyester – thanks to advertisements promoting the practical benefits of poly. “Saving the world is praiseworthy but difficult to pin down,” she says.

The good news is that sustainability and climate change are no longer a theory, notes Dan Widmaier, co-founder of Mylo maker Bolt Threads.

“It’s amazing how many things hit you in the face and say it’s real,” he says, ticking his fingers: tornadoes, droughts, food shortages, forest fires. He believes buyers will begin to wake up sophisticated brands to this sobering reality. “Every brand reads what the consumer wants and delivers it. If they don’t, they are out of business. ”

This article appeared in the December 2021 issue of Penta Magazine.


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