uk: SUZANNE Lee, a senior researcher at University of the Arts London, has been working with scientists to investigate using cellulose to grow clothing.
Lee says all you need to make a jacket is green tea, sugar, a few microbes "and a little time.”
“The bacteria are feeding on the sugar nutrients in the liquid, so they’re spinning these tiny nano-fibres of pure cellulose," she says. This creates a sheet of material that can be cut into shapes. These in turn can be wrapped around a mannequin; where the sheets meet, they adhere as they dry, negating the need for sewing.
“As a designer, that’s really exciting because then I start to think wow we could actually imagine growing consumable products,” Lee says.
There is only one problem: the material dissolves in water.
“So if I was to walk outside in the rain wearing this dress today, I would immediately start to absorb huge amounts of water, the dress would get really heavy and eventually the seams would probably fall apart leaving me feeling rather naked, possible a good performance piece but not ideal for everyday wear.“
Lee and her team are currently looking for other scientists who can help make her clothes survive the rain.
Even though her dresses fall apart when wet, Lee still sees her invention as a suitable alternative to conventional materials.
“We need to rethink future materials. As pressure on natural resources intensifies, research is re-examining the use of microorganisms to produce fibres. Previously unable to compete with cheap oil-derived synthetics, cotton or even leather, bacterially produced cellulose has the potential to step up as a sustainable environmentally friendly alternative.”
Lee, who came from the fashion industry before escaping to science, originally got the idea from a chance conversation with Dr David Hepworth, a scientist who is one half of the brain for CelluComp a company recently discovered how to make fishing rods out of carrots.
Lee is not the only person pursuing material from bacteria. An Australian working in The Netherlands, Dr Victoria Whiffin, has been investigating a cement-like product; British artist and scientist Damian Palin is using bacteria to make furniture; and in Sweden a medicinal scientist named Helen Fink is working on making blood vessels out of cellulose, using the same micro-organisms as Lee.
Lee says microbial cellulose is unlikely to replace cotton, leather or other textile materials. "But I do think it could be a smart and sustainable addition to our quite precious natural resources ultimately it might not be fashion where we see the microbes have their impact.