The Future of Fabric Will Be Grown by Scientists, Not Farmers

Adidas’ Futurecraft Biocraft sneaker

Will the future of fabric be grown by scientist farmers in labs versus out on large parcels of land? When Adidas unveiled a sneaker prototype late last year, dubbed the Futurecraft Biofabric and featuring an upper made from a synthetic spider silk called Biosteel, the news was covered everywhere from Fast Company and Complex to Wired and PC Magazine. Most headlines homed in on the same thing: at the end of their lifetime the shoes’ upper could be broken down in a sink at home using a digestive enzyme and safely rinsed down the drain in a matter of hours.

A triumph indeed, but what got fiber folks giddy with excitement was that a major brand with mass-market appeal had finally picked up a nature-based sustainable material grown in a lab using renewable resources.

Biosteel fibers are biofabricated by a German company called AMSilk through a patented production process that uses bacteria to ferment natural sugar, resulting in biopolymers that mimic the properties of natural spider silk. Another win for eco alternatives: Biosteel is said to be 15 percent lighter than conventional synthetic fibers and has the potential to be the strongest fully natural material on the market.

Biosteel from AMSilk

It sounds like something straight out of a Spider-Man comic, but the technology has been simmering for some time.

Natural spider silk has drawn the attention of scientists since the middle of last century, but because of the difficulties in obtaining large quantity, natural spider silk has not been widely used,” explained Min Zhu, an assistant professor in the Textile Development and Marketing department at the Fashion Insitute of Technology.

“With the development of biotechnology, synthetic spider silk could become available as an alternative fiber choice now.”

While Adidas won’t be ready to release the sneakers until later this year (in limited quantities and for a yet-to-be-determined price), synthetic spider silk already looks poised to disrupt the apparel industry. California-based Bolt Threads launched a limited-edition knit necktie made of 100 percent Boltspun spider silk at this month’s SXSW festival in Austin, Texas—the company’s first step toward commercial production.

Bolt uses sugar, water, salts and yeast in a fermentation process that’s similar to brewing beer to produce liquid silk protein that’s then spun into yarn. And because it’s made in a lab, the process can be tweaked to yield silk with optimized attributes, like strength, stretch or softness.

Fiorenzo Omenetto, biomedical engineer and professor at Tufts University, featured model for the new Bolt Threads lookbook found here

“We wanted to demonstrate the reality of a completely new way of manufacturing textiles, one that has nearly unlimited potential for innovation and also produces a sustainable product,” chief executive Dan Widmaier said in a press release, noting that only 50 would be released.

“Over the past seven years, a team of dozens of scientists, engineers, technicians and designers has worked tirelessly to get us to this milestone. We’re proud and excited about this achievement and what it means for the future of textile production.”

Then there’s Japanese startup Spiber, which paired with The North Face Japan’s distributor Goldwin Inc. to create the Moon Parka, a jacket that looks like the brand’s existing Antarctica style but featuring an outer shell made from synthetic spider silk. First unveiled in October 2015, the parka was initially slated for a 2016 retail launch but has since been delayed so that Spiber can further improve its process.

Zhu wasn’t surprised: “The mass production and commercialization of synthetic spider silk is a rocky road,” she said, adding that it’s hard to imagine the fiber becoming as mainstream as cotton or polyester. “The raw materials are limited no matter which method is used. The production is small, some kilograms per week. Other issues related to biotechnological production are unsolved.”

Given that spider silk is widely regarded as the world’s strongest natural material, it’s no wonder scientists set out to produce an artificial version that doesn’t involve insects. But it’s not the only cruelty-free innovation taking place in a petri dish.

Modern Meadow

Brooklyn startup Modern Meadow grows leather using living cells, not livestock. These cells produce collagen, a natural protein found in animal skin, which is then assembled into a “hide” to be tanned and finished. This animal-friendly, biofabricated leather not only possesses the suppleness and breathability of traditional leather, but can also be imbued with new functionalities such as stretch and flexibility. And because it can be produced in precise sizes and shapes, with none of the defects found in animal hides, waste is reduced by up to 80 percent. Not to mention, of course, no animals are harmed in the making of it.

Speaking of waste, what about carbon dioxide emissions? Last year, energy company NRG teamed up with product management firm 10xBeta to create a sneaker using materials made from recycled CO2. While the shoe was merely a prototype to demonstrate what could come out of the four-year, NRG-sponsored Carbon XPrize competition, that’s not to say that similar products won’t eventually make it to market. After all, the apparel industry is responsible for 10 percent of carbon emissions globally, and with closed-loop manufacturing on everyone’s lips, it makes sense to turn climate-damaging emissions into ingredients.

That’s the thought process behind From Air, a project between Swedish nonprofit Dedicated Institute, Borås Textile University, the Smart Textiles program and other industry innovators. Their mission: to develop technology to create the world’s first climate-positive clothing made from greenhouse gas emissions. If they succeed, imagine what it could mean for the apparel industry’s environmental impact?

Alas, it’s impossible to predict when these innovations will reach the market as scalability and cost remain major roadblocks.

Rebeccah Pailes-Friedman’s Interwoven projects

“One of the largest problem facing startup today is scale, which is tied to funding,” agreed Rebeccah Pailes-Friedman, founder of Interwoven Design Group and adjunct associate professor at Pratt Institute. “Developing an idea is hard work, but there is growing support for entrepreneurs across many spectrums in the initial stages. However, growing from the initial idea to taking that idea to market, scaling your idea up, is still incredibly challenging.”

It’s also tough to know whether consumers would be willing to pay a premium.

“Synthetic spider silk is priced from between $20 and $30 per kilogram to $100 per kilogram, which is much higher than what consumers can afford after the fiber is made into garment,” Zhu said.

Bolt’s necktie, for instance, is priced at $314, while a strikingly similar looking silk one from Tom Ford goes for $220 on Mr Porter. That being said, new fabrics are the future and adopting them now could help apparel brands stand out and unlock new audiences in an increasingly competitive marketplace.

“Apparel brands see that they need to deliver a product to their customers that have an added value, that give their customers higher performance characteristics, more personal expression, or have added health benefits,” says Pailes-Friedman.

“New smart fibers and fabric deliver this added value for the apparel brands that embrace them.”