Forward thinking design innovation is showing us we need to rethink the resources available to us. For many designers, the future of fiber is not in pulling more resources from the ground; it’s growing them.
Consider the mushroom. While most of us are used to fungi as food, many designers have turned to mycelium, the vegetative part of a fungus (basically the roots of a mushroom) for use as fiber. The latest designer to make waves is Aniela Hoitink. With help from the Myco Design Lab, a collaboration of the University of Utrecht, Officina Corpuscoli and Mediamatic, Hoitink concocted a way to make a garment entirely from mycelium, and the resulting dress made from her MycoTEX fiber is currently on display at the Fungal Futures exhibit at the Universiteitsmuseum in Utrecht.
“I have a great interest in technology and microbiology and am always looking for potential opportunities to use one of them in textiles,” says Hoitink. “So when I saw an open call for mycelium research, I was immediately interested. Mycelium has a lot of great properties like isolating, water repellence, anti microbial or even skin caring. These properties are perfect to use in textiles.”
This fungal fiber begins in a petri dish, where Hoitink grows the mycelium.
“After 2 weeks the mycelium is fully grown and can be harvested. After that, the mycelium shapes have to be marinated in another liquid. Then I take them out and put the circular shapes on a 3D mold of a women’s figure, that is when I make and shape the garment. During drying, the mycelium will stick together and the garment is ready.”
This makes for a garment that is not only unique, but also entirely compostable, something that Hoitink believes should be a consideration of the design process. “Nowadays our consumption rate is ever increasing and, as part of such disposable culture, we hardly repair anything. So why not base our textile and clothing production on this disposable culture and make garments that are 100% biodegradable and maybe only last for 1 or 2 years,” says Hoitink. “This way, we can still buy new stuff and throw away the old, without actually adding to the huge textile waste mountain.”
From growing shoes to building materials, when it comes to a sustainable material, mycelium has a lot of potential. But first we have to tackle our perception of it.
“People tend to disregard fungi because they associate them with disgust,” says Maurizio Montalti, the designer behind the Fungal Futures exhibit. Montalti also works with mycelium, founding the company Mycoplast in 2015.
Image: The Growing lab ©Maurizio Montalti
“If only we would accept being part of nature instead of always drawing the typical separation between man and nature,” says Montalti, “it’s food for thought for the public.”
But it’s not only food for thought for the public; exhibits like Fungal Futures are a challenge to the industry as well.
“Designers hold a great responsibility,” says Montalti. “If you really think that this kind of material and product can make a difference and can positively impact our relationship to our ecosystem [then] the only way to make this happen is to make this come to the consumer,” says Montalti, “and the only way to do that is through industry.”
Like Montalti, while her dress design is unique – a kind of fungi couture – Hoitink sees potential for the use of mycelium on a larger scale, particularly given its properties. For example, its antibacterial powers. “Mycelium can be anti microbial or skin caring. Those properties are already part of fungi; it is just a matter of using it in the correct way,” says Hoitink. “We don’t need chemicals or silver layers to add these extra functions.” To give a textile antimicrobial properties, silver nanoparticles are incorporated into fibers like nylon. But these nanoparticles come at a cost. According to the nonprofit Beyond Pesticides, “Many consider silver to be more toxic than other metals when in nanoscale form and that these particles have a different toxicity mechanism compared to dissolved silver. Scientists have concluded that nanoparticles can pass easily into cells and affect cellular function, depending on their shape and size.”
Image: Fungal Futures – Kristel Peters10 ©Marja_Verweij
For any textile application where antimicrobial properties are desirable, Hoitink sees a potential for mycelium. Clothing is my ultimate goal, but there are more applications,” says Hoitink. “Think about antimicrobial curtains in hospitals or moist absorbent textiles for old houses.”
In fact, mycelium is already being used in a variety of fiber forms. Ecovative Design produces both Myco Foam and Myco Board, environmentally-friendly alternatives to styrofoam and particle board and for anyone who is interested in experimenting with fungal fibers, the company makes a GIY Mushroom Materials kit (that’s Grow It Yourself) so that you can grow your own fibers at home. In Denmark, product designer Jonas Edvard has used mycelium to create a fiber he calls MYX, which he uses in lampshades. These designers and others see mycelium as a sustainable, renewable alternative to petroleum-based products, and Montalti is confident that if time and research can continue to be devoted to mycelium, we have the opportunity to transition away from petroleum-based products.
“I feel certain about the fact that these materials will strongly impact the market and become one of the most viable alternatives to synthetics,” says Montalti.
Getting there however requires not only thinking innovatively about materials, but about the entire system at hand.
“The moment that we try to compete with plastic materials it’s a difficult challenge,” says Montalti, noting that “there are different parameters to take into account when looking at the value of the product.”
A more sustainable system will require innovative materials, but also, as Montalti points out “a new form of business model.” One that isn’t just focused on short term profits that come at any cost. “Everything needs to be questioned,” says Montalti, and that means not only how we make materials, but in what system we sell them and how we do business.
When it comes to the future of fashion, Hoitink agrees, pointing out that to move forward, we need to challenge ourselves to not just apply new materials to old methods, but to rethink the entire way of making clothing.
“People are stuck in the old ways of clothing production,” says Hoitink. “People ask me if I could make a yarn out of Mycelium. But why should I put a lot of effort in trying so, if growing pieces is much quicker and environmentally friendly? One of the problems of recycling is that the yarn is not strong enough for weaving, one needs to add new yarns to the recycled yarns in order to use them for the industrial machines. But why not be open for new ways of making garments?”