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How to grow your own clothes

By Suzanne Lee, Special to CNN
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Future fashion: How to grow a dress
  • Designer Suzanne Lee experiments with new materials for clothing
  • She created material out of tea, sugar and microbes
  • Lee says this method is efficient and can make use of waste material
  • She says using microbial cellulose could help preserve precious natural resources

Editor's note: TED is a nonprofit organization dedicated to "Ideas worth spreading," which it makes available through talks posted on its website. Suzanne Lee, director of the BioCouture project, is a senior research fellow in the School of Fashion/Textiles, Central Saint Martins, London.

(CNN) -- My project sprang from an idea in my book "Fashioning The Future: Tomorrow's Wardrobe."

I was questioning what science could "fashion" for us in the future.

As a fashion designer, I've always tended to think of making clothing from conventional materials. But then I met a biologist, and now I think of a completely different recipe -- green tea, sugar, a few microbes and a little time.

I'm essentially using a kombucha recipe, which is a symbiotic mix of bacteria, yeasts and other microorganisms, which spin cellulose in a fermentation process. Over time, these tiny threads form in the liquid into layers and produce a mat on the surface.

Watch Suzanne Lee's TED Talk

We start by brewing the tea. I brew up to about 30 liters of tea at a time, and then while it's still hot, add a couple of kilos of sugar. We stir this in until it's completely dissolved and then pour it into a growth bath. We need to check that the temperature has cooled to below 30 degrees Celsius. And then we're ready to add the living organism, and along with that, some acetic acid.

Suzanne Lee: Grow your own clothes

We need to maintain an optimum temperature for the growth. I use a heat mat to sit the bath on and a thermostat to regulate it.

After about three days, the bubbles will appear on the surface of the liquid -- the fermentation is in full swing. And the bacteria are feeding on the sugar nutrients in the liquid.

So they're spinning these tiny nanofibers of pure cellulose. And they're sticking together, forming layers and giving us a sheet on the surface. After about two to three weeks, we're looking at something which is about an inch in thickness. This is a static culture. You don't have to do anything to it; you just literally watch it grow. It doesn't need light.

And when it's ready to harvest, you take it out of the bath and you wash it in cold, soapy water. At this point, it's really heavy. It's over 90 percent water, so we need to let that evaporate. So I spread it out onto a wooden sheet. Silk, the ancient material of the future

As it's drying, it's compressing, so what you're left with, depending on the recipe, is something that's either like a really lightweight, transparent paper, or something which is much more like a flexible vegetable leather. And then you can either cut that out and sew it conventionally, or you can use the wet material to form it around a three-dimensional shape. And as it evaporates, it will knit itself together, forming seams.

I started to grow microbial cellulose to explore an ecofriendly textile for clothing and accessories but, very quickly, I realized this method had potential for all sorts of other biodegradable consumer products.

Presenting my work at TED was an incredible opportunity to share my ideas with a diverse and dynamic global audience. Since my talk has been online it has started conversations with people all around the world. I've had so many enquiries I can't keep up!

One issue I mentioned in my TED talk was the superabsorbency of the material. This is a problem if you don't want your jacket or bag to soak up and hold moisture! In fact I'm very confident that we can resolve this issue. The difficulty is how best to achieve it without the use of nasty chemicals. Eythor Bender demos human exoskeletons

Prior to my TED talk, another key concern was what kind of industrial process might make this technology scalable for mass production. This remains a central research question, but I have also been overwhelmed by the number of people wanting to go the other way and question if it can be produced locally on a micro scale. At a recent TEDx in London, enthusiasts from Colombia, Chile and Brazil were all asking how this process might be distributed to village communities in developing nations to enable local manufacture from waste sugar or as an alternative "crop."

I'm really interested in taking both approaches forward. One might be a more high-tech route where we enhance the material properties and process for industrialized high value production. For the other, we need to find a way to adapt a simpler recipe and method so that it can be made with little skill and differing resources. Theo Jansen creates new creatures

What excites me about using microbes is their efficiency. So we only grow what we need. There's no waste. And in fact, we could make it from a waste stream -- for example, waste sugar stream from a food processing plant. Finally, at the end of use, we could biodegrade it naturally along with your vegetable peelings.

I'm not suggesting that microbial cellulose is going to be a replacement for cotton, leather or other textile materials. But I do think it could be quite a smart and sustainable addition to our increasingly precious natural resources.

I'm not a scientist. What I find interesting about my work is how, as a designer, I sit between science and the consumer and can see both a need and a solution. It's amazing to me how one seemingly simple quest to discover if I could "grow a dress" has evolved into something that now encompasses new biomaterials science, exploring industrial fermentation processes and coming to grips with local enterprise in developing nations. So I'll be quite busy for the foreseeable future!

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Suzanne Lee.

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