Photos from The Next Black
Growing your own clothing is easier than you think. BioCouture’s Suzanne Lee has been spinning whole garments with little more than bacteria, yeast, and sweetened green tea. Originally from London, Lee recently crossed the Atlantic to serve as the creative director of Modern Meadow, a Brooklyn startup that pioneered a way coax animal tissue cells into a dense, cowhide-like material with varying strength, weight, texture, and elasticity. “Imagine leather that’s as lightweight and transparent as a butterfly wing or has the natural stretch of rubber,” Lee tells Popular Science in its March 2015 issue. “Or imagine a material with the dynamic responsiveness of the skin of a chameleon.”
Lee may be cultivating leather from petri dishes right now, but she remembers the awe she felt a decade earlier, when she and Scottish biologist David Hepworth first began experimenting with “living materials”—her in her bathtub and him in his garage.
He remarked to her then: “Instead of thinking about fiber production from a source like cotton in a field—an agricultural approach—we could look to living organisms like bacteria to produce fibers for us.”
Starting with tea, sugar, and the same bacteria and yeast used to ferment the Korean health drink kombucha, Lee and Hepworth made a discovery: Microbes, after feasting on sugar, sprout fibers that fuse into thin, pliable sheets of cellulose. When molded onto a dress form, then left to dry out, overlapping pieces of the material knit themselves together to form a structured garment with no visible seams.
“You can actually have a dress growing in a vat of liquid,” Lee says. “I had never imagined a piece of clothing could be alive. And I have nothing to do with its creation. It’s growing for me.”
Infographic by Popular Science
Here’s Lee’s recipe to make your own cow-free “leather,” right in the comfort of your own kitchen.
- 200 milliliters of organic cider vinegar
- 200 grams granulated sugar
- 1 live kombucha culture
- 2 green tea bags
1. BREW THE LIQUID
Boil 2 liters of water, and steep the tea for 15 minutes. Remove the tea bags and add the sugar, stirring until it’s dissolved.
2. PREP THE CULTURE
Make sure the liquid is cooler than 86 degrees Fahrenheit, and then pour it into your container.
Add the cider vinegar and the kombucha culture. Cover the container with a cloth.
3. HARVEST THE MAT
While it grows, the mixture should be kept at room temperature. First, the culture will sink to the bottom. You’ll know fermentation has begun when bubbles and a transparent skin start to form on the surface.
Over time, the culture will rise to the surface and accumulate in a thick layer.
Once the mat reaches 2 centimeters in thickness (in three to four weeks), take it out of the container and gently wash it with cold, soapy water.
4. DRY THE MATERIAL OUT
Spread the sheet flat on a wooden surface. When it no longer feels wet, you can cut and sew it like any other fabric.
Note: This recipe will produce a piece of microbial leather as large as 7 x 6 inches, and it will take the shape of the container you put it in. To grow a larger or smaller sheet, adjust the proportions accordingly.