Material innovations in the sustainable cellulosic fibre realm

Stephanie Steele Thursday, 7 May 2020

Our May 2020 Masterclass looked at how we can work with sustainable cellulosic fibres for fashion and interior products, so for this article we take a look at recent and current innovations that use cellulosic fibres.

You can find out more about what cellulosic fibres are, and the companies and brands utilising sustainable sources in the Masterclass here.


Cotton

Galy are growing cotton in labs, using biotechnology and plant cells. Conventional and organic cotton production is both water and land intensive, along with having major issues in terms of ethics... but we're unsure if lab-grown cotton walks a similar line as GMO where conglomerates own everything, and skilled farmers lose out.

RI.SE IVF are a Swedish research institute with many projects on the go, including lots on recycling. The Swerea project in particular is researching how to separate cotton and polyester blends in order to create new fibre. They discovered a circular technology that using an earth-friendly chemical to gently separate and regenerate both the cotton and polyester from the blend. This offers great potential for existing clothing that currently can only be re-used or re-purposed, eventually being devalued. It could potentially slow down any actual developments and infrastructure in circularity, however, there are still products like sportswear where these natural-synthetic blends are helpful.

Oshadi use the indigenous Indian rain-fed cotton Kala for their modern handwoven textiles, along with Tencel, ultra long staple cotton, linen and non-cellulosic fibres recycled peace silk, ECONYL and recycled polyester.

Nettle

Green-Nettle Textiles engage the local community in growing stinging nettles of sloping non-arable land that would otherwise be wasted. The fibre is produced in a linen-style way through using only the dried stalks, creating a hardy but malleable textile. The leaves are harvested for food and medicine, while the nettle plants themselves perform as an essential habitat. At the moment they are not producing fabric for sale, rather products seemingly to give a cash injection.

Hemp

Bysshe Partnership weave traditional fabrics in Lancashire and finish them in Yorkshire, produced with a European hemp or linen weft and EU organic cotton. They are superb quality, very substantial in feel and modern in their jacquard patterns. The hemp for the Cornish yarn is grown in France, and spun in Cornwall, while the Romanian yarn is grown and spun in Romania using low impact farming. They also have a Masters of Linen certified Belgian flax weft yarn. Innovation need not be super swanky new fibres, but those that understand the value of craft production and upstanding fibre properties.

Agave

Sabra, or 'cactus', silk comes from an aloe vera type plant - or does it? Back in 2015, Charlie wrote an article about this cool new 'vegetarian silk' fibre, and yet, when you look closer at sourcing such a material, there is minimal if any information on how it is extracted. In 2018, Anou Blog posted an article about their investigation into sabra silk, and the supposed Moroccan artisans weaving products with it. It is fascinating and enlightening, and really showcases how we must dig deeper in order to support craft production and retain the integrity of such skills. Agave can however be used for fibre, and this is where sisal comes from.

Algae and seaweed

Alga-Life have created a textile using a regenerative source of algae that doesn't require any fertilisers (due to where it is grown), chemicals (due to how it is produced) and apparently no CO2 (which we disagree with, because transportation of material collection and distribution isn't transparently stated - carbon offsetingdoes not mean no CO2 was produced). As with all algal fibres, their anti-microbial skin-loving properties are touted; I am always hesitant without scientific confirmation to affirm that these fibres are good for your skin. Bamboo, don't forget is marketed as anti-bacterial and yet it is produced with chemicals. At least no chemicals should be used, so yes, the fibre direct on the skin may proffer some benefit.  

Studio Tjeerd Veenhoven's Project AlgaeFabrics extracts cellulose from the cell walls of Cladophora algae (a particular variety that is 70% cellulose) before immersing it in a liquid to that enables the fibres to stick together in straight lines. Algae can grow quickly and excessively, causing unwanted gatherings that affect water quickly and limiting the amount of oxygen and sunlight that can reach further down under water. In this respect, creating fibre and consequently fabric from algae can solve numerous issues. It is however unclear if their aim to have an algae yarn by 2017 came to fruition.

Seacell™ is produced using the lyocell process i.e. in a closed loop at Lenzing's modern fibre plant in Austria. It can be a bit misleading, because it isn't a fibre created from seaweed, like with the algae above, but instead cried and crushed seaweed is 'incorporated' into a cellulosic fibre. Because the lyocell process is used for this patented fibre, we can assume it used mostly eucalpytus for the wood source as normal. Smartfiber AG, the materials company who own Seacell, say that the selection of the seaweed is 'gentle', removing only the part of the seaweed that can regenerate. It is also Oeko-Tex Standard 100 certified. We actually looked at this fibre back in 2017, so you can read more about our thoughts on it here.

Mycelium

This is a wonder in its own right. Mycelium is what keeps our world going - it is the fungal rootsystem beneath us that allows all plants and trees to have a symbiotic relationship with the soil, stretching itself out further than the root systems of those plants and trees every could. Through this altruistic process, mycelium shares and communicates where nutrients should go. Wearing it on your skin would probably be other-worldly. Aniela Hoitink combined 3D technology with the natural growing of mycelium to develop MycoTEX, a fabric that wouldn't need to be cut or sewn. There are problems with finding a sustainable feedstock, and of course wearability, but it showcases how our connection with clothing needs to literally go deeper.

Back in our blog article of 2016, we looked at the ways in which fungi has been used in clothing. As with the wonder of nature, it goes at its own pace, so it is refreshing to look back at how this material innovation is also taking its time.

Animals

It makes sense that if cows eat grass, then their manure is full of that cellulosic material, and what's more, it's already pre-processed due to the natural stomach enzymes (if you tuned in to the lesson on What Are Cellulosic Fibres (Part One): Natural Fibres, you'll have heard me note that cellulosic fibres cannot be digested). Mestic® is an arm of the Inspidere biotech company (who also create high performance fabrics and composite materials reinforced with fibres based on spider silk), that takes cow manure from intensive dairy farms and turns it into a new fibre for textiles, paper and bioplastic.

Mestic® cow manure cellulosic fibre used for textiles, paper and bioplastics

Fruit

Orange Fiber is the more well-known cellulose fibre innovator, taking by-product citrus waste - everything left after the juice has been industrially squeezed - to create a silk-like cellulosic fibre. There is more than 700,000 tons of citrus juice by-product in Italy alone each year. They extract the yarn as a polymer to industrially produce a new yarn. This Italian industrial production is how Orange Fiber have successfully got into to commercial viability, though they are constantly crowdfunding.

It's not clear how it's done, but Natalie Spencer created a 'vegan wool' using the discarded pineapple leaves from London juice bars and markets. The yarn is lustrous with various thicknesses, and is woven in herrgbone patterns to create a tweedy cloth.

Food waste

There is a lot of various soy products, especially with an increase in vegetarian and veganism. Soy fabric has gone through waves of innovation, with the biggest production concern being that banned substance formaldehyde was often used to link fibres in order to create a long chain. Fortunately there are manufacturers now using Oeko-Tex certified yarns, often from organic crops, and processed in a closed loop manner. We hope now at Offset Warehouse that we can start to stock this cosy cotton alternative.

Soyabean production in the UK

Wood

Ioncell-F is a material research company that dissolves wood pulp, cardboard and old newspapers using the solvent ionic liquid, ready to spin into new filament yarn through dry-jet wet spinning (we cover this production process in our What Are Cellulosic Fibres (Part Two): Man-Made lesson). The non-toxic ionic liquid and water used in the production are captured and re-used in a closed loop. Ioncell-F have been around for some time now, so have many textiles and lifestyle projects under their belt showing commercial viablity. We spoke at the end of 2019 with the researchers at Aalto University where Ioncell-F is based, to hear more about the technical aspect of this innovation along with their partnership with iconic brand Marimekko.

Ono Collaborations utilise very fine layers of cork to back Tencel fabric creating a material that is useful for accessories that need durability and malleability. Cork extraction occurs after the tree is 25 years old, with the cork regrowing naturally to further bind CO2 from the atmosphere. Cork forests tend to be a good example of agroforestry in action, supporting biodiversity and employment for local farmers. A water-based glue is used to apply a thin layer of cork to Tencel, and finished with a water-based substance.

Eastman's Naia™ is well-known in the textiles industry now as a leader in sustainably-managed wood (pine and eucalyptus) cellulose. They have a fully transparent production process, no hazardous chemicals as per the ZDHC list and are Oeko-Tex 100 certified. You can see a small selection of the types of fabrics Naia™ yarn can be used for via C.L.A.S.S. Eco Hub.

Currently cork waste - from wine bottle stoppers - is burnt, however this is a valuable resource that JPS Cork Group in partnership with Têxteis Penedo, CITEVE (Technological Center for Textiles and Clothing) and the Faculty of Engineering of the University of Porto, used to create a yarn coating. Again, it is a material being used to changed another material rather than directly, however it explores the nature of materials to create something beneficial. We saw the Sedacor project's cork yarn used in rugs and espadrilles at the Future fabrics Expo in January 2020.

Sedacor's cork-coated yarn