Thanks to the wonderful scientific mind of Young-A Lee (pictured below), an associate professor of apparel, merchandising and design at Iowa State you may soon be able to have your kombucha tea and wear it too. Baffling right? How the heck does tea become clothing? At LeBaron Hall clothing labs Lee sets up rows and works of shallow plastic bins creating a ‘greenhouse’ to grow her fibres. Instead of soil and seeds, each plastic bin contains a gel-like film consisting of cellulose fibers – a byproduct of kombucha tea – that feeds off a mixture of vinegar and sugar. The film is grown by using a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast (SCOBY). According to Lee the properties of this SCOBY film are similar to leather once it’s harvested and dried, and can be used to make clothing, shoes or handbags.
The benefits of this fibre (other than the obvious one of tea-swilling-and-wearing hipster bragging rights) is that the end product is 100% biodegradable. Great news for those who are seeking alternatives to traditional leather but dislike the synthetic varieties due to performance, animal ethics, and/or the sticking-around-forever-because-they-are-made-from-plastic reasons. The material has been tested for other applications, such as cosmetics, foods and biomedical tissue for wound dressing, but it is relatively new to the apparel industry.
The cellulose fiber reduces waste by creating a continuous cycle of reuse or regeneration, what is known as cradle-to-cradle design, Lee said. Even if clothing is recycled or repurposed, it still eventually ends up in the trash. Lee envisions a truly sustainable fabric or material that is biodegradable and goes back into the soil as a nutrient rather than taking up space in a landfill. And using the SCOBY gives new purpose to the tea byproduct, lessening the fashion industry’s dependence on nonrenewable materials.
The would-you-wear-it test.
According to the press release from Iowa State (which is what this post is based on because sadly Lee and I aren’t friends…yet) a preliminary study into the market appeal of this product among college students showed positivity towards the sustainability aspect of the fabric, but they were a little dubious about the colour and texture. Like the fruit leather I posted a little while back, SCOBY leather seems to be in it’s early stages. I can’t say I would be wearing fruit leather or tea leather in it’s raw state for fear of looking like some kind of Ed Gein creation, however with some refinement there is a good chance that tea or fruit leather could be as wearable as spoilt milk (which sounds revolting but actually looks like and unbelievable beautiful fibre). I would wear the shoes created from this fibre (pictured at top) as they look exactly like a pair of thrifted mens brogues I already own.