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Essay: Exploring the Future of Textiles: Advances in Tech, Science and Fashion with Bacterial Textiles

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The future of textiles: A harmonious blend of technology, science and fashion with particular reference to bacterial textiles.

An introduction

This extended essay will explore the impact of technological and scientific innovation on the future of textiles with particular reference to bacterial textiles.

Advances in technology and science have not only influenced the way our textiles are made, but also how they are designed. Many designers are collaborating with scientists to create not only interesting, but more practical and sustainable textiles.

This paper will also look into the commodification of these innovations for example, in the way textiles designed for military or space travel have trickled down into the mass market, especially into high-performance areas like sportswear.

Research questions: How are textile innovations used in our daily lives? How does consumption and sustainability effect innovation? How does technology influence design?

To further analyse and answer the research questions, both textual and experiential methodologies will be used. Experiential analysis carried out through participation in a Biomaterials Collaboration Workshop held by the Open Science School in partnership with University College London. The workshop brought together like-minded individuals from the realms of art and design with science and technology, two very different disciplines, to create a platform for possible collaboration and sharing of thoughts and ideas. Information gathered through this experience will fuel further discussion on how technology and scientific innovation can impact the future of textiles.

Textual analysis will be carried out on the interviews with industry insiders, Professor Helen Storey of the Center of Sustainable Fashion and Natsai Audrey, a designer of pioneering Biodesign, who will further prove this involvement and interdependency of Fashion, Technology and Science. The analysis of these key sources through the chosen methodology aims to inform the essay and to support the topic in relation to consumption, material culture and design.

Fast Fashion and the need for change

In a fast paced fashion and textile industry, are we giving enough attention to matters of sustainability and ethical fashion? We constantly rationalize the needs of the fashion industry in the name of quality and performance to fulfill the demand of the ever growing consumer culture and luxury industry (Sinclair,2015). Against this background, due to technological advances in science, some designers and producers are moving towards a bio fabricated future of textiles – creating materials that are ethical, sustainable and practical. Technological advances in textiles is also apparent in the creation of fabrics used in performance and sportswear. These textiles, created originally for NASA and the military, have been adopted by commercial producers to improve performativity and comfort. As a textile designer, it is important to have extensive knowledge of these advances in order to re-contextualize and further push the boundaries of design in our everyday lives.

Textiles are anything made from natural or synthetic fibrous material (The Textile Museum, 2002). They can be made of spun, netted, looped, knitted and woven fibers traditionally being made of established and familiar sources such as cotton, linen and polyester (Sinclair, 2016). Many of the materials, techniques and forms used in ancient production of textiles remain today in many regions of the world, both as an essential aspect of production and also as an ingredient in textile arts (Sinclair,2016). It is a continuous progression and plays a major influence on what we wear, our possessions and how we decorate our surroundings. New textiles are constantly being produced and developed to fulfill factors such as availability, versatility, cost of production and the desirability of its properties and aesthetics to consumers.

However, the film “True Cost”, a documentary about the truth and horrors of the global supply chain of fashion, reveals the true environmental and social impacts of the contemporary fashion and textile industry (Francis and Cohen, 1granary, 2015). The biggest problems contributing to our global environmental issues in the production of textiles is the manufacturing process which includes the excessive use of energy, water and non renewable raw materials to create an end product that is also non-renewable. Our over consumption of textiles has been embedded in our culture with the establishment of fast fashion in the 21st century, creating social and environment impacts which require social responsibility. Along with this responsibility, which is not fully comprehended by the customer, comes layers of cost that can act as a barrier to communicating the environmental benefits to the modern customer, accustomed to buying a lot of “stuff” at an “affordable” price (Francis and Cohen, 1granary, 2015).

With problems of sustainability in mind, innovators of design, technology and science are coming together to create textiles that fulfil the demands of a fast paced industry with more environmentally friendly products. In Textile and Technology, Rose Sinclair, points out that the real challenge for designers of sustainable fashion remains the aesthetic (2009). The limited options for components impacts the creative direction of a product, alongside the potentially higher costs that must be absorbed and passed on. This results in most of the fashion industry’s reluctance to adopt more eco friendly design.

In her article for 1granary on sustainability in regards to the Ecochic design awards, this unsustainable aspect of the fashion cycle has become just as problematic with designers unable to alter the speed of the clothing they produced (Francis and Cohen, 1granary, 2015). Fortunately, according to Johan Arno Kryer, the head of Responsible Innovation at the Danish Fashion Institute, there is growing awareness within the industry and consumers about the impact upon the environment, and the people who are working so hard to get cheap products into the market fast. According to him, there is a paradigm shift within the society provoked by the slowly but steady demise of our natural resources. A change has to be made in order to uphold the way of living that we know today.

Innovations in textiles and technology development is a necessity (Goldberg, 2017). We are no longer able to be a world driven by consumerism as drastic changes over recent years with the accumulation of non-biodegradable waste in the world has been an increasing problem. Many focus of research has shifted towards developing an eco-friendly biodegradable material. Providing a material that is natural will help solve the problem of production and has many advantages to it. It is tricky to find a material that produces durable end products but with the lowest cost possible. Most of our clothes today have their sources in petroleum products, which is cheap and readily available but with its fast depletion, it raises questions to the future and provides another driving force to our quest for biomaterials.

Biomaterials are natural, making the source eternal. Unlike vegetal alternatives, they are easy to cultivate and cheap. With its numerous uses, they have the edge for being a natural source of material from which they are synthesized with less possible environmental hazards and pollution. The need to find more and more biomaterials that are suitable for use as textiles has increased rapidly as well as the need to pick the most optimum processing methods. A lot of research is being devoted into dyeing and the chemical process to reduce anymore implications it might have on the environment. Our choice of materials has made a decision in favor of better working condition and environmental protection.

Understanding Materials

To understand this new possible avenue of material culture, on the 20th to 23rd of February 2016, I participated in “Co-Lab”, a hands on workshop facilitated by a group of designers and researchers from the Open Science School and University College London. Born from the idea that core science and the arts are both creative fields of study, it hopes to foster interdisciplinary projects, in particular interest in the developments of new biological materials and applications for them. The workshop allowed me to experience first hand the production and handling of Biomaterials as well as understand the principle and nature of these materials.

Over the course of three days, we were introduced to biomaterials found in the environment, with a special focus on those of microbial origin. To understand the different methodologies and reasoning across disciplines, the three-day workshop was packed with brainstorming sessions, lectures as well as live practical lab work for us to handle the experiments head-on. The aim of it all, based on narratives developed by the participants, was to develop a bio-materials inspired project and provide an outcome of either a physical prototype, a project prototype or an object. The proposal was then documented and presented during the closing event in front of the “Co-Lab” team, invited guests and other participants of the workshop.

On our first day, we were asked three simple questions: What does design means to you? What is science to you? What can design impact our world? We were made to see things in both a design and science point of view. To many of us, science is seen as the theory and fact of nature and design is a way to communicate and give it function and aesthetic. One cannot live without the other. Science, design, art, and engineering, long considered their own areas of focus, are no longer domains to be explored in isolation, but together, in the hopes of expediting progress and discovery (Stinson, 2017). With the two working together, it creates solutions to solve our problems in the global community. With these thoughts in mind, the idea development process focuses in the identifying the problem from a personal to global scale, issues surrounding the economic, social and political field and how will that affect the material application to the solution. 3 microbial experiments were then introduced to further inspire us.

Day 1

Day 2

Day 3


Extraction of Pigment from Microbial Samples

Processing Konbucha Sheets

Prototyping and Presentation of Ideas

Microbiology of pigment-producing bacteria

Bioluminescence and

Measuring of Chlorella spp. Growth in bioreactor

Pitch Idea at the “Institute of Making”

Experimenting with Biology: Microbial Origins

During the workshop, there were three main experiments which I find particularly interesting and useful to further my investigation:

1. Extracting actinorhodin from S. coelicolor.

2. Painting with M. luteus, M. roseus, C. violaceum, P. fluorescens and E. coli + indigo genes (IPTG-induced) –Microbiology of pigment-producing bacteria

3. Processing of Kombucha sheets.

These experiments provided me knowledge of the production methods as well as the factors we need to take in for the bacteria to live and grow. It will also help me understand their different properties, capabilities and weaknesses to put into perspective how it will affect their possibility as a material.

Extraction of Pigments from Microbial Samples found in Forest Floor

Extracting actinorhodin from S. coelicolor

One of the many microbial organisms introduced were the S.coelicolor, long, string-like bacterium part of a group of bacteria genus Streptomyces. They are responsible for contributing to the largest production of natural antibiotics and can be found on the forest floor. It has a distinctive “earthy” smell. Colonies of Streptomyces genus release many pigments molecules that can be isolated in a pure form. Pigmentation is a common trait in bacteria species. These pigments are light absorbing compounds that are responsible for colors that the organism displays. Different strands of bacterium produces different color pigments, such S.coelicolor bacteria colonies produces an indigo colored pigment.

Harvesting the inks require pigments to be extracted and then concentrated before it can be used. These bacteria cultivation need 4 – 7 days to produce pigments ready for extraction. When the culture has developed a saturated pigmented state, they can be then extracted from the media and used to make paints. The extraction process starts with the media being crushed and mixed in a beaker with water to dissolve it, creating a blue solution. The blue solution is then shifted through a cotton pad and acid is added to it. Then, the solution is gently poured between one beaker to another to separate the pigment. When it is done, the concentrated ink solution is mixed with NaOH (Sodium hydroxide) to re-suspend in high pH water to create the final ink product.

Through this experiment, there is a better understanding of the properties of bacteria as well as the production methods on how we could harvest them for practical use, in this case in the form of inks. Bacteria is not only a renewable source of material being a living organism, but also inexpensive and non toxic for use in an everyday context. These bacteria, with the growing technological advances, can be harvested in large scale in safe and sterile area. This could serve as a solution to replace petrochemical inks, that are non-renewable and toxic to us and the environment, and vegetal inks, which are expensive and non-dependable in its product consistency.

Microbiology of pigment-producing bacteria:

Painting with M. luteus, M. roseus, C. violaceum, P. fluorescens and E. coli + indigo genes (IPTG-induced)

From the first experiment, we now understand that there are different factors we need to think about in order to grow bacteria producing pigments. All organism strives in different conditions. The second experiment will allow us to find out the different growth conditions of different bacterial strains and understand the nature of the microbial cultures.

Bacterial growth is affected by:

1. Temperature

2. Nutrient Value

3. Water Supply

4. Oxygen supply

5. Acidity of the medium / pH value.

The experiment requires us to manipulate and grow different pigment producing bacteria and observe their growth. Pigmentation is a common characteristic of many bacteria species. These pigments are not only responsible for the colors these organisms display but also plays an important role in the survival of the organisms which produce them.

We were provided with the 5 bacteria samples, (1) Micrococcus roseus, (2) Micrococcus leteus , (3) Chromobacterium violaceum, (4) Pseudomonas fluorescens (5) Genetically modified Escherichia coli. These bacteria create different pigment colors (pink, violet, indigo) and other properties such as the Pseudomonas fluorescens which creates a fluorescent affect. For the experiment, we were free to use any of the bacteria provided to create images on to petri dishes; creating colorful living art. Some of us even tried to cross contaminate the samples together in our experiment. Then, these samples are being exposed to the different conditions to check its growth and reaction towards the changes.

With the different strands of bacteria available, we tried to explore different combinations of temperature, pH, nutrients and supplements to understand its effects on growth and metabolism as well as its affects on the production of pigments.

Processing Konbucha Sheets:

Production and processing of Konbucha sheets

Konbucha is symbiotic living material made of a variable composition of different species of bacteria and yeast. It is made of Konbucha tea, a traditional health-promoting fermented beverage that has existed since a thousand years ago and is made by fermenting sugared tea with yeast and bacteria.

The cellulose-like material formed in the cultured medium can be used as a bio cellulose tissue to create clothes, or bio paper and has been used in cosmetology due to its anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. In fashion, designer Suzanne Lee was one of the first to utilize its properties to create skin-like leather by growing the culture and drying it for use. Lee focuses on the idea of organisms that can grow material and was attracted to the Konbucha which is not only biodegradable but compostable.

The Experiment involves the making of Konbucha by infusing tea bags with hot water and adding sugar into the mix. Let cool to room temperature and add vinegar and a little bit of a previous batch of the growth to let the culture ferment and grow for 5-14 days, depending on how much you want it to grow. The culture does not need much oxygen to grow but it is important to keep its pH at a certain level to avoid contamination. The result of the experiment will be a brownish, heavy piece of culture that can be dried of its water content. It is also flexible.

The Konbucha can be treated by colouring and/or decolouring, blending and desiccation to change from its original properties. The experiment further informs how much it could be realistically produced and what material properties it has. It will also improve the likelihood of finalizing a suitable processing candidate and creative outputs. Now, we have a better understanding of the remarkable properties of this cellulose.

Many new age designers are part of this paradigm shift and are trying to find new and creative ways to develop a solution to this growing problem. Pioneering in the realms of bio design, they try to find solutions to tackle problems of climate change caused by textile and farming. With innovations such as CRISP, a gene editing technique, harnessing nature with the help of technology has never been more at reach for those outside of the scientific field (Ideo, 2016). Designers like Natsai Audrey Chieza is an example of forward thinking designers looking for new possibilities to co-cultivate with living technologies and biodesign. Her time at CSM’s Material Futures course allowed her to interrogate materials, futures and culture leading her to look into the biological and genetic engineering of materials and what we can create for the human race. “I was inspired by the idea of designing at post natural fuel era” says Chieza. Looking into a world where fossil fuels becomes obsolete and no pollution.

In her quest in finding solutions, looking to nature as a mentor, Chieza researched into better and more efficient ways to dye, designing with organisms, creating a new process that is sustainable using bacteria.  She creates silk dyed in secretion of bacteria, creating a burgeoning bio-metric medium into traditional textile production which is extremely strenuous towards the environment. Using these natural processes to replace traditional dying process and techniques that are environmentally damaging is a stepping stone towards a more sustainable future.

These bacterial dyes will benefit us with their non toxic and non-pathogenic nature, its use of less water making it all in all a better natural dye. This speaks as a fundamentally different approach to design where instead of designing to increase profits, she looks into how to design for the living. Unfortunately, at the moment, results of this unique exploration towards traditional textiles are very versatile due to its difficult to control outcome; creating unexpected beautiful outcomes. With only certain amount of control, it is difficult at the moment to launch the project in big scale.

Science and arts together, opens many avenues of possibilities. The idea being art could elucidate or bring to life an area of complex science in a way that the public can engage with (Brown,2012). Catalytic Clothing is meant to send a powerful message about the environmental change that has been affecting our air and health; an environmental fashion initiative. Working together, Professor Helen Storey and chemist, Professor Tony Ryan, provided a solution to make use of what we already have. The idea was planted by a young female student in a workshop held by the two (Brown,2012).. “She said, ‘I think what scientist should be doing is taking advantage of what happens in any case, far more often,” Prof. Storey said. “We were both quite stuck by this comment – this notion of taking advantage of something that already exist in a new way,” Prof. Storey said (Brown,2012).

Our clothes provide a canvas for them to work on, impregnating photo catalyst that uses light to break down the airborne pollution creating an air purifying function into the clothes that wear all day everyday (Brown,2012). She believes that clothing has the power to change the way we live and in the process contribute to making our lives greener and more sustainable (Francis and Cohen, 1granary, 2015). A radical project to bridge the two disciplines and potentially clean the air we breath, its provides quite a simple solution on how they would like to achieve their goals, as the photo catalyst could easily be be added to clothes as a fabric softener or detergent.

Smart Textiles

Bridging the boundaries of science, technology and fashion brings about not only a biofabricated future but also a techno-textile revolution; the convergence of textile and technology. In the Designing with Smart Textiles, Kettley (2015) describes these smart fabrics as having the ability to do what traditional textile can’t, enhancing the body as a communicative device as well as providing it with other properties such as withstanding harsh conditions, transforming, conduct energy and growth. Acting like a second skin, they have the ability to gather data from our body and its surroundings. Smart Textiles don’t describe the materials but more of the innovative characteristic which attributes to more functions than traditional textiles (Kettley, 2015).

The ability to respond to external stimuli gives “smart” or “intelligent” textiles their name. Smart textiles “learn” from our bodies and our environment and react. There are two basic forms, extroverted and introverted. Extroverted smart textiles including smart textiles, provides an obvious external transformation such as color, form, sound or aroma, stimulated not only by the wearer but through stimulation from the senses of the audience. Introverted smart textiles does not undergo a physical change but instead transform so that one or more of the owner’s own senses are stimulated. A good example is fabrics developed primarily for athletes to keep dry in sportswear as it the fabric reacts mechanically to absorb and dispel the heat (Kettley, 2015).

The term smart textiles have been around since the 80s in the United States. It is only recently that it has been adopted to textiles. Like traditional textiles, made from materials chosen for their mechanical and structural qualities, smart textiles are being more and more popular due to their inherent qualities to a flexible, wearable and easily manufactured product. Smart textiles are divided into three categories, passive, active and very smart textiles based on their qualities involving different types of technology. The passive and active types gather information and changes to the data, acting as sensors. Active smart textiles, however, responds to the stimuli, acting as both sensor and actuators. Very smart textiles add a third function to the equation. In addition to sensing and receiving stimuli and reacting to change, it reshapes and adapt to the environment as a response being one of the most advance and dynamic material.

Many advances in the discipline, usually for the military and other physically demanding sectors such as space travel, will have far-reaching applications when fully developed and can be utilized for more everyday and practical applications. The cutting-edge research behind these developments are hitting the streets as well as the battlefield, as researchers and entrepreneurs apply the discoveries into new products (Friedman, 2016). When they were first introduced, these products were seen as cutting edge technological developments, now they are available in multitude of products. An example of this effect can be seen in Ministry of Supply, a venture combining bicycling apparel to look like everyday business clothing. To understand ways on how the skin moves, an engineering process from aerospace design was used to determine mechanical design details. In addition, Ministry of Supply licensed a fabric that NASA had developed to regulate astronaut’s body temperature in 200ºC heat. This adaptation allows the body to keep cool, preventing perspiration during cycling.

Ethics and Consumer culture

The change in attitude in the fashion world is not led by the environment alone. There are many ethics involve, as it affects the society and the people involved in the process of fashion. The post-war economic boom saw the pace of fashion quicken as fashionable mass produced clothing became popular among middle-class and affluent working class segments of the market and which required, in turn, long runs of highly standardized products (Wark, 1991). Living standards rose, allowing middle class to play apart to the temporal fashion consumption, changing the structure of the industry which calls for increasing cheap imports from developing countries. As mentioned in the documentary True Cost, this system has injected the type of speed, disposability and price deflation and with no straight forward answer (Minow, 2016). In an interview, the director of True Cost, Andrew Morgen describes the impacts of a global economy have allowed us to offshore labor, cut costs and produce mass quantities of clothing much more cheaply. ‘Clothing has now become a commodity that we see as disposable, and that is really brand new in the history of fashion’ said Morgen (2015). Marketing has associated consumption of fashion to happiness where we can get cheap easily disposable clothes to lift our moods; consuming and adding without thinking of the consequences.

Fast fashion prices are just a fraction of what it really cost. The environment is not the only one losing, real people with real lives trade their wellbeing and safety working in factories. The clothing we buy are produced in factories that do not meet safety standards for protecting workers of the environment to lower cost. Many of these factories, with their lax non-existent safety standards attribute to incidents such as building collapse and fires, killing workers. Many also developed diseases like skin and liver problems from the chemicals found in the production process. The documentary encourages the viewer to get off the conveyor belt of constant motion that is fast fashion and focus on the living things that breathe life into the garment.

So, if technology and science is the answer to trying to solve this problem, why are we still contemplating on the results. Science brings out a whole new set of ethics to be considered. The reason for this is that human nature is fundamental to our justice, morality and the good life, and all of these will undergo change if this technology becomes widespread (Fukuyama, 2002, pg.83). Some critics and environmentalist have been opposed to those innovations virtually across the board even given the real benefits projected (Fukuyama, 2002, pg.84) Fukuyama argues that it is a special moral dilemma where progress need to be tempered with the promise of synthetic biology. It questions our values of being human and with biology we gain the power to play god, allowing us to create the perfect organisms to alter environments. ‘Ecosystems are complex’ said Fukuyama. They are interconnected and adding a change into them can disturb unforeseen relationships and balance that is not anticipated. Human nature will also be affected as there is an intimate connection between nature, values and politics.


“Fashion is a commercial industrial art, concerned less with beauty than making money’ (McDowell, 1994: 57). We are driven by consumerism as a society, damaging our environment due to our need for fast fashion producing excess waste, pollution and low ethics. Sustainability is a very complex subject with many sides to its entire product cycle that attributes to much of the problem. Our choice of material can make a difference. Switching to a natural alternative allows fashion as a whole to become more sustainable and ethical; succumbing our urge for a bargain. There is a race againts time to come up with a solution. With this value in mind, there is a wave of designers and scientist who are ready to make a difference. Through collaboration across disciplines, we now have the alternative of biomaterials and smart textiles that will not only enhance our lives, but create a greener future for us and the environment. Interaction between these disciplines should be encouraged on an ongoing basis opening doors to many innovative opportunities. Fashion is a mirror of our society, in all its facets. These pioneers of the fashion sector show how we shall dress in the future, with responsibly produced clothing which respects both the people and the environment.

Through the study, we now know there are some aspects of ethical and social implications that might affect the society with the introduction of Biotechnology and Smart textiles. In the case of Prof. Storey and Natsai Audrey, they are still facing difficulties in creating these materials into large scale and convincing the industry to support.  In the case of Natsai Audrey, due to the nature of the materials, it is hard to create a consistent result using bacteria in pigmentation which is not a desirable trait when selling a product. Prof. Storey’s issue is to convince large detergent companies that the product would not remove the scent in their products, as we associate smell with how clean we are in western societies (Storey, 2017).

I believe however, that we are taking a step to the right direction; a sustainable path to undo what we have done wrong.  These materials would not only be the solution to our problems of pollutions today but potential and extension of us; in-line with the idea of smart textiles. In the future, the pioneering designs we see today will change the idea of what we perceive as material, clothes and fashion. Clothing materials would no longer be just an object but a living matter, enhancing and having a direct relationship with one’s body; becoming part of your wellbeing (Lee, 2014)

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