Innovative Eco-Fabrics That Could Revolutionise Fashion

By Alexa Scott-Dalgleish

Ever wondered what the future of fabrics might look like? From waste coffee ground fibre to leftover oyster shell wool, these are some of the players changing the textile game for the better.

Grape Leather

VEGEA is an Italian technology company and the mastermind behind ‘grape leather’, a new vegan leather alternative made from the waste from Italian wine production. The discarded grape skin, stalks and seeds are processed using a 100% sustainable, oil-free procedure that contains minimal non-toxic chemical reagents and hardly consumes additional water, since the existing one is used again and again. 

The result is a soft and smooth material that is ideal for shoes and bags, and has already been adopted by brands like Calvin Klein and Bentley!

Source: VEGEA Company

Kombucha Fibre

Kombucha, the drink, has been trending for many years now, but what about kombucha, the fabric? The concept was pioneered in 2003 by London-based fashion designer Suzanne Lee, who combined live cultures called SCOBY (Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast) with sweet tea to create a curd. This was then stretched and dried to form a leather-like material which Lee put to work in her bio-couture garments, some of which have since been exhibited around the world.

The leather is biodegradable, requires zero heavy metals and other tanning chemicals, and is significantly cheaper than genuine leather.

Source: Scoby Tec

Coffee Ground Fibre

Ever thought your cup of joe might end up on a mannequin? The company Singtex is working to make this a reality with its fabric S. Cafe, which takes leftover coffee grounds and mixes them with recycled plastic bottle fibres. The concoction is then re-polymerised and spun into a yarn, using a low temperature, high pressure process that reduces C02 emissions. 

When woven into a fabric, the result is a fast-drying, sweat-wicking, de-odorising high-performance material ideal for a host of different apparel, especially, activewear. Patagonia, The North Face and Timberland are just a few of the brands that have already caught on to the concept.

Source: S.Cafe Fabrics

Lotus Fibre

For centuries, the lotus has stood as a symbol of wisdom and spirituality, and is celebrated for its ability to grow in muddy waters without itself being polluted or tainted in any way. This same reverence also surrounds lotus fabric, which is considered to be one of the rarest and most expensive fabrics in the world, and imbued with spiritual, healing properties. 

The high price stems in part from the complexity and labour-intensive nature of weaving lotus fibres, which originated in Myanmar in the early 1900s. The stems of the plant are harvested and the fibres within are extracted. Typically only around 20-30 in number, they are then twisted into a single thread which is woven into a silk-like fabric on a traditional loom. The entire process is done by hand and it’s estimated that 20-25 workers are required to work on the extraction of these filaments in order for one weaver to work. Companies like Samatoa are working to commercialise the fabric, but with its painstaking craftsmanship and time-consuming process, it’s unlikely this will be a mass-market fabric anytime soon. And that’s a shame, since it’s 100% organic, cruelty-free, toxic-free, made using a waste material, and with zero electricity, gas or oil. Let’s keep an eye on it for the future!

Source: Samatoa Lotus Textiles

Regenerated Nylon From Ocean Plastic

Meet Econyl®, a regenerated nylon created in 2011 by Aquafil, a leader in the innovation of sustainable materials. It’s made from discarded ocean plastic and ghost fishing nets – one of the largest sources of ocean pollution – which is broken down through a radical regeneration and purification process. The putty is then strung into a nylon yarn and made into fabric, ready to be reimagined by fashion brands for an array of uses.

This material is making serious waves in the fashion industry with brands like Prada, Stella McCartney and Napapijri prizing it for its elasticity, water-resistance and most importantly, its low environmental impact and ability to be recycled infinitely.

Source: Econyl

Seaweed Fibre

Lauded as a superfood for its anti-inflammatory and anti-aging properties, seaweed is now making its way into the world of textile with growing success. The concept was originally pioneered during the First World War and built upon by responsible-textile producer, Smartfiber AG with SeaCell™,  a cellulose-based fabric extracted from renewable Icelandic seaweed. The seaweed is broken down using the Lyocell process which sees it dissolved and altered to form a spinning dope, which is then spun into filament or staple fibres. Whilst the process is not chemical-free, it is a closed-loop system that sees both the water and chemicals recycled again and again, and is far less energy and resource-intensive than its counterpart, viscose. 

The resulting fabric is ultra-soft and breathable, and packed with iron, magnesium, calcium and vitamins A, B12, C and E – nutrients of the seaweed that are through to infuse into the skin of the wearer. It’s also biodegradable and produced exclusively from sustainable raw materials, making it an exciting new player on the textile scene. 

Source: Smart Fiber AG

Milk Fibre

Despite global milk sales dropping, there’s still a whole lot of it that goes to waste each year. Two million tons of it, in fact, according to German-based company QMilk, which it is putting to better use in the creation of its milk fibre made from casein, a milk protein. The finer details of the patented process is kept under wraps, but what we do know is that casein powder is heated and combined with natural ingredients like zinc and beeswax, before being extruded in strands and spun into yarn. 

Unlike earlier production methods, QMilk’s method is 100% natural and uses renewable resources, and the resulting fibre is silky, temperature regulating, flame retardant, home compostable and biodegradable in months. It has also passed OEKO TEX’s standard 100 green certification for international ecological textiles.

Source: QMILK

Oyster Shell Fibre

Hans Global Textile is a specialised textile supplier in Taiwan and the creator of Seawool, an eco-friendly textile made from pulverised oyster shells sourced from the food industry and recycled PET plastic. The crushed shells and plastic are compressed into pellets and then melted and strung into yarn. 

The resulting fabric has a 99% comparability to wool and has anti-static and anti-odour properties. It’s also quick-drying and boasts superior warmth-to-weight ratio, making it a favourite amongst outdoor brands.

Source: Siizu

Mycelium Fibre

You might have heard of Mylo Leather before as it’s already a top pick for some of the biggest names in fashion including Adidas, Lululemon and Stella McCartney. It’s all thanks to an ingenious materials company called Bolt Threads, who developed Mylo by engineering mycelium – the root-like structures of mushrooms – into a material that bears striking resemblance to animal-derived leather. Except that it’s vegan, cruelty-free, bio-certified, and far more environmentally-friendly to produce. The sprawling, infinitely renewable root latticework is grown on a bed of sawdust and other organic material into an interconnected 3D network, from which point it can be processed, tanned and dyed to make Mylo. 

What’s more, the mycelium used to make Mylo is grown in less than two weeks using just mulch, air, and water in a vertical agriculture facility that is 100% powered by renewable energy. It is then harvested and processed into material form using Green Chemistry principles.

Source: Mylo Unleather

Orange Fiber

Orange Fiber made its debut onto the Italian market in 2014 to huge success and was celebrated for its silky, ethereal feel and ingenious production method. The patented fabric is made up of cellulose from citrus juice by-products (over 700,000 tonnes of which go to waste in Italy) which is extracted to create a polymer which can then be turned into yarn. The yarn can be used to make an entirely citrus-based fabric or blended with others to imbue it with different properties in a process that is sustainable from start to finish. 

Luxury Italian brand Salvatore Ferragamo was the first to employ Orange Fiber in his designs in 2017 and with demand growing at its current rate, the biggest problem the company faces is how to scale up fast enough!

Source: Orange Fiber

Appleskin Leather

Italian company FRUMAT is the creator of AppleSkin, a bio-based leather alternative made from – you guessed it – the skin and core waste from food industry apples.

It originated in the Tyrol region, an area renowned for the production of apples which every year is faced with a significant amount of waste. Frumat’s innovative creation answers both the waste issue and the increasing demand for ecological alternatives to leather, and comes in a variety of textures and thicknesses. It’s made from the pulp leftover from the apple-juice making process, which is dried and ground into powder and mixed with pigments and a binding chemical. This is then dehydrated and combined with polyurethane to create the flexible leather material.

Source: Apple Leather

Banana Fibre

Banana fibre has been in use since the 13th century in Japan but it’s only in recent years that the world of western fashion has cottoned on to its potential. In 2018, Swiss bag brand and material innovator QWSTION launched Bananatex, a sustainable fabric made by stripping apart the sheaths of the banana stem (the waste product of the banana fruit industry) and processing these fibres into yarn. These are then dried naturally and knotted together using a twisting technique.

The result is an incredibly durable, lightweight and biodegradable fabric that has an array of uses from papers, ropes and mats to scarves, cardigans and trousers. This all depends on what part of the banana stem the fibre was extracted from, since this will dictate the weights and thicknesses of the fabric.

Source: Bananatex

Pineapple Leather

Ever heard of Piñatex? This natural textile is made of fibre from the waste leaves of the pineapple plant, which until recently were discarded as an unwanted byproduct of the fruit harvest and burnt (releasing hundreds of tons of CO2 into the atmosphere!). 

It was developed by Dr. Carmen Hijosa both as a vegan substitute to leather and also to bring a new income stream to farming communities who otherwise rely on a seasonal harvest. Piñatex’s low environmental impact and high social responsibility has already seen it certified a B Corporation and its implementation will undoubtedly have far-reaching societal and environmental benefits.

Source: Ananas Anam

Coconut Coir Fibre

Coir coconut fibre is a natural fibre obtained from coconut husk, an abundant by-product of coconut farming. It is the fibrous material found between the wiry outer coat and the hard internal shell and is one of the latest eco-friendly textile alternatives, since it comes from a renewable source and is durable, sun-resistant and naturally biodegradable. 

Yet another example of how a ‘waste’ product can be reimagined into something useful! 

By Alexa Scott-Dalgleish

Alexa is the Content Director at Talia Collective. Previously, she worked for a top travel PR firm with a focus on sustainability in London, before moving to Madrid to learn Spanish and cut her teeth as a freelance travel copywriter and PR consultant.