BioCouture – Synthesizing Biology and Fashion

For any type of designer, materials play an incredibly important role in determining the outcome of each project. Yet while the major fashion houses are playing with black silicone and PVC, Suzanne Lee has been at the forefront of what promises to be a revolution in terms of fabric engineering. Having teamed with a group of biologists and material scientists, Lee has actually begun to grow her own textile biomaterial, which she uses throughout her limited and experimental line of BioCouture clothing.

One Dip in Natural Indigo

It is somewhat challenging to appreciate exactly what it means to grow your own textile material. Rather than planting, harvesting, and weaving, Lee simply manipulates natural fermentation processes to create her “textile” material. Oddly enough, the first component is a lukewarm vat of green tea. Having added sugars, yeasts, microorganisms, and a culture of bacterial cellulose, the solution is left to ferment for two to three weeks. As the different bacteria feed on the sugar, they produce threads of cellulose throughout the mixture. Over the course of fermentation, these threads will amass together – forming a 1.5 cm thick skin on the surface of the liquid. Once it is finished, the skin is simply removed and the liquid can be reused to create future batches of biomaterial.

Coagulated Material at Top - Vertical Cellulose Strings Underneath

What is even more remarkable is the diversity of this material. It can be cut and sewn like conventional fabric or it can be molded into three-dimensional forms. Depending on the project, the material can be manipulated to resemble anything between a lightweight paper to a flexible leather. It is 18 times more receptive to dyes than cotton and thus eliminates a great deal of strain on the environment. On a similar note, it is completely biodegradable.

Although this process has obvious implications for the future of fashion, Lee suspects that there are even more wide spread uses for this technology. Although there are still kinks to smooth out, it is reasonable to assume that in the near future we may be granted the option to grow materials with specific characteristics in mind– whether they be tensile, tactile, or talismanic.

Click on the images below to see some examples of her recent work, including a look at the fermentation process. If you are interested in learning more, visit the BioCouture website for more information.

Korean Jiseung Weaving

Image courtesy of Aimee Lee

Image courtesy of Aimee Lee

Perhaps one of the most esoteric art forms in the world, Jiseung (formerly known as Noyeokgae) denotes a process by which one creates functional three-dimensional objects through spinning and weaving strips of paper. It is an incredibly technical process which requires both a patient and well-practiced touch.

The paper of choice is hanji – or Korean paper made from the inner bark of Mulberry trees.   Having an unsurpassed tensile strength, hanji is perfect for Jiseung paper weavers who rely on such sturdiness to maintain the form and function of their work.

Image courtesy of Aimee Lee

Image courtesy of Aimee Lee

The paper is cut into long, thin strips and is then rolled by hand by the Jiseung master. One must pay close attention during this stage because irregular cords will affect the weaving process to come. After creating individual rolls, some masters take the extra step of spinning two of their strips together to create an even stronger thread. From there, the weaving begins.

Image courtesy of Aimee Lee

Image courtesy of Aimee Lee

Having completed the design, the entire piece is coated with a sticky rice glue to waterproof the vessel. If the paper is not dyed a desired color before the spinning process,  the vessel is often coated with several layers of naturally derived sap lacquer. Once everything dries up, the end result is a completely handmade, functional, & beautiful piece of Korean craftsmanship.

If you’re interested in learning more about the process, or anything related to Korean paper-making, you can find out more from Aimee Lee’s website. You can also see more images of the process below.

In Focus: Metsa Clothing

Having only launched in 2010, Metsa has nonetheless established a profound legacy when it comes to quality in craftsmanship. Based in Toronto, they capitalize on the best of local and international vendors to procure materials which enables them for example to combine 100% organic Japanese cotton with hand cut porcelain buttons made by the designer’s mother.

Indigo Hands during the dyeing process

Yet in addition to sourcing eco-friendly materials, Metsa also relies on natural dyes to color their garments. They bypass the factory district on the way to the designers lake house where they hand stain each piece using organic dyes such as pomegranate, root madder, and indigo. In using these pigments, they achieve much more depth in terms of color and gradation than is possible with synthetic alternatives. As a final step in the dyeing process, each piece is washed by hand in the lake outside the cottage. The unique mineral content in the water alters the hue of the entire batch, thus producing a line of shirts, trousers, and accessories that are not only unique within the fashion world, but in and of themselves. Cheers to Mesta for bringing the clothing industry back to where it should be.

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