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TED2011

Suzanne Lee: Grow your own clothes

March 2, 2011

Designer Suzanne Lee shares her experiments in growing a kombucha-based material that can be used like fabric or vegetable leather to make clothing. The process is fascinating, the results are beautiful (though there's still one minor drawback ...) and the potential is simply stunning.

Suzanne Lee - Designer
TED Fellow Suzanne Lee is a fashion designer turned biological conjurer, who gleefully plays with new materials and processes. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
So as a fashion designer,
00:15
I've always tended to think of materials
00:17
something like this,
00:19
or this,
00:21
or maybe this.
00:24
But then I met a biologist,
00:27
and now I think of materials like this --
00:30
green tea, sugar,
00:33
a few microbes and a little time.
00:35
I'm essentially using a kombucha recipe,
00:38
which is a symbiotic mix
00:40
of bacteria, yeasts and other micro-organisms,
00:42
which spin cellulose
00:45
in a fermentation process.
00:47
Over time, these tiny threads
00:50
form in the liquid into layers
00:52
and produce a mat on the surface.
00:54
So we start by brewing the tea.
00:59
I brew up to about 30 liters of tea at a time,
01:01
and then while it's still hot, add a couple of kilos of sugar.
01:04
We stir this in until it's completely dissolved
01:07
and then pour it into a growth bath.
01:10
We need to check that the temperature
01:12
has cooled to below 30 degrees C.
01:14
And then we're ready to add the living organism.
01:17
And along with that, some acetic acid.
01:19
And once you get this process going,
01:21
you can actually recycle
01:23
your previous fermented liquid.
01:25
We need to maintain an optimum temperature for the growth.
01:28
And I use a heat mat to sit the bath on
01:31
and a thermostat to regulate it.
01:34
And actually, in hot weather, I can just grow it outside.
01:36
So this is my mini fabric farm.
01:39
After about three days,
01:41
the bubbles will appear on the surface of the liquid.
01:43
So this is telling us that the fermentation is in full swing.
01:46
And the bacteria are feeding
01:49
on the sugar nutrients in the liquid.
01:51
So they're spinning these tiny nano fibers
01:53
of pure cellulose.
01:55
And they're sticking together, forming layers
01:57
and giving us a sheet on the surface.
01:59
After about two to three weeks,
02:01
we're looking at something which is about an inch in thickness.
02:03
So the bath on the left is after five days,
02:06
and on the right, after 10.
02:09
And this is a static culture.
02:11
You don't have to do anything to it;
02:13
you just literally watch it grow.
02:15
It doesn't need light.
02:17
And when it's ready to harvest, you take it out of the bath
02:19
and you wash it in cold, soapy water.
02:22
At this point, it's really heavy.
02:24
It's over 90 percent water,
02:26
so we need to let that evaporate.
02:28
So I spread it out onto a wooden sheet.
02:30
Again, you can do that outside
02:32
and just let it dry in the air.
02:34
And as it's drying, it's compressing,
02:36
so what you're left with, depending on the recipe,
02:38
is something that's either
02:40
like a really light-weight, transparent paper,
02:42
or something which is much more like a flexible vegetable leather.
02:44
And then you can either cut that out
02:48
and sew it conventionally,
02:50
or you can use the wet material
02:52
to form it around a three-dimensional shape.
02:54
And as it evaporates,
02:57
it will knit itself together, forming seams.
02:59
So the color in this jacket is coming purely from green tea.
03:01
I guess it also looks a little bit like human skin,
03:04
which intrigues me.
03:06
Since it's organic,
03:09
I'm really keen to try and minimize the addition of any chemicals.
03:11
I can make it change color without using dye
03:14
by a process of iron oxidation.
03:17
Using fruit and vegetable staining,
03:19
create organic patterning.
03:21
And using indigo,
03:23
make it anti-microbial.
03:25
And in fact, cotton
03:27
would take up to 18 dips in indigo
03:29
to achieve a color this dark.
03:32
And because of the super-absorbency of this kind of cellulose,
03:34
it just takes one, and a really short one at that.
03:37
What I can't yet do is make it water-resistant.
03:40
So if I was to walk outside in the rain
03:43
wearing this dress today,
03:46
I would immediately start to absorb
03:48
huge amounts of water.
03:50
The dress would get really heavy,
03:53
and eventually the seams would probably fall apart --
03:55
leaving me feeling rather naked.
03:57
Possibly a good performance piece,
03:59
but definitely not ideal for everyday wear.
04:01
What I'm looking for
04:05
is a way to give the material
04:07
the qualities that I need.
04:09
So what I want to do is say to a future bug,
04:11
"Spin me a thread.
04:14
Align it in this direction.
04:16
Make it hydrophobic.
04:18
And while you're at it,
04:20
just form it around this 3D shape."
04:22
Bacterial cellulose is actually already being used for wound healing,
04:25
and possibly in the future
04:29
for biocompatible blood vessels,
04:31
possibly even replacement bone tissue.
04:34
But with synthetic biology,
04:36
we can actually imagine engineering this bacterium
04:38
to produce something
04:42
that gives us the quality,
04:44
quantity and shape
04:46
of material that we desire.
04:48
Obviously, as a designer, that's really exciting
04:50
because then I start to think, wow,
04:53
we could actually imagine
04:55
growing consumable products.
04:57
What excites me about using microbes
05:01
is their efficiency.
05:04
So we only grow what we need.
05:06
There's no waste.
05:08
And in fact, we could make it from a waste stream --
05:10
so for example,
05:13
a waste sugar stream
05:15
from a food processing plant.
05:17
Finally, at the end of use, we could biodegrade it naturally
05:19
along with your vegetable peelings.
05:22
What I'm not suggesting is that microbial cellulose
05:25
is going to be a replacement
05:28
for cotton, leather or other textile materials.
05:30
But I do think it could be quite a smart and sustainable addition
05:33
to our increasingly precious natural resources.
05:37
Ultimately, maybe it won't even be fashion
05:40
where we see these microbes have their impact.
05:42
We could, for example, imagine
05:44
growing a lamp, a chair,
05:46
a car or maybe even a house.
05:49
So I guess what my question to you is:
05:52
in the future, what would you choose to grow?
05:55
Thank you very much.
05:57
(Applause)
05:59
Bruno Giussani: Suzanne, just a curiosity,
06:08
what you're wearing is not random. (Suzanne Lee: No.)
06:10
This is one of the jackets you grew?
06:13
SL: Yes, it is.
06:15
It's probably -- part of the project's still in process
06:17
because this one
06:19
is actually biodegrading in front of your eyes.
06:21
(Laughter)
06:23
It's absorbing my sweat, and it's feeding on it.
06:25
BG: Okay, so we'll let you go and save it, and rescue it.
06:28
Suzanne Lee. (SL: Thank you.)
06:30
(Applause)
06:33

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Suzanne Lee - Designer
TED Fellow Suzanne Lee is a fashion designer turned biological conjurer, who gleefully plays with new materials and processes.

Why you should listen

Fashion designer Suzanne Lee directs the BioCouture research project, which sprang from an idea in her book Fashioning the Future: Tomorrow’s Wardrobe, a seminal text on fashion and future technologies. Her research harnesses nature to propose a radical future fashion vision: Can we grow a dress from a vat of liquid?

Using bacterial-cellulose, Lee aims to address pressing ecological and sustainability issues around fashion and beyond. A Senior Research Fellow at Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London, she is working with scientists to investigate whether synthetic biology can engineer optimized organisms for growing future consumer products

The original video is available on TED.com
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