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Edible garments: while eating your hat may not have been a proposition before, it is now

PhD researcher and lecturer Oonagh O’Hagan and researcher Cassandra Quinn from UAL are working on bringing bio design and edible garments into the industry

At a talk on biodegradable fabrics and digital innovations through modular pigment, PhD researcher and lecturer Oonagh O’Hagan began talking about the processes yielding the samples in front of her. These were created by founder of bio design company C.Q. Studio Cassandra Quinn sitting next to her before opening up a Petri dish and popping the square of fabric in her mouth. «This is the idea.  she says, in between mouthfuls «instead of ending up throwing our clothing away, we could end up either eating it ourselves or passing it off as animal feed. We grow our products, we farm meats to eat them – these are all strange concepts, so why couldn’t we make a material that could be processed into something else or that could be turned in compost? We ship our secondary fabrics to other countries and instead these compostable clothes could have a different life there. Our relationship with food and the industry behind it is already strange and this could turn it into something more positive». Half performance piece, half informational introduction to the developing field of bio-design, the conversation showed that these possibilities are not going to live in a vacuum as fashion has done for the last twenty years, but interact with all different industries like science and agriculture, focusing on how clothing can benefit them as well. 

O’Hagan and Quinn have been working together to create awareness of the advantages of bio design and the possibilities of its collaboration with technology through modular pigment. While O’Hagan is new to the field herself, her previous work as an author and a design consultant to global brands like Burberry and Chanel has given her a front-row seat to industry practices that have left her frustrated with the state of fashion. Her experience in it has led her to see bio design as a crucial component of the industry’s future. «I was frustrated about how static a lot of fashion textiles felt – that once the idea had happened, it was over, and we just moved on to something else. I got into the identity of materials and garment, how we could evolve that chain. I was quite interested in counterfeiting the idea of an original object and, and then as time went on, that became more prolific in my work».

Her work includes promoting and helping founders like Quinn develop their ideas to the point of application in the industry. Cassandra Quinn has been developing biodegradable materials made from a derivative of brown algae, proposed for applications in the fashion industry as thread, sequins and 3D printer filament. The algae goes through a number of processes until it forms a paste, at which point natural dye colouring is added, which ends up benefiting production as there is a reduction of water wastage as the fibre is not dyed after it is created. The fibre is created as the paste is extruded and is cured in a solution and then the fibres are dried and ready for use. «There is no real legislation, you can get a plastic bike and say it’s biodegradable, but that would take up to 2000 years» says Quinn. «Oil technically derives from algae, because it’s years and years of these materials being compressed together that then creates crude oil, and then it’s turned into plastic. It’s organic, technically. By law, you can use these words and this terminology to say it’s biodegradable, but in reality, it only happens after 2000 years».

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Algae filament turmeric dye process. IMAGE Cassandra Quinn

«Biodegradable materials aren’t as transparently simple as it may appear. The degradation of these products requires infrastructure that is often unintendedly overlooked as a requirement. If biodegradable products are not placed in the correct environment, they will not realise their maximum benefits and so, I have also focused on developing the processes that will dissolve the material through a non-toxic recycling process». Quinn, while pioneering this work using processed brown algae and developing material innovation with crab shells, knows that even with its beneficial elements it is still not a cure-all. While the application of these materials would have multiple benefits for the industry, the process of production of biomaterials is still labour and process intensive.

Using live organisms such as algae to produce fabric creates biodegradable textiles, where clothing can not only break down at the end of its life cycle but can also end up as animal feed or be reused in other ways in the food industry, leading to a closed-loop cycle. Clothing could be made from natural organisms that would be beneficial for the planet as algae naturally traps CO2 and some can even be beneficial for the body, as algae such as spirulina have long been used in the health industry as a superfood and antioxidant. 

While the area of science researching the positive effects of infused or supplemented clothing is relatively new, recent developments like copper or CBD infused fabric show that the field has areas to grow and will no doubt become another way of ‘hacking’ into the wellness trend. «We’re becoming aware of how much aesthetics, visual aesthetics, affect our well-being and also how the materials affect our literal well-being, as we are becoming more aware of the chemicals absorbing into our body. The more that we understand aesthetics and materiality, the more we’ll begin to see that they’re not something frivolous to do with interior design or clothes you wear».

The negative effects of synthetic dyeing, such as with benzanthrone, an intermediate substance used in the production of vat dyes and other substances like bonding glues have been associated with textile contact dermatitis. Most of the synthetic substances used in the textile industry have not had long-term testing on the skin nor is it known  what the absorption of these chemicals through the skin could do for the body as some of these chemicals are still new. It is easy to see why clothing that is produced by algae or other organisms could open up a means of production that would bypass the dangerous practices of textile and clothing processing and production while helping create a way for circular fashion to exist and to stop clothing going to landfill. 

«We’re starting to see a surge of collaboration happening between scientists, researchers, designers, and the conversations open up» says Quinn. «There are no longer these silos that are happening, where, if you’re a scientist, you stick to the research in this field of science and if you’re a designer, you only focus on garment cutting. We’re bringing together these different ideas».

Cassandra Quinn is looking into ways of stopping microplastics being released into the oceans by using an innovative idea of squid mechanisms to create non-toxic coatings for recycled fibres while improving their mechanical strength, helping them act as a barrier, inspired by the speculative design process brought forward by Oonagh O’Hagan. O’Hagan is focused on how the world is changing consumer mentality and still penalising those who cannot afford the way that sustainability is currently marketed, as an expensive way of indulging in ethical consumerism. «That’s happened with food, because we know about fast food and people are beginning to understand it’s not fair». She says. «People should be able to get pleasure, enjoyment and desire in a less destructive way. It’s not fair to expect people to always have this moral and ethical understanding, you have to go on the lowest common denominator where you’ve got people who are going to just buy the cheapest, lowest quality. Since this is the case, we’ve got to look at how we can make that have a lot less of an impact».

IMAGE GALLERY

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