By Will Callan
At The Craftsmanship Initiative, we like things that last. Durable clothing is no exception, and given the fashion industry’s environmental impact (a 2015 Boston Consulting Group study found that clothing makers were responsible for 92 million tons of trash and 32.1 billion tons of carbon emissions that year), it’s important that we understand what hangs in our closet.
In our recent article, “Eco-fashion’s Animal Rights Delusion,” Alden Wicker revealed the many ways that ethical choices in clothing aren’t always what they appear to be. Meanwhile, H&M, Eileen Fisher, and other big names have pledged to use 100 percent sustainable cotton by 2025 (whether that’s even technically possible is another question entirely). On the other side of the spectrum, outdoor brands like Patagonia make stabs at taming runaway consumerism by promoting their clothing as durable and easily repairable. In the midst of this race to sustainability, some are approaching the challenge from a whole new angle, one that conforms to wasteful behavior rather than trying to bend it.
“I’m not sure that durable, long-lasting clothing will encourage reduced consumption,” explained Asta Skocir, a knitwear design professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), in an email. Skocir recently won a grant from National Geographic for her work with AlgiKnit, a FIT-based research team that has developed a kelp-derived, compostable “bioyarn.” The group of designers and scientists just used the bioyarn to knit a fully fashioned tank top. With the $25,000 they got from NatGeo, the team aims to put a dent in those 92 million tons of landfill — even if America’s taste for fast-fashion doesn’t slow down.
Keep Your Eye on This One
AlgiKnit got its start in 2016 as Bioesters, a student project at FIT that focused on sustainable alternatives to wearable materials. Early attempts to create a textile out of natural materials — with biopolymers like chitin (a substance found in crab shells and other exoskeletons), microbial cellulose (which comes from wood pulp, cotton, and other plants), and agar (from algae) — apparently did not hold up under stress. Skocir says that swatches of the first kelp-derived yarn developed the consistency of “dried Ramen noodles.”
But after many tweaks to both the biochemical recipe and the manufacturing process, the team arrived at a winning method.
The main ingredient for the bioyarn, sodium alginate, comes from kelp (for this experimental phase, AlgiKnit purchased the sodium alginate as-is, but at a larger scale may source directly from kelp farms). In a lab, the alginate is combined with water to produce a hydrogel, which the researchers then extrude into a curing bath. That curing bath contains compounds that strengthen the polymers in the hydrogel by linking them together, and through this process the filament, or yarn, is created.
Unlike rayon and polyester, yarn made from kelp is both durable and compostable. And, as the AlgiKnit team explained over email, kelp growth in general is a boon for the environment: “Kelp is one of the most rapidly replenishing organisms on Earth and can process agricultural runoff that otherwise leads to aquatic dead zones, act as carbon sinks and provide a critical buffer against the effects of climate change.”
Stephen Schott, a marine botany and habitat restoration specialist at the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County, added in an email that kelp aquaculture doesn’t impact native kelp populations, but does provide habitat for fish and other organisms. Cornell Extension, which is exploring culinary, cosmetic, and agricultural uses for kelp, recently approached AlgiKnit about collaborating. New uses like these will only add to an already healthy demand for kelp, one that exceeds current aquaculture supply, Schott explained. So, if more farms open to meet that demand, they might end up protecting native kelp forests.
There is one worry for the industries that harvest kelp and the animals that live in it: rising ocean temperatures. When the water is warmer, the plants can’t reach their potential. “While there is no immediate concern regarding overall decline in kelp populations, we could see [native] kelp populations moving offshore into deeper, cooler waters,” Schott said. As for the kelp in the aquaculture facilities, farmers may have to devise an artificial way of inducing it to reproduce.
Seaweed at Scale
Having just made its first tank top, AlgiKnit is now testing its new material for comfort and durability. Theanne Schiros, a chemist at AlgiKnit, wore the kelp top during the recent TEDx FIT presentations, and apparently it felt good—that is, normal. “I was told it was cool and comfortable,” said Skocir.
The next step is improving flexibility so that the material can withstand industrial-scale manufacturing. When asked whether the team would patent its technology, form a company, or partner with another clothing maker, Skocir said that all three options are on the table.
So maybe we’ll see AlgiKnit partner with a celebrity, like Bolt Threads has done with Stella McCartney to promote its synthetic spider silk neckties, or maybe the team will set out on its own. Whatever it decides, Skokir expects the future AlgiKnit apparel to fall somewhere between the artisanal and the mass produced.
“I feel that mass production is counterproductive to being environmentally conscious and sustainable,” said Skocir. “You cannot mass produce without affecting finite resources in some way.”