Can biology help us design more sustainable textiles?

Published 9th April 2021

Bio-Inspired Textiles - design informed by biology.

Dr Veronika Kapsali, Cathryn Hall

We need to protect our planet from our manufactured problems. We regularly take, make and waste our planet’s resources and when problems arise, we often add complexity. The United Nations Sustainable Development goal number twelve emphasises the need to shift towards more sustainable consumption and production patterns. Despite this imperative, in the UK we annually send an average of £140 million worth of clothing to land fill. Additionally, global apparel consumption is projected to rise by 63%, from 62 million tons today to 102 million tons in 2030—equivalent to more than 500 billion additional t-shirts

Clothing, like all manufactured products, require resources (energy and material) to produce. Each item embodies the substances and effort involved in processing fibres into a garment as well as maintaining our clothes via washing and drying. It is fair to say that in developed countries such as the UK we live in a culture of surplus; we purchase a garment, wear it once then discard it. The economic and social value of most garments is exceptionally low.

What if there was another way?

Consider the Apis mellifera, the UK’s only species of honeybee who collects pollen from plants to convert into honey for food and wax for hive building. Wax is an expensive material for a honeybee; it takes 6gr of honey to produce 1gr of wax, to put that in context pollen from just over 4405 flowers converts into just a gram of honey. This means that a gram of wax requires 26,430 flower visits. As a result, the honeycomb structure requires the least possible amount of wax to provide the greatest amount of storage space, with the greatest possible structural stability. Just like the honeybee, all organisms in nature must optimise the resources available because they are extremely hard to come by.

We can learn a lot from biology in terms of how to do as much as possible with as little as possible by understanding how structure (design) is used over substance (materials, elements, monomers, etc). The range of building blocks in biology is limited, living organisms are composed of a mix of C (Carbon), N (Nitrogen), O (Oxygen), H (Hydrogen), Ca (Calcium), P (Phosphorus) and S (Sulphur). In contrast, our pallet spans the periodic table; we use chemistry and massive amounts of energy to synthesis materials that are strong due to their molecular structure and weight such as Kevlar.

Biological materials display a wide range of properties that exceed the sum of their composition, e.g., the shimmering lining of the abalone shell also known as mother of pearl, is composed of 98% CaCO3 (chalk) and 2% protein. Chalk is very brittle and easily turns to powder. Paradoxically, mother of pearl is 3000 time tougher (ability of a material to absorb energy and plastically deform without fracturing) than CaCO3; this is due to the way in which the chalk is organised at micro level within the structure. Under impact, layers of tiny plates of chalk slide across one another. This clever design trick disperses the energy from impact across the plates and prevents cracking.

D&T skills and knowledge is critical to the translation of design tricks from nature into sustainable design blueprints. Pioneering creatives have explored this for over 20 years, e.g., fashion designer Susanne Lee, originally explored fermentation as a method of growing sheet material for garments, designers have since continued experimenting with biotechnology to find alternatives for plastics.

Another approach is via the study of biological structures and materials to refine the design tricks behind some of the extraordinary behaviours such as super strong structures made from weak materials, and recreate these blueprints using the tools and techniques of materials engineering or even textile design. In the 1950’s engineer George deMestral discovered, by looking under a microscope at the burdock seedpod, the clever hook shaped tip used to attach on to the fur of animals passing by. DeMestral worked with a textile mill to recreate the hook and fur system he observed into a textile known today as Velcro.

More recently, textile designers such as Veronika Kapsali and Jane Scott have applied the design trick responsible for the pinecone opening and closing mechanism to create shape-changing textiles. Veronika is currently developing ways to translate the design tricks from biology to enhance sustainable design using textile processes. The project will produce a series of resources for teachers and students to engage with Bio-Inspired Textiles approaches for the future of more sustainable design in partnership with the D&T Association and funding from the AHRC (Arts and Humanities Research Council).

To find out more sign up to the webinar 18th May 4-5pm. Book your place


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