From Trash to Treasure
THEY’RE COMPLETE RUBBISH.
Well, that’s the rumor, anyway. Yet, for the latest in alternative fabrics, the distinction is not necessarily a bad thing. The items formerly known as garbage—cork, plastic bottles, seaweed, the list goes on—are having a bit of an identity crisis, and the fashion world is primed to reap the benefits.
“Not everything that every clothing company wants is necessarily [a] natural fabric,” said Summer Rayne Oakes, an independent sustainability strategist with an emphasis in eco-fashion and the spokesperson for Planet Green, the Discovery Network’s new enviro-centric channel.
In particular, she noted, performance-based companies such as Nike and Patagonia look beyond the organic-cotton stratosphere to maximize the environmental benefits of their lines. For example, a few old Diet Coke bottles create soft, lightweight fleece while also reducing landfill waste. As green-conscious practices continue to be integrated into the corporate model, it makes good business sense. “They’re looking into recycled P.E.T., they’re looking into fabrics that may not require dyes. There are a number of manufacturers—some out of Japan, some out of China—that are starting to produce really innovative fabrics,” she added. Clearly, it’s true how the saying goes, “One man’s trash is another man’s environmentally responsible, marketing-friendly, durable super-fabric.” Or something.
Hit the Bottle
Probably one of the most mainstream of the alternative fabrics is recycled P.E.T., or poly(ethylene terephthalate). The substance is commonly found in soda bottles and its alter-ego, polyester fleece, has already hit the promotional circuit.
In an October 2007 “Developments to Watch” Web video from BusinessWeek, Ingrid Johnson, a professor of textiles and marketing at the Fashion Institute of Technology, described the process. Once a bottle is recycled into little polyester chips, they’re melted down and extruded through a machine called a spinaret, which she said, “is more or less like a showerhead and it will force the solution through … and we create fibers from that.”
Though past mechanical limitations made fleece the sole byproduct of this process, new incarnations are beginning to come forward. This is good news for Oakes, who explained that the manufacturing of thinner, more delicate recycled fabrics is an area of opportunity for lingerie and swimwear companies. “They need finer fabrics and [are] looking to be more environmentally friendly. There hasn’t been advancements in those areas,” she said.
To fill the demand, P.E.T. is getting a make-under. “We are now able to make finer fabrics such as sheer chiffon or polyester georgette,” Johnson explained.
Partners in Wine
“Finer things” can also refer to the origin of the next alternative fabric that is still in its infancy. Save
the Chianti-stained remnants from the last wine-and-cheese party. Cork is poised to pop out of obscurity (sorry).
The material’s inherently eco-friendly harvesting method is its most desirable benefit. According
to the World Wildlife Fund, a multinational conservation organization, “Because cork is the bark of the cork oak tree … which renews itself after harvesting, commercial exploitation is environmentally friendly, as not a single tree is cut down.” New
bark grows back every nine years, so with proper farming techniques, it’s a renewable resource with exciting potential.
The majority of cork is grown in Portugal, but a few companies on the opposite side of the pond have gotten the jump on this durable, flexible and lightweight material. Ontario-based Jelinek Cork Group, for instance, has an entire line of handbags and accessories made from cork, and at 2006’s Fall Fashion Week, a soft-as-leather cork sport coat was featured in a special presentation by DDC Lab, a New York-based design studio that specializes in fabric technology. Only time will tell how cork will fare once it hits the masses, but as Oakes stated, the time is ripe for a breakthrough. “I think everybody’s looking for the next new fabric or fiber to tell an interesting story,” she said.
A Material World
For now, the next chapter of the recycled-fabric epic is a veritable compost pile of opportunity. Here are but a few materials finding new life
• Corn husks. In a 2004, professor of textile
science at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Yiqi Yang, Ph.D. developed a method of creating yarn from corn husks. It is strong, easily dyeable and can be found in great supply—the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports corn is the most widely
produced feed grain in the country.
• Seaweed. Though German corporation
Smartfiber AG touts its seaweed-based fabric, SeaCell, as having holistic properties, some controversy surrounds its claims. A 2007 study done by The New York Times reported the fabric had no seaweed, yet follow-up tests by the company proved the opposite to be true. Only time will tell whether or not SeaCell can find its footing with the retail public.
• Milk. After a fat-removing and curdling
process, milk’s proteins are separated and concentrated. Once it has hardened, the fibers can then be wound and spun. The result? A delicate fabric as soft and luxurious as cashmere. Made by Chinese textile company Cyran, it can be found in boutiques coast-to-coast.