A team of students from New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology and Pratt Institute had the unusual idea of creating yarn out of algae, specifically alginate, and the fungus chitosan, and it won them a prize.
Rather than looking at the material solely as a molecular structure, they examined it through a fashion designer’s lens. As a result, they extruded it from a syringe as a filament and knitted this “yarn” into fabric. The resulting textile, though not ready for production, represents a step toward a closed-loop life-cycle system for fashion, as the fabric is not only biodegradable but could be used as a nutrient for growing more materials.
The team was comprised of three students — Tessa Callaghan, Gian Cui and Aleksandra Gosiewski — from FIT’s Fashion Design program’s knitwear specialization, and Aaron Nesser, who studies at Pratt.
The team began with observations about the wastefulness of fashion. “It’s the second-most polluting industry,” they noted in their presentation, referring to studies that have shown the textile industry holds that ranking.
They then spent months experimenting with different formulas of the biomaterial to see how much it would stretch. They tested an early version of the knitted filament in FIT’s textile testing labs, where they discovered, to their surprise, that it stretched 70 percent beyond its original length. They also customized a 3-D printer to make a mesh version that stretched 50 percent.
The result wound up winning them the first Biodesign Challenge, a competition in which teams of students from nine U.S. colleges and universities created projects that envision future applications of biotechnology.
Themes for the projects included architecture, water, food, materials, energy and medicine. The FIT team used novel growing techniques to develop a yarn out of bacteria and fungi, and used it to model an innovative production method for a sustainable alternative to conventional textiles. As part of their presentation, they showed a small T-shirt they hand-knit from the yarn.
The prize was revealed after the projects were presented at a June 23 event at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and judged by 13 leaders in biotechnology, design and education.
The team’s trophy was a Glass Microbe, a fist-sized translucent artwork by U.K. artist Luke Jerram that symbolizes the intersection of art, design and biology. Each year the piece will be passed to the next winner.
The Biodesign Challenge was created by Dan Grushkin, founder of GenSpace, a nonprofit that promotes education in molecular biology.
FIT faculty members Theanne Schiros, an assistant professor who teaches physics, chemistry and sustainability, and Asta Skocir, associate professor of fashion design, served as mentors.