Natural fibers were key to early human development, mobility, and survival, with the oldest known example, flax, dating back 34,000 years. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, humans discovered how to create their own fibers, such as artificial silk (rayon) and nylon. Methods of yarn construction also evolved, whereby hand and machine spinning gave way to the use of automated manufacturing. In this article, we’ll take a look at some fibers and fabrics that have been inspired by or sourced from nature and produced using 21st-century technology.
As the name suggests, the 3D-printing process, an additive manufacturing practice, involves the use of computer software, rather than a mold or a raw material, to create a solid object. For example, 3D-printed cilia are hair-like, microscopic vertical structures that, in industrial and textile technology, perform many of the same functions as eyelashes or the subcellular structures found in biology, such as those related to acoustics, adhesion, insulation, locomotion, and sensation. Developed by researchers at the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 2016, dense 3D-cilia with a 50-150-micrometer resolution have a variety of practical applications in everyday life.
According to Jifei Ou, a graduate of the MIT Media Lab and the founder of OPT Industries, a design and manufacturing company, “there are unlimited opportunities for designers to rethink how the hair-like structure can be designed.” For instance, given that his own company has the ability to produce 3D-printed cilia with no limitations in length, consumers can look forward to new applications in acoustics, apparel, cosmetics, and insulation materials.
As noted by Ou, just as “animals create fur and feathers to keep them warm in the coldest places on Earth, 3D-printed furs and feathers will be a key technology [when it comes to producing] cruelty-free alternatives for apparel insulation materials.” Additionally, 3D printing hair-like structures can simplify the brush manufacturing process, thereby promoting functionality and reducing waste in this industry.
When asked about the future of 3D printing in textiles, Ou stated that, “Just like all other manufacturing technologies, 3D printing requires its own design-to-manufacturing considerations to capture one hundred percent of a designer’s intention.”
As such, “3D printing will become more like a profession, rather than a general purpose prototyping tool. This transition from tool to profession will require “deep cross-disciplinary collaborations” among computer software, design, engineering, material science, and manufacturing quality teams.
In much the same way that an inkjet printer deposits dye- or pigment-based liquid ink on a document, a 3D printer can also apply aquatic photosynthetic organisms to cellulose to produce algae cloth, which is derived from the most primitive living organisms on Earth.
According to Anne S. Meyer, a member of a collaborative research team from the Delft University in the Netherlands and the University of Rochester in New York in the United States, “printing of algae is tricky because you need to embed the algae in a material that provides water and is soft enough to keep it alive, but the printed algae also needs to be physically robust enough to be used. The first examples of 3D-printed algae resulted in materials that were very brittle and would break easily upon being moved or touched.”
To remedy the situation, members of the research team tried printing the algae cells on a layer of flexible bacterial cellulose, resulting in canvas-like, malleable, photosynthetic materials. As Meyer pointed out, “These materials become greener over time since the algae can feed itself with sunlight that shines onto it.”
As such, she sees the algae fabrics of the foreseeable future evolving into a sustainable method for harnessing solar energy, given the simplicity of the production process and its use of non-toxic components.
While the current production process involves printing the microalgae directly on the surface of a preexisting fabric, Meyer believes that, “living photosynthetic materials that contain algae would be more useful if their production could be upscaled to make larger pieces or larger numbers of pieces.”
For example, “In the future, algae cloths could be produced by creating flexible threads already embedded with algae cells, which would allow the final products to be created more rapidly and in a larger variety of sizes and shapes.”
According to the Council of Fashion Designers of America, Inc. (CFDA), the use of seaweed as a fabric in the textile industry dates back to World War One. Seaweed, a plant-like organism and a type of algae, differs from the latter in that they are exclusively multicellular and native to the sea.
During the manufacturing process, the cellulose found in seaweed is broken down, leaving its chemical structure intact, after which the material is washed, soaked, filtered, and spun for later use in knitted and woven fabrics.
As over 70% of the Earth consists of water, it doesn’t seem that far-fetched of an idea that the oceans should serve not only as a source of food but also biodegradable, eco-friendly clothing.
If you play tennis or ride a bicycle, you’ve most likely used an item composed of carbon, or graphite, fibers, whereby the atoms found in the chemical element bond to create a microscopic crystal that aligns in a parallel fashion along the length of the fiber, typically with a range in diameter of 0.005-0.010 mm (5-10 microns) or 0.0002-0.0004 inches.
First patented by Thomas Edison in 1879, carbon fibers were initially used in electric lamps and later, in the 1960s, in military aircraft, due to their exceptional strength and low weight. Carbon fibers are used in the manufacture of fiberglass cloth and protective gear, such as the clothes worn by firefighters, using a plain or twill weave.
In 2019, Volleback, a start-up clothing company, began offering a tee shirt composed of 120 meters (approximately 130 yards) of carbon fibers, which is abrasion resistant, breathable, and stronger than steel.
As noted by Steve Tidball, CEO and co-founder of Vollebak, “Making the world’s most resilient, intelligent, and adaptable clothing means we often end up re-engineering materials that started life being used for radically different things. Sometimes the materials we use start life at NASA. Others grow in nature. Today we work with everything from copper and algae, to aerogel, ceramics, Dyneema, and garbage. With its incredible strength to weight ratio, carbon fiber was always going to be part of our journey. It can be challenging to make a piece of clothing very tough and stretchy at the same time, but carbon fiber lets us combine toughness with the properties of an elastic band.”
Possibly one of the most significant developments in textile technology since the DuPont company’s invention of nylon in the 1930s, transgenic silk is genetically engineered spider’s silk, whereby ingredients like animal cell cultures, bacteria, plants, and yeasts are used to produce fiber. Key characteristics include its elasticity and steel-like tensile strength, allowing for practical applications in the aerospace, automotive, biomedical, and fashion industries.
A carbon-neutral process developed by the RIKEN Center for Sustainable Resource Science in Japan involved the use of readily available resources—carbon dioxide, nitrogen, seawater, and sunlight—to maintain its marine bacteria factory, making the production of the synthetic spider’s silk both economically viable and eco-friendly.
In another transgenic silk process pioneered by Bolt Industries, sugar, water, and yeast undergo fermentation, after which the raw protein fibers were wet spun into threads.
Fibers and yarns derived directly from nature also include those from banana tree stems, milk, feathers, crab shells, coffee grounds, corn, hemp, lotus plant stems, and stinging nettles. In the twenty-first century, eco-conscious consumers may also be furnishing their homes with, or wearing, Piñatex, a vegan alternative to leather that’s derived from the pineapple, and soybean protein fiber found in the bean hulls. Researchers are looking at a variety of sources for new fibers in nature, especially waste products derived from other industries. Nature still has many fibers to give us!
About the Author
Juliana Barnes is a senior content editor and writer and a graduate of the Fashion Institute of Technology’s (FIT’s) textile design program whose experience includes ten years fact-checking and fine-tuning academic lessons and professional development blogs for an educational media company and researching and writing articles for a newswire service.