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Saturday, June 3, 2023

The latest leather alternative is made from shrimp shells

By Coco Liu

Inside a 1 200m² laboratory at the heart of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, a group of scientists are demonstrating how to make wearable shrimp shells.

It all starts with mixing chitosan, a white-powder biochemical component extracted from the shells, with water and organic acid.

As the chitosan is dissolving, the scientists add what they call the “secret sauce”, a combination of biomaterials and pigments that varies, depending on the texture and colour being targeted.

The liquid is then poured into a mould and placed in a heater to evaporate excess water, not unlike baking a cake in an oven. Several hours later, all that remains is the final product: a laptop-sized piece of leather-like fabric.

“It’s amazing to see how the material picks up all the details,” says Uyen Tran, pointing at a silver piece of material, this one covered in a snakeskin pattern.

At a glance, the shrimp leather doesn’t look much different to its traditional cousins made from animal hide; it feels fairly authentic, too. And while the fabric doesn’t have any of the rich smell of cow leather, neither does it smell anything like seafood.

Tran, 30, is co-founder of TômTex, a two-year-old start-up that makes textiles out of shrimp shells, mushroom waste and other biomaterials.

TômTex, which means “shrimp textile” in Vietnamese, plans to increase its production capacity of biodegradable leather to 9 000m² this year.

On its own, that’d be enough to make roughly 2 000 leather jackets. For now, TômTex is mostly producing fabric samples and working on custom designs for fashion clients.

When British womenswear brand Di Petsa showed at London Fashion Week in February, TômTex’s shrimp-shell biomaterial was featured in a long dress that mimicked traditional leather and fish scales.

Modern clothing has a significant environmental footprint: Polyester and nylon, two ubiquitous forms of plastic derived from oil, are the backbone of today’s textiles; they’re also prime sources of microplastic pollution.

Globally, apparel makers emit more greenhouse gases than aviation and shipping combined, and the UN Environment Programme estimates that by 2050, the fashion industry could use up a quarter of the world’s carbon budget.

In response to criticism from consumers and policymakers, a growing number of start-ups are developing materials that mimic the look, feel and durability of traditional textiles, without the negative impact of synthetics.

For now, alt fabrics make up just a small fraction of the apparel industry. Picture: Pexels/Cottonbro Studio

MycoWorks and Bolt Threads, two start-ups in Emeryville, California, are making leather-like fabric with mushroom roots.

Los Angeles-based Mi Terro turns spoiltd milk into T-shirts, while London-based Vollebak sells T-shirts woven from hemp and coloured with algae.

Even big retailers are interested: Swedish apparel maker H&M is bankrolling start-ups that develop textiles made from unconventional sources such as wood residue.

TômTex’s model aims to tackle two problems at once: finding biodegradable materials for garment manufacturers and upcycling mountains of marine waste.

In 2021, global shrimp production surpassed 4.5 million tons, up about 50% from 2015. For any given catch, roughly halfthe volume consists of shrimp shells, which are discarded as processing by-products.

While chitosan derived from discarded shrimp shells has long been deployed in wastewater treatment and food supplements, its use in textile production has been virtually non-existent.

Producing 1m² of TômTex’s shrimp leather emits around 14kg carbon dioxide equivalent, based on the company’s estimates, slightly below the carbon footprint of synthetic leathers and less than 15% of the emissions associated with cow-skin leathers.

Unlike synthetic materials that take decades, if not centuries, to break down in landfills, TômTex says its biomaterial can be composted.

Growing up in Vietnam, Tran says new clothes were generally reserved for special occasions but she always found herself attracted to beautiful designs.

Tran moved to the US in 2012 to earn her Bachelor’s degree in fashion design at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. She went on to work at brands that include Ralph Lauren and Alexander Wang.

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Tran says she was soon exposed to the darker side of big fashion: Some 100 billion items of clothing are produced globally each year, biodegradable fabrics remain scarce and expensive, and few new garments are or can be recycled.

When Tran started studying textile engineering in graduate school in 2019, at the Parsons School of Design in New York, she began experimenting with algae-based fabrics, then pivoted to leathers made from mushroom roots and shrimp shells.

In 2020, Tran co-founded TômTex with Atom Nguyen, another Vietnam native who worked at Gap Inc, as a marketing specialist.

They met Ross McBee, then a PhD student in biology at Columbia University, at a start-up incubator; he joined as a third co-founder after graduating in 2022.

TômTex has raised nearly $2 million (R36m) in a pre-seed funding round, and counts venture capital firms SOSV and Portfolia among its backers.

The company is in its early days; it produced just several hundred square feet of leather last year. And while TômTex’s fabric is priced similarly to luxury animal hides, the company concedes that it’s 40% more expensive than synthetic products.

That kind of premium is a key hurdle for most alt-fabric makers, says Hang Liu, an associate professor at Washington State University who specialises in material engineering for textiles.

Liu says challengers like TômTex also have to prove themselves against conventional fabric in another area: product performance.

On a sunny afternoon in February, McBee is spraying water on a piece of TômTex leather and stepping back to wait. “Within a second, it will be dry,” he says.

McBee says this simple promise is the result of months of lab work. After the company’s first textile prototype turned soggy when exposed to water, TômTex re-engineered the interaction between chitosan, water and its secret sauce.

To figure out the right formula, hundreds of different biodegradable ingredients were blended with the derivative of shrimp shells and put to the test. “Water-resistance was a real challenge for a long time,” McBee says.

TômTex scientists optimise their leather for strength by testing it under a clamping machine. They also leave the material out overnight in a growing tent – the kind typically used to cultivate cannabis – to examine the impacts of different temperatures and humidities.

McBee says the product is “almost commercially ready”.

There’s another bottleneck ahead. While it’s relatively easy to access chitosan derived from shrimp shells, which makes up roughly 80% of TômTex leather formula, the company needs to find consistent suppliers for its other ingredients.

For now, alt fabrics make up just a small fraction of the apparel industry. But shifting consumer sentiment, rising regulatory pressure and climbing fossil fuel prices are gradually levelling the playing field, says Marguerite Le Rolland, an analyst with consultancy Euromonitor International. Biomaterial makers are “reaching a turning point” for scaling up, she says.

In the meantime, limitations like material scarcity and price premiums make alternative textiles a perfect target for high fashion.

Last year, TômTex teamed up with New York designer Peter Do to fabricate trousers and tank tops out of TômTex’s shrimp-based leather. Both designs hit the runway at New York Fashion Week in September.

To give her fabric an edge, Tran also tries to offer features that conventional fabrics may struggle to replicate. For the Di Petsa show in London, TômTex’s bio-leather was engineered to look like it’s dripping wet.

“This is a new class of material,” Tran says. “We don’t want to be an alternative.”


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