I came across the idea to grow my own fabric after looking through a design book inspired by the confluence of living materials, art and technology. With just black tea, sugar and microbes, I began my own experiments in growing this living, biological fabric. Suzanne Lee, a British fashion designer coined her work as or bio-coulture and this recipe is based on her work and others like California designer Sacha Laurin.
Kombucha is a drink made from a fermentation process using tea, sugar, a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast, or "SCOBY". The same recipe is used to start growing fabric by creating a tea.
Think of this microbial brew like a bee hive but instead of thousands of bees building comb, there are millions of microscopic bacteria spinning and building cellulose fibers. These fibers grow the to the size of the container. The end result are wet mats of fiber that can be molded, dyed and dried. Once dried, the texture ranges from a convincing leather-like material to a papyrus. While the fabric is very strong, it's not waterproof or even water resistant. That is the one major drawback. But it's challenge to be solved.
Step 1: The Set Up
Here's what you need:
live kombucha* culture or SCOBY
green or black tea bags stackable plastic bins
a heat mat ( the brew does best at 80F)
plastic stackable containers
wooden boards for drying
Find a dark place to build your "farm". Stack your plastic containers so they are convenient to move. I prefer the plastic drawer bins that slide open and stack. I found them at The Container Store. For smaller sizes, Ikea has great stackable drawers. Buy your black tea, a heat mat, sugar and always wear gloves. Cover your stacks with a sheet if there is any sunlight in the room. You are looking to build a warm, dark place for this bacteria and yeast to thrive.
Step 2: The Tea Recipe
Brew the tea
Makes one gallon (Scale up or down depending on the size of your container)
1 cup sugar
6 bags tea
Kombucha Starter Culture ( SCOBY)
1 cup starter liquid from the SCOBY (optional)
purified/bottled water ( tap water may contain chlorine that will kill the mother culture)
Heat one gallon of water to boiling and remove from heat.
Add 1 cup sugar and 6 teabags. Stir, steep and let come to room temperature. Regular chlorinated tap water can be used for the boiled tea water. Boiling of the water evaporates the chlorine. Steep overnight.
Step 3: Fill Your Containers and Begin the Growing Process
Pour the cooled tea it into a plastic container(s) so it' about two inches deep. Then add a piece of the live kombucha (SCOBY) to the brew. Cover the container with a plastic lid. Keep covered and away from light and keep it warm to about 77F (not too warm or you will kill the bacteria or create to much yeast). Let it grow quietly for about three weeks or until its about 1/2 to a 3/4 inch thick. Over time the culture will rise to the surface and a new thickening layer will form on the top. To ensure an even surface, push bubbles that appear by gently coaxing them to the edges.
Step 4: Harvest
Once the material reaches its desired thickness, remove it from the container and wash it with cold soapy water and rinse thoroughly.
Step 5: Dye
If you want to dye the fabric, it's done before drying the piece. A good resource for dyes is Dharma Trading Company. You can also use natural plant and vegetable dyes like beets as seen in the image. The dyeing process is fairly easy. The fabric takes on dyes quite fast but not always evenly.
Step 6: Dry
Place the the piece on a wooden board to dry. Smooth it out from the center to the edges. The drying time will depend on the weather and temperature. I tend to dry them outside in the sun and bring them inside during the evening. As they dry, they lose a lot of water, shrink and change color. Once the water is fully evaporated peel the cellulose from the surface carefully and explore the possibilities with dyes, with forms and fashion.