Introduction: Kombucha Fabric

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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

Picture of The Set Up

Here's what you need:

granulated sugar

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

gloves

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

Picture of The Tea Recipe

Brew the tea

Makes one gallon (Scale up or down depending on the size of your container)

Supplies

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)

cloth cover

rubber band

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

Picture of 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

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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

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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

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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.

Comments

murderethic (author)2015-05-14

I've done some small projects with dried Scoby, but nothing on this scale.

How do you deal with the tendency of the scoby "leather" to absorb water from pretty much everywhere?

I've attempted sealing it with wax, conditioning with oils, and even smoking it, but nothing provides a suitable solution yet.

I would think that perspiration from your skin would wreak havoc on a garment made from thus material.

however, your dyeing concept is superb, and has sparked a new idea for a translucent window design, maybe like organic stained glass...

MarioC188 (author)murderethic2017-06-25

hi, you can add some waterproofness with a layer of white glue and let it dry

andreablum (author)murderethic2015-05-14

Thanks for the note! I have not solved the problem of it being water soluble yet.. and have waxed and oiled the stuff myself. The solution may be in nanotechnology and training the bacteria in certain ways to behave differently. Who knows... anything is possible. I am having a few problems with brittleness as opposed to absorption of humidity. That said it's really fun to work with...

igoldman1 (author)andreablum2016-06-15

hi!
any solutions for brittleness??, I know one can use glycol but would much rather find a less toxic chemical to make it more flexible, hydrophobic and smooth...

thanks!

BurcinN (author)igoldman12017-03-17

Hi! Would you use gylcol after drying or in the mix?

LuisQ17 (author)2016-05-31

I'm starting a project within the next school at my university using Kombucha Fabric and I just had a question. I was taking a look at the Dharma dyes. Which did/would you use from the ones that they offered? If you did the Indigo dye in that picture, what dye from their website did you use for it? Thank you very much!

MaryM06 (author)2016-03-23

Hi Andrea, looks amazing can't wait to try it out. Would you mind sharing the title of that book you talked about,about "confluence of living materials, art and technology" ? :)

DangerPlate (author)2015-05-18

The textures look amazing! How does the "leather" smell?

tinaciousz (author)2015-05-15

Amazing Andrea!

ArticAkita (author)2015-05-14

if anything you have a 'Lady Gaga' vagan type dress material! :P awesome post using the mighty Kombusha!

safay (author)2015-05-14

Thanks for posting! This is rad.

tomatoskins (author)2015-05-14

I've never heard of Kombucha Fabric before. This is simply amazing!

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