Rows of shallow plastic bins cover nearly every available space inside one of the textile and clothing labs in LeBaron Hall. The lab is really more of a “greenhouse,” but it is far different from the other greenhouses on the Iowa State University campus.
Instead of soil and seeds, each plastic bin contains a gel-like film consisting of cellulose fibers – a byproduct of kombucha tea – that feeds off a mixture of vinegar and sugar. The film is grown by using a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast (SCOBY). Young-A Lee, an associate professor of apparel, merchandising and design at Iowa State, says the properties of this SCOBY film are similar to leather once it’s harvested and dried, and can be used to make clothing, shoes or handbags.
In a chapter of the book “Sustainable Fibers for Fashion Industry,” Lee writes about the results of her case study of cellulosic fiber. The material has been tested for other applications, such as cosmetics, foods and biomedical tissue for wound dressing, but it is relatively new to the apparel industry. The fact that the fiber is 100 percent biodegradable is a significant benefit for the fashion industry, which by its very nature generates a lot of waste, Lee said.