Design students experiment with kombucha fabric at the Queensland University of Technology. Picture: Stephanie Smail

Making clothing out of fermented tea

Australians are leading a global bacteria-based clothing revolution, working out ways to make the slimy skin of fermented kombucha tea into a waterproof, durable textile.

By Stephanie Smail

It’s been described as smelly and unpredictable, but sustainable.

“It’s a democratic material, which means anyone can make it in their kitchen with a minimum amount of fuss,” Dr Peter Musk, who heads Australia’s only kombucha bio-textile research program with the Queensland University of Technology (QUT), said.

Most people drink kombucha, but the culture can also be combined with yeast to create a curd, which is then stretched and dried, turning into what has been described as “vegan leather”.

Queensland State Library scientist Dr Peter Musk works on the kombucha bio-textile, also known as ‘vegan leather’. Picture: Stephanie Smail

The concept was pioneered in 2003 by London-based fashion designer Suzanne Lee, whose work has since been exhibited around the world.

Dr Musk’s Brisbane-based science and design team has been perfecting ways to make hard-wearing items such as kombucha shoes and jackets a reality.

“The most recent thing I’ve come up with is good old coconut oil,” Dr Musk said.

“If you rub coconut oil into it when you dry it, it remains supple and plastic and much more pliable.

“We’ve tried various ways of using the material, that’s when we found sewing wasn’t very good, moulding and gluing were much more preferable.”

For design student Alexandra Bell, the versatility of the textile was appealing.

“It never really occurred to me you could make clothing out of a bacteria,” she said.

She used kombucha leather to decorate a tulle garment.

“Anything bigger scale would need more experimentation and how to wash it and take care of it,” she said.

Dean Brough, the head of studies at QUT’s School of Design, said kombucha clothing was already gracing catwalks in the United States and Britain, with designers such as Sacha Laurin leading the way.

Mr Brough said kombucha fabric was the ultimate in sustainable couture.

“In principle you could actually make a garment out of kombucha fabric, put it in a blender, reblend it and make another garment because it’s just a cellulose fabric,” he said.

He said there is huge potential for widespread use.

“To my surprise it hasn’t been taken up on a commercial scale — I think it could be mass produced commercially relatively quickly,” he said.

“The technology is very low scale — it’s really just the volume that would be required.”

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