Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Second Skin


Second Skin

Fashion’s newest materials of choice are no less contentious than the leather and fur that humans have worn for millennia. But they are far less familiar, at least to the catwalk. From Donna Franklin’s red silk and fungi dress, grown during a residency at Symbiotica in Perth, Western Australia, to the bone-cell wedding rings grown by the Biojewellery project in London, couture may finally be witnessing its twilight. It will be replaced by a no-less discerning client, just one that happens to believe that clothes and accessories grown – rather than cut – to fit are the sensible thing.

Two basic approaches to ‘grown’ clothing seem to be underway. One investigates the possibility that cellulose-based materials (plant matter) as well as mould and fungi, can be grown into the garment’s shape. The second, more radical approach suggests that a harvest of cells from our own bodies could become the material that we adorn ourselves with. Single-step production for garments may embody our wearable futures, but a garment without seams, stitches and even fabric, constructed as we know it today, would herald the end of such crafts as weaving and tailoring.

Already looking toward to this future are several artists who marry science with craft to varying degrees. Many have sought the advice of, and now collaborate with scientists, in order to develop the unique materials they envision. Motivations are incredibly broad and go beyond simply creating viable objects for future mass production.  Not surprisingly, the expense of laboratory equipment poses a considerable challenge. But in some cases, such as the work of Tissue Culture and Art (TC and A) or the photographer Pinar Yolacan, raising consciousness and provoking debate about the ethics surrounding the garment industry is as, if not more, important than creating a fully functioning object. For others, research is as much about sourcing new areas of sustainable design as it is about passing moral judgment. A desire to involve a wider audience in the decisions that are rapidly confronting contemporary society such as stem cell research and cloning is central to the work of TC and A. Finally, a hope that the general public will come to realize the beauty to be found in science motivates research.

‘Fruit fermentation’ is the term that Australian textile artist Julie Ryder has coined to describe the process she has developed to grow pattern onto the surface of cloth. Over a period of five or six months, fruit placed on the surface of fabric ferments in a laboratory setting. Bacteria and fungi flourish and die and, Ryder explains, “the by-products of this activity leave indelible patterns and markings on the fabric, often with incredible detail, such as the segmentation of fruits or the bodies of small fruit fly.’ The fabric – antique Japanese silk when possible, woven with a subtle pattern of its own – is then sewn into scarves and wall hangings.

Another Australian, Donna Franklin, questions the traditional relationship between fungi and textiles in which fungi is used as a source of colour for cloth questions this relationship by asking, ‘What if those same fungi were grown into the fibre to produce a living colour or a living garment?’ Fungi Dress of red fungi on a silk base is the response. Both artists have proven that beautiful clothing and accessories can be grown from materials that in other contexts – the kitchen in particular – may upset the digestion.

These investigations are not new, nor would either artist claim to be working on the cutting edge of science. Similar research was undertaken over a decade ago by British artist Amy Windrush who, in response to what she believed to be the cruelty of sheep-shearing, rejected knitting with wool and turned to the assistance of the Mycology Department at the Imperial College in London to find a way to  construct garments with limited waste or cruelty to animals. A fungus with properties similar to that of wool’s ability to felt was chosen and, using a cast of  the client’s torso, mould was encouraged to culture over a week-long period. The end result was a garment fitted to the individual, without waste or seams and – much like Ryder and Franklin’s work – grown with its own inherent colour.

If wearing what literally amounts to mould does not turn your stomach, the suggestion that we can harvest our own cells to grow clothing just might. Even those who do not flinch at the thought of wearing leather are often troubled by the prospect of growing material from their own cells. Perhaps a literal second skin is simply too visceral for many of us to contemplate. The Brooklyn-based Turkish photographer Pinar Yolacan captures this uneasiness in her series of unconventional portraits of models wearing what initially look to be stained or yellowing blouses. Filtered through a further membrane, the lens of photography, the physical reality of Yolacan’s creations is kept at a distance – the garments are in fact carefully crafted out of raw skin. But Perhaps one of the most disturbing elements of Yolacan’s images of flesh-on-flesh is the knowledge that this artist, in the carefully crafted buttons and pleats she creates for these garments, seems to have relished the hand and texture of her materials as though it had been silk or cashmere.

Based in Perth, Western Australia, Tissue Culture and Art are acknowledged by many as the leaders in the emerging field of ‘grown’ design. Headed by Ionat Zurr and Oron Catts, this team of biological artists develop sculptures that are a hybrid of living tissue and synthetic armatures. Victimless Leather suggests that the future of the garment industry may lie in the cultivation of bespoke tissue tailoring, grown to measure. This living layer of tissue – possibly even harvested from our own cells – would be cultivated to a perfect fit. The cost of a bioreactor large enough to grow adult clothing is, for the time being, a prohibitive expense. But the very existence of these objects, even in a small scale, raises questions about the ethics of contemporary consumption and challenges the disciplinary boundaries between science and applied art.

A final example of this research comes from the London based group Biojewellery. The use of bone in jewellery is far from a new idea, but growing the bone cells of one’s partner into wedding bands is. Tobie Kerridge and Nikki Stott, design researchers at the Royal College of Art, and Ian Thompson, a bioengineer at Kings College, London, launched Biojewellery to do just that. Much like TC & A, Biojewellery explain that their aim ‘is to bring the medical and technical processes of bioengineering out of the lab and into the public arena.’ In the process, volunteers harvest their own bone cells – the website explains that couples about to have their wisdom teeth removed would make ideal candidates – to ‘grow’ wedding bands for each other, giving a whole new dimension to the phrase ‘material union’. With input from the couples, the grown bone is then  fashioned into rings in collaboration with a jeweller.

On one level, the notion that we can grow to size what we wear strikes a practical chord. Suzanne Lee, author of Fashioning the Future, is currently collaborating with material scientist David Hepworth, on a laboratory research project to investigate grown materials as alternative textiles for the fashion industry. Why? Asking our clothing to change – rather than fashion’s ongoing demand that we change our clothing – is, Lee asserts, ‘a logical conclusion to fashion’s pace.’ For the time being these explorations remain well outside mainstream fashion. The designer Martin Margiela has explored the possibilities of mould and fungi growth as pattern on fabric, rather than structure, but clothes grown to fit remain a thing of our futures.

Where does this leave the craftsperson of the future? “The processes used to create these things are not industrial, they are still very much hands on,” Lee responds, concluding that collaboration between science and craft is an increasingly common way of working. “Perhaps what we will see is a new layer to craft being formed,” she suggests. Franklin does not see technology as a threat to her practice: ‘I do not believe new technological developments will make the craftsperson void in relation to creative thought. An artist needs to be reflexive when creating work to negotiate information and learn from the past but also question future. This is what I aim to do, by combining old and new textile technologies.’ Others continue to align themselves not only with the creativity associated with the crafts, but also its haptic values. Ryder, for one, is conscious that she considers herself first and foremost a craftsperson: ‘In my own practice, I consider the science laboratory as an extension of my practice, rather than of my studio,’ she explains. ‘I see both scientific and digital technologies as tools that I use in my repertoire of making. But ultimately for me I am a textile practitioner.’ Ryder’s mindset is important, for ultimately she sees herself as a creator of fabric, using newly acquired tools for the advancement of textile design. One can only hope approaches such as these can only benefit, rather than threaten, the future of the textile crafts. Time will tell.

Crafts magazine (March/April 2006: 32-35)

image: Donna Franklin