Wednesday, June 11, 2008


Organic Fabrics

After organic food and Fair Trade cosmetics comes "sustainable" fashion. Scientists are investigating natural sources for biodegradable artificial fabrics made from raw material such as chicken feathers and rice straw.

As Katharine Hamnett, the iconic 1980s designer, prepares for the launch in spring of her organic, environmentally friendly fashion range, the idea of ethically sourced sustainable fashion is starting to take hold. Ham-nett's online store, which she has sold her pounds 1m house in Highgate, north London, to launch, features designs made in cotton grown organically without pesticides.

The production process spares the thousands of farmers who she says commit suicide after falling into debt to the pesticide companies or whose health is damaged by the chemicals. "I'm not prepared to make a living at the expense of those at the bottom of the supplychain," Hamnett said. "I want to prove it can be done so there are no more excuses."

Scientists at the University of Nebraska plan to go one stage further by developing fabrics from agricultural waste products to replace synthetic materials derived from byproducts of petroleum. In place of nylon and acrylic we could see "chicken wool" and "rice cotton". Millions of tons of chicken feathers and rice straw (the stem of the plant left after the grains are harvested) are discarded every year.

Research presented to the American Chemical Society conference in San Francisco yesterday shows that fabrics made from them could become an abundant, cheap and renewable alternative to nylon and acrylic.

The chicken feather fabric will resemble wool and the rice straw fabric will be similar to cotton or linen. Fibres derived from chicken feathers would be an improvement over wool, the researchers say.

Rice straw, composed of cellulose, has already been made into fibres, which could be spun into fabrics similar to cotton or linen using common textile machinery.

Both fabrics are still in the early stages of development but the researchers say they could be a boon to rice and chicken farmers as well as being kind to the environment. Yiqi Yang, professor of textile science at Nebraska University, who led the research, said: "We hope the research presented here will stimulate interest in using agricultural byproducts as textile fibres which would add value to agricultural crops and make the fibre industry more sustainable."

No major effort is currently being made to find alternative sources of fibres to satisfy increasing global demand. Two years ago Professor Yang and colleagues developed a method to turn corn husks into fabrics but those based on feathers and straw could have better properties, they say, suitable for use in carpets, cars and buildings. They would cost less and have superior properties to their synthetic counterparts, the researchers say.

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