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Home Textiles Are Where the Real Material Innovation Is Happening

Apparel may be a bit of a laggard when it comes to incorporating innovative raw materials, but home textiles appear to be leading the charge.

With sustainability the biggest focus for soft goods, Heimtextil’s dedicated Future Materials Lab brought to light the latest developments in inputs for interiors.

Today’s waste may just be tomorrow’s raw material, as overconsumption of already scarce natural resources is driving brands and retailers “to rethink and reclaim waste materials,” a banner in the lab read.

“It’s no longer enough to talk about what’s new and what’s next,” Amy Radcliffe, insight editor for material futures firm Franklin Till said Wednesday at a lecture during Heimtextil show in Frankfurt, Germany. “Instead, we need to talk about where our materials come from, what we do with them and where they end up at the end of their lives.”

Textile waste, Radcliffe rightly pointed out, isn’t just a fashion industry issue—it’s also coming from the home goods category, which has seen its own version of “fast fashion,” with shortcut fixes for furniture and fabrics contributing to the waste problem, too.

But, she added, “We are beginning to see alternatives…from living and growing materials to creating fabrics from biological and human waste.”

There are four key areas in future fabrics where the innovation is taking place: remade materials, biological products, natural assets and living materials.

Remade materials

More and more, conscious makers are studying how to do what they do with less, and in some cases even alleviating an environmental problem in the process.

Hong Kong-based Recyc Leather, for one, is tackling waste in the leather sector by using offcuts from the glove industry and binding them together with natural rubber to form large sheets used to make bags, backpacks, sneakers and other accessories.

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British designer Christopher Raeburn is turning landfill-bound goods into new collections garnering great attention for both their style and mission. The Raemade line includes items like the Off-Cut Insulation Puffa made from recycled nylon parachutes and insulated with recycled offcuts. Everything else on the jacket comes from other existing surplus materials and artifacts, making each piece its own.

While textile waste has often been repurposed for carpet linings and insulation, France’s Circular Fibres expects to do more with it. Designer Charlotte Cazals is making 100 percent recycled cotton/polyester upholstery, wall hangings and blankets with it, quilting the products for durability and embroidering them for style.

“Designers are intercepting waste, paper and textiles before they reach landfill,” Radcliffe said.

Biological products

With more humans consuming more food and a population that’s steadily rising, innovators in the textile sector are exploring ways to harness ever increasing waste—even human waste.

Noting that the world’s population is expected to exceed nine billion by 2050, Radcliffe said things like human hair are “showing new promise” as raw material for textiles.

Material researcher and designer Sanne Visser has taken human hair clippings gathered from salons to make an alternative to synthetic nylons that can be used for things like ropes, cords and netting. The hair is spun into yarn using traditional techniques, and Visser hopes to create open-source machinery that would allow manufacturers the world over to replicate the process for a “universally scalable and sustainable raw material,” according to the Future Materials Lab.

At Studio Sarmite, it’s about using the pine bark often discarded when trees are felled for timber and turning them into Pineskins, a leather-like material that can be used for rugs, bags and baskets. The Netherlands-based company treats the bark with natural waxes to preserve its softness and enhance its “leathery” qualities.

In Mexico, Totomoxtle is using corn husks and ancient Mayan techniques to make a veneer material for furniture finishes. Material designer Fernando Laposse leads the project, where local women harvest the husks, flatten them and add paper or textile backings to produce the items.

Natural assets

Whether companies have caught onto the need to innovate when it comes to raw materials if there’s any hope of sustaining the business without adding to the environment’s existing damage, what’s at least clear is that traditional raw materials may grow increasingly scarce.

“We need to be more flexible and agile in our sourcing of raw materials,” Radcliffe said. “We are slowly realizing that modern production methods are not necessarily the most sustainable.”

In Uganda, innovators are making Barktex, cloth made from the bark of the east African Mutuba, or Natal, fig tree, which, according to the Future Materials Lab, is among “the most ancient textiles known to man.” Small-scale farmers can harvest the bark every year without harming the trees, which makes the material “infinitely sustainable.” The resulting fabric, which can range from leather-like to fleecy, finds its way into wall coverings, furniture surfaces and fashion accessories.

Hey Jute is using the second-most-cultivated textile fiber in the world, according to the lab, to make more than sacking. The Belgium-based business has developed a needle felting technique that preserves the fibers length and luster, using the resulting material to make cushions and wall hangings.

Seaweed is the natural raw material of choice for Sea Me. Netherlands’ Nienke Hoogvliet started the project by making a handmade rug out of seaweed yarn, and is now using the naturally abundant material as yarn as well as a natural dyestuff.

Living materials

Before long, textiles won’t be found where they are now.

“One day,” Radcliffe said, “We’ll talk about growing textiles rather than making textiles.”

Ty Syml, an experimental studio in the U.K., is using mycelium (the vegetative part of a fungus) and combining it with waste substrates including hemp, woodchips and sawdust. After five to 10 days, the mycelium binds to the other material, resulting in a “strong, light composite material” so far used in lampshades, furniture and wall panels.

Waste coconut water is working its way into home textiles, too. In India, Malai allows the natural nutrient to ferment, which yields “a sheet of cellulose jelly,” according to the lab. The company enriches the product with natural fibers, gums and resins, then air dries, softens and finishes it with a water-resistant application. The result is a biodegradable textile that feels like paper or leather and can be used for wallets, purses and bags.

At Interwoven, German artist Diana Scherer is training oat and wheat plant roots to grow around intricate templates buried in the soil. The geometric structure that emerges resembles a textile or tapestry, though it lasts just a few weeks before “shriveling harmlessly away.” Despite its brief lifespan, Scherer is experimenting with the process to make rugs and potentially grow clothing underground.