Existing material categories could soon become obsolete, says material scientist Amanda Parkes.
She should know. As chief innovation officer of Pangaia, a London-based startup that uses “high-tech naturalism” to solve fashion’s most pressing problems, Parkes has helped develop a suite of materials that defy easy definition, from wildflower-based “down” insulation to Himalayan nettle-derived denim.
Pangaia’s latest offering, a collaboration with Japanese firm Spiber, also exists in this liminal space, she told Sourcing Journal. The result of microbial fermentation using sugar as the feedstock, Brewed Protein is “kind of in the realm of a cotton but potentially has characteristics that are more like silk.” The polymer’s characteristics are tunable, meaning that with a few tweaks it can take on the performance and feel of knits, wovens, fleece, leather or fur.
“I think we don’t even know the depth of how they can manipulate it; that’s what is so exciting about this material,” Parkes said of Spiber, which started out spinning spider silk sans spiders. “It’s this level of breakthrough technology where materials are going to start being out of category. We associate something with silk because it comes from spiders or silkworms, and cotton because it comes from the cotton plant. When we think about a microbe and functionality that comes from a DNA code, it could be a new sort of hybrid.”
Pangaia’s proof of concept comes in the form of a limited-edition Nxt Gen black hoodie—the first such garment to be made available for sale. The startup has made fewer than 200 of the top, which is available for $395 in sizes XXS-XXL on its website. The hoodie marks the fourth capsule within Pangaia Lab, its experimental arm. Previous editions included items made with bacteria-grown dyes and 100 percent regenerated cotton.
“We call Lab a bridge to commercialization,” Parkes said. “Everything there is ready to be scaled. It’s not like a concept car. It’s something that we’re looking at for the future of our main lines and our B2B [business]. It’s a lovely way to bring in the early adopters.”
Pangaia Lab is the perfect testing ground for Brewed Protein because of its limited availability and higher initial expense. It’s better to start out with a smaller quantity to “work through the kinks of the material,” she said. “There are so many things that come up that for traditional brands might be a bottleneck that stops innovation. So we have to work through [problems] with innovators to get to the stage before you say, ‘I want 100,000 units.’”
Right now, Pangaia has blended the polymer with 88 percent organic cotton to give it more of a sweatshirt feel. As volumes ramp up, the company will be able to test and improve its process, much like the way Apple rolls out a new model of iPhone every year.
The hoodie is part of a longer-term partnership between Pangaia and Spiber to scale access to Brewed Protein, though Parkes declined to specify the terms and quantities involved, citing confidentiality agreements.
She noted that the process of making Brewed Protein “isn’t free,” environmentally speaking, although the sugar can come from any plant-based biomass, not necessarily sugarcane. Spiber, she said, is in the process of optimizing its inputs so they don’t compete with the food chain and maintain the balance of ecosystems. Also on the docket is the infrastructure change necessary to “get to the next level.” This requires capital, equipment costs, “all of that,” she added. “It’s more like brewing beer, [you have] these giant fermentation tanks, that kind of factory.”
Still, Spiber said it expects its eventual large-scale production to produce significantly lower greenhouse-gas emissions and require less land and water use than traditional animal-derived fibers such as cashmere. Its polymer also isn’t yoked by issues facing synthetics, such as microplastic pollution and persistence in the environment.
“Not many brands have the capabilities and patience to harness a completely new material like Brewed Protein fiber to create a first-of-a-kind product,” said Kenji Higashi, Spiber’s head of business development, sales and sustainability. “It has been a great experience working with the Pangaia team, whose members brought world-class technical expertise and scientific insight to our joint project, and whose mission to enable innovative solutions for a more sustainable world overlaps with our own.”