Yiqi Yang from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln has something to crow about. His quest to transform chicken feathers into commercially viable textiles has just secured a hefty round of funding, courtesy of the Nebraska Environment Trust.
Yang, a professor of textiles, clothing and fashion design, as well as biological systems engineering at the school, has been working for years to convert the keratin fibers found in feathers into a textile that looks like silk but performs like wool. He and his research team are developing a low-cost water-based solvent that will dissolve the bonds between the fibrous proteins while preserving the structural “backbones” that lend them their tensile strength and other desirable properties, he said.
Fabrics derived from this process will have “unparalleled performance” that mimics wool, Yang added, including moisture transmission, thermal insulation, a soft hand and natural luster.
Beyond textiles, these fibers could play a role in the biomedical industry, perhaps as engineering scaffolds. “To the best of our knowledge, no efficacious method has been developed to produce regenerated keratin fibers despite global efforts during the last two decades,” Yang said.
The $211,885 grant will allow Yang to bump up the fiber-spinning process from a lab to pilot scale. With the support of the apparel industry, he says he hopes to eventually produce enough keratin fibers to incorporate into garments.
Yang said the fiber can stimulate new markets, new small businesses and jobs for both Nebraska’s poultry producers and the industry at large, not to mention dispose of poultry waste in a way that doesn’t involve landfilling or incineration. (The first generates methane and contributes to global warming; the second spews carbon dioxide and contributes to global warming.)
Although Yang sees the feathers as an agricultural byproduct, the animal-rights lobby is unlikely to embrace the same view. Which raises the question: How many brands and retailers would be willing to risk the wrath of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals?
Certainly there are companies that would rather dispense with animal-based products than tango with bad publicity. To avoid sourcing from birds that have been live-plucked, force-fed or otherwise abused, the likes of Asos, Primark and Topshop have sworn off feathers in their down products altogether. Meanwhile, similar bans on mohair, cashmere, silk and bone have made those materials nearly verboten on the high street.