STYLE

Scientists, Designers And Students Are Making 'Vegan Leather' From Kombucha

What can't kombucha do?

01/12/2016 11:09 AM AEDT | Updated 01/12/2016 9:55 PM AEDT
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You've probably heard the term kombucha being tossed around lately. The mysterious drink is popping up more and more in health stores and trendy cafes.

But this only touches the surface.

A team of scientists, designers and fashion students in Queensland have developed a program that grows 'vegan leather' from kombucha tea.

The possibility of a locally-made leather substitute is exciting. Whether it can be commercialised is another question.

"We set out to explore the materiality of kombucha -- what worked, what didn't and what could be possible," Alice Payne, Lecturer in Fashion at the Queensland University of Technology, told The Huffington Post Australia.

"It has been a process of experimentation and the results are promising."

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Whilst most people drink kombucha, the culture can also be combined with yeast to then be stretched and dried. The end result? 'Vegan leather' -- a concept first pioneered by London designer Suzanne Lee in 2003.

In 2014, the Queensland university formed a collaboration with scientist Dr Peter Musk, who heads Australia's only kombucha bio-textile research program at makerspace The Edge.

"Together, we enlisted our first year fashion students to have a go at growing, dying and fabricating the material," Payne said.

"The beauty of kombucha is that anyone can grow it in their home. You can harvest it whenever you're ready, and then you have a piece of material that you can work with."

What's the process?

It all starts with what's called a scoby.

"It's like a sourdough starter and it is a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast. That goes into sweet green tea," Payne explained. "The bacteria feeds on that and the waste product that it produces is a pellicle that floats on the surface."

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Dr. Peter Musk, a scientist catalyst at The Edge Southbank, with kombucha.

The fizzy, fermented drink is set aside and it becomes all about the pellicle.

"As you dry it, it stays the same size of the container that it grows in but it flattens and grows thicker and thicker."

After several weeks, the pellicle is pulled from the tank, washed and placed into a frame to dry.

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"You can end up with different weights and thicknesses depending on when you harvest it. The soft, flexible, supple pieces form leather," Payne said.

"We've worked on oils to make these less sticky and more durable."

Why kombucha?

According to Payne, kombucha has an "unexpected quality".

"We're used to paper, fabrics and conventional leather. But this falls somewhere in between. You find yourself adopting similar techniques and new ones," Payne said.

The material offers durability, versatility and sustainability.

Given the big picture challenges we're facing in terms of resource scarcity and huge supply chains, this is a really interesting area.

"The beauty of it is the fact that it can be grown locally at a low cost," Payne said.

"Whilst other natural fibres like wool and cotton can be composted too, they all contain dyes and finishers that are not safely biodegradable. Kombucha in its undyed form can be a completely close-loop material."

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Alexandra Bell, Bachelor of Fashion Design student, with one of her designs incorporating Kombucha.

Moving forward

"Given the big picture challenges we're facing in terms of resource scarcity and huge supply chains, this is a really interesting area," Payne said.

Whilst her team will continue to evolve their project on a small scale, she believes there is large-scale potential.

"The possibility of a locally-made leather substitute is exciting. Whether it can be commercialised is another question.

"We see the beauty of this in its democratic nature -- how it is grown and shared. It's tinkering in communities and we'll see where it ends up."

Want to know more? Here's everything you need to know about kombucha.

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