The Future of Clothes Is Muscle, Blood, and Bone

Scientists like Philipp Stoessel are creating new materials from meat—as in gristle and tendon with a baked potato on the side, meat.

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Dec 15 2015, 5:40pm

Image via Wikipedia Commons

When imagining future fashion, we tend to gravitate toward Gattaca's sharp suits, Mad Max's apocalyptic leathers, or The Fifth Element's take on futuristic bondage. At a push we might consider Her's high-waisted pants, but we don't deviate massively from that. What's less commonly envisioned are the new materials and repurposed products that will make up these clothes. New materials like meat. Yes: blood, tendon, with a baked potato on the side. Meat.

At Zurich's Functional Materials Laboratory 28-year-old PhD student Philipp Stoessel and his colleague Professor Wendelin Stark are working to bring fleshy threads to market. They've found that the skin, bones, cartilage, and tendons of slaughterhouse waste can be turned into textiles.

While your mind may jump to Lady Gaga's meat dress at the 2010 MTV Music Video Awards, the reality is less confronting. Stoessel's fabric is made up of fibers that resemble wool and have similar levels of insulation, but are less allergenic. When spun the fabric has a smooth surface and attractive luster. His prototype for proof of concept was a glove, which was "knitted" from the yarn.

The surprisingly un-fleshy prototype. Images courtesy of Philipp Stoessel


Stoessel found that animal byproducts can be treated with strong acids or alkali, and gelatin extracted in several heating steps. An organic solvent is added to a gelatin solution, and the resulting protein can then effectively be spun into thread for fabrics. The initially formless protein mass is piped through syringe drivers, which push out filaments that are guided over two Teflon-coated rolls. These filaments are then woven into a textile structure.

The protein being spun. Images courtesy of Philipp Stoessel.

Although carcass-derived clothing sounds a little macabre, it's a resourceful approach to the massive amounts of slaughterhouse waste generated globally. In Europe alone, around 25 million tons of waste is produced each year. Stoessel told VICE that the idea behind his research is to "think of ways to make the best out of byproducts from the agricultural or food industry." He added, "In no way are we trying to promote the (enormously high) meat consumption. But nose to tail dining is exactly what should be done. If an animal is slaughtered, all of it should be used."

This is not the first time garments have been conceived from raw biological materials—casein from milk and zien from corn were used to make fabrics a century ago. More recently, Suzanne Lee of design consultancy BIOCOUTURE grew a jacket from kombucha tea that had a similar texture to vegetable leather. This process of biofabrication—growing materials from bioactive elements such as algae, yeast, and fungi—is a global growth industry. It has applications in far-reaching industries, from automotive and architectural, to medical and agricultural. In her 2011 Ted Talk Suzanne points out that the advantage of such materials is that "we can grow what we need without producing chemical waste, then biodegrade the items after use."

The expectation isn't that biofabricated textiles and Stoessel's slaughterhouse threads will altogether replace mainstream fabrics, but that they will offer environmentally friendly and cost-effective additions to the industry. Stoessel explains, "Alternative fibers are very important, especially in view of the high interest in biopolymers and the bad image of synthetic fibers." The global textile industry is massive—it's estimated 90 million tons of apparel is traded worldwide every year—and petrochemical-based fabrics like polyester and nylon still account for almost two-thirds of that figure.

The gelatin yarn up close. Images courtesy of Philipp Stoessel

But before we can expect to be getting around in a sweater made from the off-cuts of someone else's burger, Stoessel and his colleagues are working to resolve the challenge of the fabric's water solubility. As common with many of these biopolymer textiles, the wet strength of the slaughterhouse yarn is relatively low (think of a gel capsule in contact with water). Water resistance currently relies on additional chemical treatments to fortify it, which adds costs and diminishes the eco-status. Stoessel says that while they work through this challenge, they are also looking to secure an industry partner interested in large-scale commercial production of the fibers.

If this still sounds grim to you, remember that a decade ago the thought of dining on Blood Custard and Bone Marrow Flan in chic restaurants was unthinkable. But just as the nose-to-tail movement has slowly gotten us used to eating shins and necks, meat fabrics could ultimately be seen as another evolution of sustainable living. After all, you'll eat a burger made from a cow, why not wear a jumper made from one?

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