Humanity is well aware of the fashion and textile industry's environmental impact at this point in time. In the last few decades, the push to make greener garments has been increasing. However, switching to natural or animal materials is not always the eco-friendliest answer. They actually make up 4 out of the 5 most pollutant materials to produce; cow leather is the worst, followed by silk. Whilst alternatives such as vegan leather are available, they still come with the cons of being made of plastic, leading to microplastics entering our environment. This shows it is not just the materials that need to change; it's also the processes behind them. Enter, biomimetics.
Biomimetics, also known as biomimicry, is a branch of science that studies nature and uses design elements to develop innovative new technologies. Colour combinations, patterns, and symmetrical objects can all be found in nature, which has become a source of inspiration for designers and researchers. From the squid's colour-changing skin to high-tenacity spider silk, biomimicry clothing is where aesthetics meets science. It aims to use biological processes and organisms to create advanced material that is more sustainable to produce and biodegradable.
Understanding the structures of animals and nature is essential for developing textile products that are adaptive, thermo-resistant, superhydrophobic, or self-healing, for example, all of which are abundant in nature. Do you know what is not abundant in nature? Waste. This makes up the second half of the biomimicry equation, the production method. Materials will be more sustainable and use natural processes that better protect our bodies by looking for parallels in the natural world that have evolved their own practical solutions.
Swimwear inspired by shark skin
In 2000, Speedo studied the texture of shark skin and how it performs in water to reduce drag.
The Speedo website states:
"The Fastskin technology is built with speed and agility in mind at SpeedoUSA, inspired by the sleek, hydrodynamic properties of sharkskin. Worn by the big swimmers, the Speedo fastskin reduces drag by 4% and therefore increases your speed."
The swimsuits are so successful that the original versions are banned by FINA (The International Swimming Federation). Speedo has now released a Fastskin technology suit line that meets FINA's regulations and is one of the most worn brands for swimming at the Olympics.
Dyeless colour changing fabric
Colourful fabrics can come at a cost. Chemical processes to create dyes and pigments for textiles can be very environmentally damaging, toxic and unresourceful. Japanese chemical and information technology company Teijin studied the Morpho butterfly, which gets its vibrant and shifting colours from the internal structure of its wings instead of pigment. This inspired them to create a dyeless material in four colours that change depending on angle and light.
In 2010, artist Donna Sgro designed three garments using the fabric to showcase its genius and beauty:
"The Morphotex Dress demonstrates the possibilities of engaging technological solutions to the problem of textile waste; encourages dialogue around the issue of sustainable fashion; and links biomimicry, an emergent practice within the field of sustainability, to fashion design."
Bulletproof spider silk
As previously mentioned, silk is the second most pollutive textile to produce. The raw material processing, which boils thousands of litres of water every day, accounts for more than half of silk's total environmental footprint. Spintex studied how Gold Orb Spiders turn liquid proteins into solid silk, inspiring a technology to produce silk at room temperature. This process not only eliminates the need for harsh chemicals or the use of the spiders themselves, unlike traditional silk that uses silkworm cocoons, but it is also 1000 times more energy-efficient than synthetic fibres.
The military is researching the use of this material for parachutes and bulletproof vests. Spider silks have evolved to have a unique combination of tensile strength and extensibility, making them among the most uncompromising natural materials on the planet. They outperform most fabricated materials, such as Kevlar, while remaining environmentally friendly.