Friday 2 October 2015

Leather Isn't Leather Anymore...

Leather, as a fabric, is ingrained in our history. The tanned and scraped hide of cows has been used for centuries as a hardy, hard-wearing and weather resistant base for everything from shoes to armour. There's nothing else that comes close.
Well, maybe once upon a time. But we live in the 21st century, and these days we can create marvels.
The leaves of the pineapple are normally considered to be useless, a by-product to be shucked and binned. Usually they're left out in the field, to bio-degrade back down. But enterprising natives in the Caribbean noticed the toughness of the leaves, and decided to see what would happen if they dried and pulped them instead.
The end result was a fibre that could be spun and woven into fabric. In its normal state, this fabric has the feel and flex of canvas. Increase the thickness of the initial weave, and you end up with something that has the durability of leather.
Hey presto. Pineapple leather. Flexible and versatile, the stuff can be treated for use in all the ways you'd use cowhide: shoes, bags, jackets, you name it. It can be treated to look like snakeskin, and takes up colour like a dream. And as it's a by-product of the pineapple industry, it's sustainable and eco-friendly.
There are other plant fibres that can be used in the same way. The leaves of the banana plant have long been revered for their toughhness and versatility. You can wrap food for steaming in it. You can use it for building: the interlocked leaves make a great, waterproof roof. But when you dry and pulp the stalks using the same techniques as for the pineapple, you end up with a very useful material. The tough outer fibres can be used to weave baskets, while the silky inner layers can produce a fabric as fine and soft as... well, silk.
Once again, as a by-product of the food industry, banana fabric has serious sustanability creds. And, as banana grows without the need for pesticides, it's free from any toxins.
Let's take a screeching left turn back into the animal kingdom. Humanity is great at finding uses for the most unlikely of materials. Take, for example, jellyfish. An invasive species, they wreak destruction on marine life and eco-systems. There are robotic shredders on the shores of South Korea that do their best to halt the influx, but the residue from that all-out assault is no less pleasant to deal with. As a food source, it's a bust. Jellyfish isn't really that tasty. What do you do with all those medusae?
A design student from the Royal College Of Art, Yurii Kaseo, thinks he has a solution. He's developed a process by which the jellyfish "mulch" can be reformed into a tough, amber-coloured material with a whole host of uses. More importantly, it can be made without any need for the toxic chemicals associated with tanning.
These all seem like crazy notions, but the thinking at their heart is pure sustainability. Taking by-products and unwanted materials and turning them into something useful without the use of toxic processes is something to be celebrated. And these are not pipedreams or experiments. You can buy banana fabric through the Offset Warehouse. These are practical solutions to everyday problems, rethinking waste and turning it into something people might want.
The era of the true jelly sandal is closer than you might think...


  1. Hi Rob - Thanks so much for including Offset Warehouse in your post! And what a great read - loved learning about the jellyfish material. Amazing!

  2. Charlie, always a pleasure to highlight the Offset Warehouse. And thank you!