Building materials from mycelium could be one of the most revolutionary inventions in recent years. 100% natural and biodegradable, mycelium can be grown into leather-like materials that are luxurious, durable, and comfortable. What’s more, its production minimizes chemicals as it leverages innovative bio-engineering practices and green chemistry.
Mycelium may change the way we make clothes forever! Keep reading to find out how.
What is mycelium?
We all know fungus. However, there’s a lot more to them than we can typically see. Mycelium is that essential support system for the fungus. The easiest way to picture it is to compare it to a plant: mycelium is the tree, and the mushroom is the flower. Some mycelium might never produce a mushroom.
Mycelium is composed of a dense mass of fine filaments of tissue called hyphae, and its primary purpose is to pick up water and nutrients and bring them to the fruiting body, the mushroom. Mycelium can be mainly found in the soil, plants, wood, want or other substrates.
In short, Mycelium binds together everything organic that we know about.
How a material that resembles leather can be created from mycelium
Humans are constantly trying to re-create nature’s structure-building capacity by brute-forcing small molecules into polymerized structures. Still, most of the time, we end up with subpar, unsustainable products.
Mycelium is a substance that could allow us to use nature’s assembly capacity and be more like nature.
Directing the growth of mushroom fibers may not sound like a big deal, but this evolution in bio fabrication stands to transform the way we manufacture, consume and live.
Mycelium is a natural fiber that can be used as an alternative to plastics. By harnessing its power as technology and using it in products, we can replace the toxic plastic materials – like synthetic leather – which accumulate in our environment.
Leather and mycelium share many similarities and have comparable qualities. Mycelium is multicellular, just like leather, which comes from animal skin. It’s composed of microscopic parts, or filaments, that can be directed to produce a material that drapes and moves around just so much does leather.
Additionally, the process of growing mycelium is revolutionary because it allows for customization. Designers can adjust the thickness, strength, texture, flexibility, density, drape, and softness to suit their needs and create a new leather-like material that’s perfect just for them.
Now, let’s look at what companies are currently working with mycelium, how they create materials and the challenges.
Companies working with mycelium for apparel applications
To grow mycelium, the companies producing it start by reproducing what happens in the forest ground but in a controlled indoor environment. They take mycelial cells and feed them sawdust or organic material while controlling the artificial environment’s humidity and temperature. Vertical farming is utilized to minimize the ecological footprint.
One of the main challenges of creating products with mycelium is the inconsistencies brought by its natural, uncontrolled growth process; this is, of course, not acceptable for commercial outcomes, which require a predictable and constant strength, thickness, and breathability through the material.
A fundamental aspect that companies have had to perfect is inducing the right conditions for the mycelium to grow in a predictable and controlled way. Having the ability to adjust the material’s properties is one of the main differences of mycelium compared to leather.
They also had to master interlocking cellular structures that give the material its superior strength and durability.
According to Matt Scullin, CEO of MycoWorks – one of the companies pioneering in the mycelium technology for apparel applications – the trays where the material is created can be custom sized and shaped to comply with given dimensions and specific properties throughout, depending on the functional requirements.
Customization capabilities have the advantage of resulting in less scrap waste and lower rejection rates due to material damage and imperfections.
“Designers are looking for something that is neither animal nor plastic but has the quality, the sensuality and the engineerability that’ll allow them to make new designs” Matt Scullin, CEO of MycoWorks.
An important aspect to highlight is that creating these innovative materials allows for traceability since the process captures data at every stage of the growth; this is important, particularly for the fashion industry that has always been opaque concerning the precedence of materials.
After harvesting the fine-tuned foamy material, tanning and finishing processes are required before the mycelium can be used in a final product.
Bolt Threads, another leading company in the mycelium technology field, has partnered with a leather goods expert to perfect the finishing process. Their European tanning partner has five generations of experience working with leather and meets top certifications in sustainability, including a gold rating from the Leather Working Group.
MycoWorks also partnered with experts to create Reishi™, their iconic leather-like material. Once growth is complete, Fine Mycelium sheets are harvested at their California facility, then tanned and finished using MycoWorks’ proprietary chemistries by traditional leather craftspeople with expertise in creating finished leathers to the highest standards in fashion.
MycoWorks recently announced a Hermès collaboration.
Innovation in the fashion industry is challenging because most of the business models are not built for it. It’s hard to predict what will be popular and profitable until the products come out to the market, making significant investments in research and development seem risky for most fashion brands.
Also, with the biotechnology industry being slower to deliver marketable products, it can take many years for a company to find one that lives up to its standards and is commercially viable.
However, fashion brands should be more conscious of providing space for innovation because we would not have the technological advancements that we currently see without it. The only way these innovations are possible is when inventors and designers collaborate to create new products.
Are mycelium materials sustainable?
To define how products made from mycelium can be more sustainable than animal or synthetic leather, let’s start by stating how they’re different.
Unlike leather production, making mycelium material doesn’t involve raising cows or using lots of water and land. Mycelium material can be produced in few days; meanwhile, the resource-intense process of raising livestock can take years.
Synthetic leather or “vegan leather” is just as bad for the environment and people as animal-based leather. The synthetic products are usually made from plastic, specifically polyurethane and PVC; these substances cannot be broken down by microorganisms in landfills, leading to environmental damage with chemicals leaching into groundwater.
Synthetics also use a large amount of energy during production due to their complex chemical composition, making them difficult to recycle at end life phases.
Mycelium material is not petroleum-derived, and the processing and finishing are carried using green chemistry principles. Mylo™, for example, is certified bio-based since it’s made from predominantly renewable ingredients. This certification is received through bio-based testing by DIN CERTCO.
These innovative textiles, Mylo™ and Reishi™, are not currently fully biodegradable, but that’s the case for pretty much all leather and alternative leathers. The need for some percentage of polymers remains to provide the materials with softness, strength, and durability required by consumers.
Still, these solutions have a minimal environmental impact and are better than their traditional counterparts. As the technology advances, the companies might eventually be able to increase the bio-based content, and at some point, they might be able to eliminate the plastics.
Thanks for reading about the incredible mycelium. I hope you were as excited as I was when creating this post! The usage of mycelium is a fantastic advancement in material science and a potential game-changer for the fashion industry.
I cannot wait to see how far it can get and how much adoption it will have by conscious consumers once viable products hit the market. And in the long term, I have high hopes that this will move the needle to stop climate change and unsustainable practices.
If you want to know about another alternative vegan leather, I recommend reading our article about Vegea, a leather made from grapes.