Biomimicry in fashion and textiles

Materials World magazine
1 Feb 2016

Nature is inspiring more designers to mimic patterns from the biological world. Natalie Daniels looks at the some of the trends in the world of fashion and biomimicry. 

Over the past decade, biomimicry has been capturing headlines in the fashion and textiles industry, as they lend themselves to experimentation with biometric concepts. The building blocks of every textile structure from nanoscale to microscale are organic fibres, and many of these are natural. In addition, like many naturally functional surfaces, the large surface area of fibrous textiles offers flexibility in design. 

The discipline of biomimicry arrives from the Greek word ‘bios’, meaning life and ‘mimesis’, meaning to imitate. It is the study of nature’s designs, and mimicking them to solve human challenges. Beth Rattner, Executive Director at the Biomimicry Institute, USA, believes, ‘We’re now seeing an effort by a number of pioneering designers and companies to push beyond simply incorporating nature in aesthetic ways, but going deeper by learning how organisms in nature function and then applying that to their designs.’ 

One example of this is the work by The Lost Explorer, in partnership with Schoeller Textiles. Schoeller produces a wind and waterproof membrane called the c-change that works like a pinecone, opening and closing depending on the changing climate conditions and personal body temperature. Rattner explains, ‘Other companies are also experimenting with similar smart materials that respond to ambient conditions. ‘These companies are looking at biological functions – how does nature cool, wick moisture, insulate to redefine the function of fabric. This functional approach is what yields designs and materials that fit into our world.’

The butterfly effect 

Morphotex was one of the world's first structurally coloured artificial fibres, developed by Teijin Fibers, Japan in 2010. ‘If you look at the wing of the morpho butterfly at 5,000x magnification, it looks like a series of railroad tracks or zippers lined up next to each other. Each rail is structured only to reflect blue light while cancelling out the other colours in the spectrum. This is the same way blue and green peacock feathers or blue eyes work – they aren’t really blue,’ says Rattner. Morphotex is made from layering films of nylon and polyester of different thicknesses to mimic the scaled patterns of morpho butterfly wings. 

Teijin may have been ahead of its time, but the fashion industry has become more influenced by nature over the last decade. The University of Akron, USA, has created structural colours via self-assembly of synthetic melanin nanoparticles. The researchers wanted to recreate structural colour patterns found in the African starling's feathers to generate colour without the using any pigments and dyes. These tiny packets of synthetic melanin produce a structural colour, when they are packed into layers. This occurs through the interaction of light with materials that have patterns on a tiny scale, reflecting light to make some wavelengths brighter and others darker. 

The movement of animal fur is another way nature is inspiring fashion designers. Rattner said, ‘We recently advised a clothing company to rethink fibres based on the way animals’ fur regulates temperature, including the polar bear, which has a wind-proof outer layer of hollow hairs and an under layer of fine hairs that work together to insulate the body.’ 

Other well-known efforts include emulating the microscopic structures on the surfaces of self-cleaning lotus leaves to create superhydrophobic fabric surfaces that repel water and stains without relying solely on chemicals. Water spilled on a lotus leaf does not wet its surface but simply beads up and rolls off, cleaning its surface from accumulated dust and dirt in the process. When a raincoat stays dry during a downpour, or when a white dress repels a red wine stain, it is using the lotus effect.

The industry is not only using materials inspired by nature on a nanoscale but at the molecular level too. The ‘MoonParka’, jointly created by The North Face and Spiber, is a jacket constructed of fibres spun from synthetic spider silk proteins. Spiber uses microbes to produce the synthetic silk for the jacket. The microbes produce special proteins, which Spiber then purifies until they become a powder. From there, the powder is extuded through syringes to be spun into threads. Spiber expect the MoonParka to hit shop floors in Japan this year. 

Mimicking moth eyes

The moth eye is one of the most effective antireflective coatings in nature, so it is no wonder scientists are using them for inspiration. A team from the Research Institute for Nuclear Problems at Belarusian State University, Belarus, and the Institut Jean Lamour-Université de Lorraine, France, has developed a low-cost, ultra-lightweight material that could be used as an effective anti-reflective surface for microwave radiation for eyeglasses and smart technology. The design mimics the periodic, hexagonal pattern formed of tiny bumps smaller than the wavelength of the incident light, which makes the moth eye one of the most effective antireflective coatings in nature. The new material can reduce reflections from microwaves, rather than from visible light, by compactly filling hollow carbon spheres in 2D to form a hexagonal-patterned monolayer, which creates a strong, electrically conductive coating material. 

Under the sea

It is not just nature on land that is having a big impact on textiles. Bringing together sealife and technology is Julia Koerner, an Australian architect and designer who uses 3D printing to design clothing inspired by the colours and textures of sea creatures. Koerner took inspiration for the Sporophyte Collection from the natural structures found in fungi and kelp. These were 3D scanned to develop garments using 3D geometries, and then printed using Stratasys Polyjet technology. By using 3D printing processes, Koerner was able to incorporate complex geometric patterns. The three-piece collection includes the hymenium jacket, the kelp jacket, and the kelp necklace. By using TangoBlackPlus and VeroBlack, a rubber like material by Stratasys, the material could behave like a garment and moves comfortably with the wearer's body. 

Drawing on sea life in fashion was Alexander McQueen, whose designs took inspiration from the nature of the waterfalls, sea foams, oysters and coral reefs. By using lightweight materials – silk chiffon, organza and tulle, he was able to give the illusion of the softness and finesse of the sea. This unique way of creating textiles and fashion garments is only expected to grow. But as Rattner states, ‘There’s a lot more to do to bring biomimicry to scale, in the fashion industry and otherwise. A number of pioneers are leading the way, but designing for radical sustainability is still somewhat on the fringe. Until nature-inspired textiles and materials are the rule rather than the exception, we still have work to do. The best way to move the industry forward is for large-scale collaborations.’