Are dissolvable fabrics the future of fashion?

Biofibers made from gelatin. Image: Utility Research Lab

Could clothing that can be worn a few times, dissolved and recycled, be the fashion of the future?

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder, USA, think so and are one step closer to achieving that goal.

A team of engineers and designers have developed a DIY machine that spins textile biofibres made of materials like sustainably sourced gelatine, which can dissolve in hot water in minutes.

The study tackles a growing problem around the world. In 2018 more than 11 million tons of textiles were added to landfill in the USA alone, nearly 8% of all municipal solid waste produced that year.

The researchers envision a different path for fashion. Their machine is small enough to fit on a desk and cost just US$560 to build.

"When you don’t want these textiles anymore, you can dissolve them and recycle the gelatine to make more fibres.”

Michael Rivera, University of Colorado Boulder

Michael Rivera, research co-author and assistant professor at the university’s ATLAS Institute, said, “When you don’t want these textiles anymore, you can dissolve them and recycle the gelatine to make more fibres.”

Doctoral student Eldy Lázaro Vásquez, who led the study, hopes the device will help designers around the world experiment with making their own biofibres.

She said, “You could customise fibres with the strength and elasticity you want, the colour you want. With this kind of prototyping machine, anyone can make fibres. You don’t need the big machines that are only in university chemistry departments.”

Researchers Eldy Lázaro Vásquez, Mirela Alistar and Michael Rivera. Image: Utility Research Lab

The study arrives as more designers embrace a trend known as smart textiles. A jacket, for example, made with sensors that can connect to your smartphone.

But such clothing comes with a downside, Rivera said, “That jacket isn't really recyclable. It's difficult to separate the denim from the copper yarns and the electronics.”

To imagine a new way of making clothes, the team started with gelatine. This springy protein is common in the bones of many animals, including pigs and cows.

Every year, meat producers throw away large volumes of gelatine that does not meet requirements for cosmetics or food products. She and her colleagues decided to turn that waste into wearable items.

This DIY machine for spinning gelatine fibres cost just US$560 to build. Image: Utility Research Lab

The group’s machine uses a plastic syringe to heat up and squeeze out droplets of a liquid gelatine mixture. Two sets of rollers then tug on the gelatine, stretching it out into long, skinny fibres - not unlike a spider spinning a web from silk.

In the process, the fibres also pass through liquid baths where the researchers can introduce bio-based dyes or other additives to the material. Adding a little bit of genipin, an extract from fruit, for example, makes the fibres stronger.

When submerged in warm water, the gelatin dissolved, releasing the yarns for easy recycling and reuse.

Designers could tweak the chemistry of the fibres to make them a little more resilient, Lázaro Vásquez said - "You wouldn’t want your jacket to disappear in the rain."

The researchers say they could also play around with spinning similar fibres from other natural ingredients, such as chitin, a component of crab shells, or agar-agar, which comes from algae.

“We’re trying to think about the whole lifecycle of our textiles,” said Vásquez. “That begins with where the material is coming from. Can we get it from something that normally goes to waste?”