Exploring the crossover between art and science, Senior Lecturer at University of Cumbria, Christine Ryan has been using living microorganisms to grow biodegradable and sustainable fabrics 9mtr long, through a process of fermentation. These have been described as ‘materials of tomorrow’ 
Change over time
My creative practice explores the natural world and my connection with it. I am interested in natural processes that reflect the passage of time and how these relate to the transformation of materials.
I’ve always had a strong connection and fascination with the sea and I am particularly drawn to the ceaseless motion and impact of the tide and how it changes and transforms the landscape in a way that is unpredictable.
Only after time, do we become aware of the accumulation of these changes. This is where my research began and it was my aim to communicate the notion of change over time within my textiles work.
Early on in my research I harvested a large supply of kelp from the sea to explore its potential as a fabric. While working with kelp my research led me to fashion designer Suzanne Lee and kombucha fabric that looked very similar to kelp.
I was particularly drawn to how it transformed and changed over time, the very idea I wanted to communicate through my work. Building upon Suzanne Lee’s standard recipe for growing kombucha fabric, I started to explore variations to the ingredients, quantities and time, with interventions to the growing process.
My own creative practice is process-led where I engage with materials and explore and investigate to learn about their properties, boundaries and possibilities. When my working process begins, the end is often undetermined and unknown. Experimentation and risk-taking is key, asking myself ‘what if?’
Kombucha fabric is grown from a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast (SCOBY) with sugar, tea and cider vinegar. This originated as a by-product when producing the kombucha fermented tea drink.
The microorganisms feed on the sugary nutrients in the liquid, building nanofibers of cellulose that bond together into layers creating a non-woven mat on the surface. Once it is grown (2-4 weeks) at an ambient temperature of 25’C, harvested, washed and dried, the resulting fabric can be as fine and delicate as tissue paper or as thick and flexible as leather.
There is no waste as the fabric is biodegradable. Once the fabric is harvested the previous fermented liquid can be recycled and the whole process can be started again; it is a continuous cycle of reuse and regeneration.
I have found that I can control its thickness, translucency, surface and scale. It can bond to itself, absorb natural dyes and can be sewn. As a living material it is unpredictable and dynamic. I am fascinated by its ever-changing transformation during its growing period and whilst it is drying.
Even as it matures, it continues to respond to the surrounding atmosphere. There is a tension and excitement in this process in which I am the initiator but to some degree not the controller. Subtleties such as room temperature, light, atmosphere, different types of sugar, vinegar and tea, all have an effect on the grown fabric.
Having harvested the fabric I have been exploring its materiality and what I can do with it through stitch, wax, natural dyeing, image transfer and layering. It is intriguing how different textures can be created during the drying process dependent on the surface it dries on.
Unlike Suzanne Lee who grew kombucha fabric for fashion based-products, I am drawn more to the inherent organic qualities of the fabric and as a hands-on maker, I want to showcase the material in such a way that these qualities are not disguised and are represented in their natural form. The inherent qualities for me translate time, change and transformation.
Off the scale
Wanting to push the limitations of the kombucha fabric and gain further knowledge and understanding, I set out to investigate whether increasing the scale would have any impact on the physical properties and aesthetic qualities of it.
I set out to construct a 3mtr and a 9mtr trough to grow it in. Because of the size this had to be done outside with no control over the ambient temperature and the trough needed to be watertight and weather proof. The growing kombucha would be vulnerable to contamination from insects and debris at the conception and growing stages so methods were put in place to minimise this.
Back to the sea
I wanted to take my ‘grown’ fabric to where my ideas originated (i.e. back to the sea) to find out what impact seawater might have on it. To maintain some control over the level and duration of submersion, I chose to bring the seawater back to my studio, so I could monitor any impact closely.
This prompted me to create my own concentrated saline solution. As there are on average only 35g of salt in every litre of seawater, I wanted to increase the strength substantially to see what effect this might have.
I worked systematically exploring as many avenues as possible, using different salts, different temperatures and sources of heat. The 3 main issues I had to consider were – saturation, temperature and method.
Interestingly, the growth of salt crystals, were also ever changing and unpredictable in outcome. I liked the inherent fragility and preciousness that the salt crystals have; the organic nature and the tactility; the way the crystals not only sit on the surface but also seem to penetrate the fabric.
I am always conscious of how much there is still to learn and how important it is to challenge and extend the boundaries of textile practice. My aim next is to continue to explore kombucha fabric and push my ideas forward, conceptually and creatively, to produce work for national and international exhibitions.
For more information on Christine’s work, visit her website and blog
Lee, S. (2005) Fashioning the Future: Tomorrow’s Wardrobe. London: Thames and Hudson
 Lee, S (2005) Fashioning the Future. Tomorrow’s Wardrobe. London: Thames & Hudson
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