The Fabric of Fermentation: Kombucha Couture

Think kombucha is just for drinking? Check out how one fashion designer is using SCOBYs to craft sustainable, environmentally friendly fabric.

| November 2020

kombucha-dress 

Kombucha is everywhere:  on tap in restaurants, bottled in grab-and-go beverage cases, and filling growlers for takeout — but it’s also being used to craft dresses, jackets, handbags, and more. More specifically, the gelatinous culture (or “ SCOBY”) that ferments the popular tea-based drink is being used by several innovative designers to make sustainable, biodegradable fabric. My good friend and fellow cheesemaker Sacha Laurin, of Davis, California is one of those. In fact, through her company Kombucha Couture she has taken the process to new levels. Her creations have appeared on the runway during Paris Fashion Week and even been featured in a National Geographic article the May 2017 issue. This winter Sacha and I sat down, over glasses of her delicious kombucha of course, to talk about her unique world of fermentation. Before we get into the fashion, how about a quick refresher on what a SCOBY is?

SCOBY 101

The organisms that create kombucha and many similar beverage ferments live in a gelatinous cellulose structure of their own creation. These gooey worlds go by many names, including that of the product they make – “kombucha” can refer to both the liquid result and the microbe-packed gel. Other terms include “mother,” “mushroom,” and “SCOBY,” an acronym that stands for “Symbiotic Colony Of Bacteria and Yeasts.”

SCOBYs consist of microbes that not only share a housing unit, but also a dining preference. Kombucha SCOBY likes sweetened black tea, kefir SCOBY likes the lactose in animal milk, water kefir SCOBY likes sucrose (in fruit juice and sugar water), Jun SCOBY likes honey, and so on. When you get down to it, each SCOBY is quite a theme-based living arrangement. As these microbes digest and change the sugar they prefer, they convert some of it into cellulose, the starchy gel that then serves as their residence. A SCOBY is essentially a specialized biofilm that produces delectable drinks.



Cellulose is the complex carbohydrate found most often in plant matter. It’s indigestible to humans, but a primary food source for many animals, especially those that graze and browse. Plant cellulose, like that found in cotton, linen, hemp, etc. is quite useful to humans for making textiles, rope, yarn, and the like. A SCOBY’s cellulose is considered a nanocellular biopolymer, and is called “bio-cellulose” or “bacterial cellulose.”

Bacterial cellulose is 100x smaller and has a higher water absorption capacity than plant cellulose. In some applications, this makes it superior to plant versions. Kombucha SCOBY can be used to dress wounds, as an electrolyte filtering membrane, to construct scaffolds for engineered cartilage to use in replacement joints, as a carrier for medicine delivery, and as a substrate for couture garments.






Umansky

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