The Fabric of Fermentation: Kombucha Couture
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?
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.
Sacha fell in love with fermentation in 2008, when she began learning how to make cheese as well as kombucha. She’s a creative person by nature, and not afraid to explore new frontiers. In fact, I’d guess that it’s what might lie over the horizon that inspires this dynamic, kind-hearted woman.
Some of Sacha’s first batches of kombucha were made using hibiscus flower tea — which naturally tinted the kombucha SCOBY a beautiful rose-pink. If you’ve ever made your own kombucha, then you know that it isn’t long before you’re faced with an excess of SCOBYs piling up one on top of another like a short-stack of jellyfish. Sacha dealt with her initial surplus by flinging them out her kitchen window to break down on the landscape. Fortuitously, some of these SCOBYs landed on the bare branches of a nearby shrub and dried there. One day in 2012, Sacha looked out her window and saw that her tree was now adorned by shimmering pink disks, as if it was wearing translucent, blush-colored earrings.
Sacha had seen a photograph of a leather-looking jacket made of kombucha fabric by Suzanne Lee in Sandor Katz’s book Mastering Fermentation, so she knew there was a precedent for turning kombucha into a textile. Over the next six months, she experimented with different methods for growing large SCOBYs, harvesting, drying, adding natural pigments, and turning the results into a collection of fashionable earrings. By the beginning of 2013, her earrings were being sold at a local, high-end boutique in Davis.
One Runway Leads to Another
Later in 2013, a runway model who had worn one of Sacha’s creations at a show convinced her to enter the 2014 Sacramento Film and Music Festival Fashion Competition. The event requires entrants to design and create a runway-worthy garment over a period of only 10 days. In addition, the entry has to be based on a theme that’s revealed at the beginning of the contest. Edgar Allen Poe’s “The River” was the 2014 motif. You can probably guess who won, but the other, more experienced designers and contestants were quite surprised when Sacha’s entry, a whimsical, peacock-blue, iridescent piece called “The Mermaid Dress” was the winner. The prize: a spot as the featured designer at the 2014 Sacramento Fashion Week.
Over the next months, Sacha slaved over the broad, shallow tanks upon which she grows large sheets of SCOBY; the drafting table, working up new designs; and the sewing machine. In another bit of organic good fortune, Sacha’s mother, a costumer for theater productions, had taught her to sew. Sacha told me, “I’m still learning to be more patient with my sewing — to take the time to make a pattern, then a prototype. My nature is to just dive in.” Her work paid off, and 12 different pieces later, her debut at the Sacramento fashion show garnered her an invitation to present a show at the 2015 Paris Fashion Week.
A year of prepping, entry fees, travel costs, and 22 outfits later, she premiered her collection, entitled “Game of Kombucha” at the Pierre Cardin exhibition room in the French city. You can see more photos of the collection on her website, Kombucha Couture.
Kombucha, Heal Thyself
During Sacha’s visit, I was treated to an amazing example of the potential for this fabric. Sacha brought with her what she calls “The National Geographic” dress. It had been recently been on loan to an exhibition. Much to the horror of the organizers, it was torn in several places during the return packing. In true Sacha style, she told them, “No problem, I’ll just grow a patch right on it.”
After dinner at our farm, she set up a mannequin in our creamery tasting room, pulled out a few wet, dripping SCOBY bits she had brought with her, and pressed them across the dry, ragged edges of the damaged areas.
By the next morning, the new pieces had dried almost invisibly over the wounds. But Sacha wasn’t done; she pulled out her plant-based pigments, and deftly dyed the new pieces — not to match, necessarily.
Part of her style is not to try to hide the nature of the kombucha fabric, but to work with it and let it express its own qualities. I was amazed at the results.
“The Kombucha Has a Plan”
On the trajectory I’ve just shared, you might rightly imagine that many people would see their celebrity as launched, and continue to ride that rocket toward the stars. But much like her kombucha couture, Sacha Lauren is cut from a different cloth. She sees herself as a medium for the message of sustainability, of organic processes, of the larger role that fermentation can play on humanity’s stage.
At this time, she has stepped back from the runway limelight and focuses on shipping products, such as kombucha earrings, and fabric samples directly to customers of her Etsy shop, KombuchaCouture. She also grows kombucha fabric, often called vegan leather, for designers, in bolts up to 15 yards in length, and crafts original garments for customers (one of her creations was worn by Sarah Blossom Ware for her TEDex talk!)
Sacha left me with more than just a lot to think about – she left several pieces of fabric; a sculptural kombucha bowl and tiny purse; two bottles of her dry, delicate kombucha finishing their slow final fermentation; and a fascinating ball of kombucha yarn – one continuous piece she had hand-cut in a long spiral from a single sheet of fabric. I’m a crocheter, and I’m pondering what to make from this unique fiber. I may just have to try my hand at making additional skeins. Maybe there’s a SCOBY scarf in my future.
How to Grow a Dress
Sacha wants the world to know how to grow kombucha fabric. It’s biodegradable, renewable, and needs more hands in the vat to help develop it as a viable, commercial, sustainable product. With much to offer, kombucha fabric has some hurdles to overcome – you cannot wash it (that affinity for water that makes it great in the medical field leads to problems for cleaning), it lacks elasticity, and it has a distinctive honey-lemon aroma.
Sacha brews her fabric mostly in large, plastic storage bins – like the kind you’d put all of your rolls of wrapping paper in and then slide under a bed. In addition, she has a couple of larger tanks that have been salvaged from wine makers. She adds only an inch of sugared tea to the vats and then seeds them in one of two methods – either by adding torn up bits of a mother or a puree of SCOBY. She originally would allow a larger mother to grow and then peel off the daughters (the thin, new SCOBYs that grow atop the primary layer), but this approach results in an uneven sheet, as it will have adhered in spots to the primary layer.
During brewing, the fabric can also be dyed with natural or artificial pigments. The photo above shows a beautiful blue SCOBY made from butterfly pea flower tea. Another of Sacha’s innovations is layering the wet SCOBY over a metallic thread mesh, as she did for her Mermaid Dress. The mesh imbeds in the SCOBY, creating a strong, flexible, shimmering end product.
Sacha lays the large SCOBY sheets out on cotton sheets or parchment paper to dry, often overlapping them so that they adhere during the drying to form a larger bolt of fabric. Sacha suggests using either indirect sunlight or an interior space for gentle drying — if allowed to over-dry, the fabric becomes quite brittle. If the pieces are small, a dehydrator set at 95 degrees Fahrenheit works very well. She often gently uses her palms to massage the large sheets in one direction and encourage the cellulose strands to align, creating an actual grain to the fabric. Drying is swift in a warm, fairly arid environment. Sometimes Sacha massages coconut oil into the just-dried fabric to help it retain moisture. She advises caution, as you can end up with an oily product if you’re too liberal with the lubricant.
Once dry, the fabric can be cut, stitched, and worn. You can sew SCOBY fabric on a regular sewing machine or by hand. Like animal leather, kombucha fabric won’t fray.
Gianaclis Caldwell is the author of many books focusing on dairy products and small dairy businesses. She practices her passions for farming, writing, teaching, and fermenting at the family’s off-grid Pholia Farm, in Oregon’s beautiful Rogue Valley. Find her on Facebook @Gianaclis and on Instagram @Gianaclis, and @PholiaFarm.
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