“Human societies have always pivoted around prodigious fungal metabolisms” – Merlin Sheldrake
As humans, we tend to focus on our individual worlds and forget that we live on a planet with so many coexisting living organisms. By studying the world of fungi, we can be easily transported into this entire new universe that is both unknown and extremely connected to our daily lives. In recent years there have been numerous studies and experiments made with Mycelium and its endless ecological possibilities. Mycelium is “a network of fungal threads”, also known as the fungi’s roots, which form the networks through which plants communicate with each other underground (1). Apart from acting as this network, they can also filter water through mycofiltration, break down toxic substances like plastic, and grow into construction materials and fabric. From these vast possibilities that mycelium offers, many designers and artists have been using it as a more sustainable alternative.
Aniela Hoitink is a Dutch textile designer who made a dress by “using disc-shaped pieces of mushroom mycelium” (2). Founder of NEFFA, which means Fashion Innovation in Dutch, she has dedicated herself to understanding how mycelium and textiles can interact. After extensive research, she found that by joining textile elements and mycelium she could create a malleable compostable material to be used as fabric. The materials could be molded to a body or shape and grown on-demand, to avoid any waste. From this investigation, she then created textiles made solely from mycelium, called MycoTEX, which further reduce waste and can be used as a substitute for fabrics such as leather that are harming the environment.
Although making textiles from fungi may seem very unusual, there are in fact many designers and researchers developing different mycelium textiles. Stella McCartney was one of the first fashion designers to use mycelium leather to create accessories like bags, and most recently an entire outfit. She partnered with Bolt Threads, which is a “material solutions company”, and used their Mylo leather to design the look (3). The mycelium leather produces less waste than animal and plastic-based leathers and is being tested for long-term performance so that it can be produced more and used to make long-lasting everyday clothes.
Apart from bags and clothes, there have also been recent shoe designs made from mycelium. The innovative German designer Emilie Burfeind has created sneakers made from dog hair and mycelium, called Sneature – a junction of the words “sneaker” and “nature”. Her award-winning design is a sock trainer composed solely of three materials: mycelium and plant waste sole, dog hair 3D knit, and natural rubber. Burfeind partnered with a Berlin start-up called Modus Intarsia who crowdsource dog hair from pet stores or owners to produce the knit for the shoe’s main body. This company collects dog hair that is shed during grooming, so no animals are hurt and the hair would go to waste otherwise and spin it “into a high-quality yarn known as Chiengora” (4). The yarn is 3D knit, meaning no plastic is needed to bond layers, and it can be produced on demand, so no shoes go to waste. The knit is designed so that it can “interlock like Lego bricks” with the mycelium grown soles, and since there are only three materials and they can be separated from each other, those become easily reused and/or decomposed.
From looking at Burfeind’s sneakers, the importance of processing materials becomes obvious. Experimenting with mycelium and other natural materials to produce fibres and textiles is imperative to discover new sustainable ways of using them, and someone doing this investigative work is Nica Rabinowitz. She is an artist working with the “intersection of biological design, social justice, farming, and textile creation – exploring handcraft from soil to soil” (5). Similarly to the idea of farm-to-table, Rabinowitz uses mushrooms and other natural materials to dye, make and decompose textiles. She is the founder of Fiberhouse Collective, which is a group focused on researching the journey of raw materials from “farm to fabric – then back to farm” (6). They also hold workshops and residencies to educate artists, designers, and anyone interested in the uses of mycelium and nature to work with textiles.
These projects are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the research being done on the use of mycelium in textiles and in design generally. There is furniture designed with mycelium such as Terreform One’s Mycoform – a compostable bench, as well as entire companies dedicated to natural design and using mycelium like Mogu. As time passes there will certainly be a vast use of mycelium as a sustainable design solution. The women formerly mentioned have already contributed a lot to studies and design ideas in their field, and there is still so much to come.
Footnotes and Links
Giovanna Pedrinola is an artist born in São Paulo, Brazil and currently living in New York City. Her most recent mixed media works explore connections between the physical body and the subconscious mind in an attempt to comprehend our existence. This combined with her fascination with ancient traditions, architecture, dance, music, textiles, rituals, and cosmology, generates continuous research currently archived as text and images.