Tea shirts: clothing made from tea

A tea by-product could be a more sustainable material for clothing manufacture.

Bad press has followed the fashion industry because of its harmful effects on the environment and the exploitation of its workers. The large scale manufacture of the clothes we love leads to water pollution, toxic chemical waste, landfill waste, and in certain areas, garment worker exploitation. Thankfully, new innovators are coming up with new ways to change the way we make clothes. In her departmental textile lab, Young-A Lee has been working on biodegradable clothing made from tea. Lee is an associate professor at Iowa State University’s Apparel, Merchandising and Design department.

By adding a solution of vinegar and sugar to a gel-like film by-product of Kombucha green tea, Lee was able to create a material with a texture similar to leather. The material has proven to be versatile in that it can be used to create clothing, shoes and accessories.  

According to Iowa State News, the substance is highly efficient as it is both biodegradable and recyclable, making it part of a cradle-to-cradle design. Eventually, once the clothing item has been worn to its end, it could be given back to the earth.

“Fashion, to most people, is an ephemeral expression of culture, art, and technology manifesting itself in form. Fashion companies keep producing new materials and clothing, from season to season, year to year, to fulfil consumers’ desire and needs,” says Lee, adding that the new material could reduce the fashion industry’s waste.

For now, Lee and her team will have to reduce the material’s long production time and find a way to make sure its durability is not affected by moisture.

“If our experimental effort from this Environmental Protection Agency project is successful, this cellulose-based renewable fabric can be an alternate future where we move to a cradle-to-cradle system, instead of relying on materials derived from unsustainable sources,” adds Lee. 

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