A shrimp pack, bag or sneaker on the shelves is not unrealistic, researchers from TômTex have discovered. They are one step further in the development of their sustainable fabric and are able to manipulate the leather-like material very accurately. It has even appeared on the catwalk. Engineer Nicole Sved gives FashionUnited her perspective from the TômTex lab in Brooklyn.
Engineering and manipulation
TômTex's new type of textile is not made from shrimp meat, but from the complex type of sugar in the shell: chitin. “You can find it everywhere in nature,” assures Sved. She describes the building material as a white, sandy, odorless powder. “We now mainly extract it from shrimp shells because that is a major waste stream from the shellfish industry, but it is in everything, including mushrooms, coffee and insects.”
The researcher describes what happens after cleaning the shells as a water-based process. After the extraction of the chitin in a chemical process, it is converted with a lot of water and chemicals into a 'dope', a lobed substance that looks like amber-coloured honey. TômTex then adds all kinds of substances. The company does not want to say which ones exactly, but they are necessary to give the material the desired color and texture. That liquid agent is poured into a mold and dried into a film. If necessary, additional relief can then be applied with heat and pressure.
“You can manipulate the material in a very diverse way. For example, you can make it look like leathers such as alligator or snake, or other existing textures. Just look at the runway photos. We worked with Peter Do and Di Petsa and you can see from those different looks that there is a lot of variety. So [the texture of] the latter looks like fish scales and it's quite translucent, but the Peter Do material looks like latex and it's stretchy.” There are no commercial partnerships yet, “but that could change in the next nine months”, says Sved. “The company is going very fast, but at the moment we are still in the R&D phase and we are finishing many formulas.”
Scalable and feasible
In the early stage of TômTex at the beginning of 2020, founder Uyen Tran also played with another material, coffee. Millions of tons of coffee grounds are left over every year, so that is just as much a waste stream to take seriously, the researcher thought. But an essential difference with shrimp shells is the clumsy supply chain. Sved: “We were looking for something that is always available and that is really connected to people's daily lives. Shellfish will always be abundant in Southeast Asia as it is part of their community and traditional diet.”
Moreover, a very sophisticated infrastructure is needed to collect all that coffee waste from coffee products, companies and consumers. Shrimp producers often remove the chitin from their shells themselves to sell it as a ready-to-use raw material. Producers with major missions such as TômTex can better build on that.
No toxicity, no plastic, no oil
The shrimp system is working better and better, especially in terms of sustainability. Criticism of fake leathers such as apple leather and grape leather is often about the plastic that should be added to those 'sustainable' alternatives. Leather-like shrimp fabric does not belong in that list, claims TômTex. The principles are: no petroleum, no plastics, no toxins. Exactly which chemicals are used in the breeding process remains a secret, but they are not dangerous. Sved: “You could touch anything without gloves and then you'd be totally okay. In principle, the substance is even edible, although we do not recommend it”.
The dyes that TômTex adds to the substance are natural, for example from colored clay. “Brighter colors are more difficult, but there are many brightly colored minerals that we can use. Some natural paints are worse for the environment than synthetic ones. So it remains a balancing act. We are now identifying which colors remain the most beautiful in the long term.”
In many ways, the process is similar to growing kombucha leather, another sustainable textile being experimented with in the biomaterials industry. That too is a watery substance with the same sustainable challenge: the drying process. Sved: “That can take a long time. Many solvents administered in the lab help to dry the material faster, but are not very green. Energy-intensive heaters are often also required. If we want to scale up, we need to optimize that drying process.”
Scallop suede with shrimp
The technology does not require investments in new production processes or simply works with existing machines, making production scalable. The wait is mainly for improving the material and measuring the positive impact. For example, it seems that the shrimp dust is completely biodegradable and that no industrial processes are required for this. Normally this is only possible under strict conditions, such as a certain pH value or temperature, but according to Sved you can simply throw this material in with the organic waste. "We can't yet say exactly how long it will take for it to disappear completely, " she admits, "we are now conducting an LCA for that."
At the moment the TômTex lab is full of mainly ocher colored pigments in all shapes and sizes. There is a lot of experimentation with textures that may appeal to major clothing and fashion accessory products: both new textile looks and leather imitations, with and without pronounced relief. Meanwhile, the CEO of TômTex in Vietnam is looking for a suitable facility. With good luck, commercial production of shrimp shell fabric could begin there in early 2025 – and suede, Sved hints. “We have been using these techniques for some time now. We then add extra cellulose fibers that stick to the film, for that typical soft feel of suede. Cellulose is the third most abundant biopolymer [after chitin] and we will be using both of them soon.”
This article was originally published on FashionUnited.NL, translated and edited to English.