An award-winning student project explores cutting-edge technology in sustainable textiles

Imagine a future when textiles can be grown in a laboratory, worn, and returned to the soil to grow more textiles instead of ending up in a landfill.

A team of FIT students took a step toward that future with an innovative project that won the first Biodesign Challenge, a competition in which students from nine leading U.S. colleges and universities created projects that envision future applications of biotechnology. Themes for the projects included architecture, water, food, materials, energy, medicine, and other areas where biological design could make a dramatic difference.

The prize was announced after the projects were presented at a June 23 event at the Museum of Modern Art and judged by 13 leaders in biotechnology, design, and education. The FIT team comprised three students from the Fashion Design program’s knitwear specialization—Tessa Callaghan ’16, Gian Cui ’17, and Aleksandra Gosiewski ’17—and Aaron Nesser, who studies at Pratt Institute. With support from faculty in the sciences and design, they beat teams from top schools including University of Pennsylvania, New York University, and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

A fabric knitted from the biomaterial.

A fabric knitted from the biomaterial.

For their winning project, FIT’s team created a material out of alginate (made from algae) and chitosan (made from fungi), extruded it from a syringe as a filament, and knitted this “yarn” into fabric. The resulting textile, though not ready for production, represents a nascent step toward a closed-loop life-cycle system for fashion, as the fabric is not only biodegradable but could be used as a nutrient for growing more materials.

The team spent months experimenting with different formulas for the biomaterial, curious to see how much it would stretch. They tested an early version of the knitted filament in FIT’s textile testing labs, where they discovered, to their surprise, that it stretched 70 percent beyond its original length. They also customized a 3D printer to make a mesh version, which stretched 50 percent.

Theanne Schiros, an assistant professor who teaches physics, chemistry, and sustainability, and Asta Skocir, associate professor of Fashion Design, served as mentors. Carmita Sanchez-Fong, associate professor of Interior Design, and Sasha Wright, an assistant professor who teaches biology and ecology, received an interdisciplinary grant from the School of Art and Design to develop a curriculum of readings and to bring experts in bioethics and biomaterials to campus. Sass Brown, acting associate dean for the School of Art and Design, brought the Biodesign Challenge to the college and promoted the opportunity to students. And C.J. Yeh, professor, Communication Design, helped the team polish their presentation skills.

Featured Photo: The winning team of Callaghan, Nesser, Cui, and Gosiewski. Nesser holds the Glass Microbe, a translucent trophy symbolizing the intersection of art, design, and biology.