A revolutionary new fiber could transform the clothing industry

In 2010, Stacy Flynn was in China conducting a routine factory audit for a company that makes clothes out of recycled plastic. A colleague stood a few feet away, but she could barely see him through the polluted air. In the conference room, a thick blanket of smog floated above her head. As she calculated the millions of yards of fabric she had sourced throughout her career, for DuPont, Target, and Eddie Bauer, Flynn thought, “I caused this problem.”

Current recycling technology barely lessens apparel’s destructive footprint. Plastic from bottles can be spun into polar fleece, and donated clothing can be cut up for industrial rags or shredded to make insulation. But according to the EPA, only 16 percent of the 16 million tons of textiles Americans dispose of each year is reused or recycled. These efforts will never be enough to avert a landfill crisis stateside, much less reverse the global devastation that the apparel industry has wrought.

“Is there a way of taking all this garment waste and converting it to a new fiber?” wondered Flynn, Textile Development and Marketing ’98 and a member of the department’s industry advisory board. “That would circumvent most of the negative impact of how we make clothing without asking a business to change its process.”

Conversations with industry colleagues did not inspire hope. “I was asking, ‘Is anyone talking about this?’ ‘Is this on anyone’s radar?’ ‘What about the futurists?’ The answer was no. No one was talking about it. No one.”

Evrnu could be a solution to the massive amount of donated clothes that go unworn. Joe Carrotta ’17 photographed Flynn and Stanev atop a massive pile of donated clothes at Housing Works’ Buy the Bag warehouse in Brooklyn, where thrift shoppers can purchase them a bag at a time.

Christopher Stanev is a Bulgarian-American textile chemist whom Flynn had worked with at Target. He had also worked for Nike, where he invented a shoelace that stays tied on the basketball court. If anyone could solve this problem, he was the one.

In a two-hour conversation, she explained her vision: to create a virgin fiber by dissolving and purifying donated clothes, then extruding the results. He fired back many reasons why it would be extremely difficult. Cellulose in wood pulp had been dissolved before, but the cellulose molecules in cotton are ten times longer. (Cotton is 98 percent cellulose.) And in previous attempts to dissolve cotton, the dyes in used clothes interfered with the process. Last, existing methods of recycling wood pulp were toxic to the environment and to human health.

“Acrylic can be dissolved,” Stanev said. “Polyester can be recycled too. But I never heard of anyone recycling cellulose.” Flynn responded, “Christo, not once did you say it’s impossible.” Together they set out to realize this almost-impossible dream. Flynn named the company Evrnu.

Stanev’s task was to isolate the raw cellulose from existing fabric, then reconstitute it into a sturdy fiber. Over the next few years of experimentation, funded by his and Flynn’s personal savings and retirement accounts, he and a team of researchers discovered multiple ways to liquefy the cellulose, filter out the rest, and extrude it into a fiber. The solvents used are safe, reusable, and, once they are spent, can be neutralized to simple salts.

But their early yarn samples were brittle, and clothing manufacturers had little reason to believe Evrnu would be viable. In 2015, Flynn met with fabric developers at Target, hoping the company might sign on as an early adopter. She set out three beakers of Evrnu’s patented solvents and proceeded to dissolve a T-shirt and restore it to a solid cellulose material. Representatives were skeptical. She was told, “Stacy, you have three beakers and a dream. How could you possibly process the volume we require?”

To see whether the new fiber could be made into a viable fabric, Flynn asked Associate Professor Patrice George to weave a sample on her handloom. After many failed attempts, it finally worked.

In December 2015, Patrice George was at the handloom in her apartment, attempting to weave Evrnu yarn into fabric—and failing. Flynn knew she could not lure investors unless they could see and touch actual fabric, and she had asked George, her former weaving teacher, to create six yards of denim. George, Fashion and Textile Studies ’14 and an associate professor of Textile Development and Marketing, was intrigued. She set aside a few days of winter break for the project, but it wouldn’t be enough time. “The yarn was so weak, I couldn’t even get it onto the bobbin,” she recalls. “It was like a cross between cotton candy and peanut brittle.”

Flynn didn’t have the time or money to start over, so George hand-wound the yarn and reverted to an old-fashioned wooden shuttle to minimize tension. Every few days, Stanev mailed her a new skein, each one a little stronger than the last. Finally, a month after she began, she completed 4.5 yards of denim, woven with a cotton warp and an Evrnu weft. It didn’t quite have cotton’s natural softness, but it was denim nonetheless. And it was beautiful, full of tiny imperfections and subtle variations in color reminiscent of much older textiles.

“It looked like it had been hand-loomed in a Japanese monastery,” Flynn says. “That’s the first rule in apparel: you have to make it look good.” As luck would have it, she scored a meeting with Paul Dillinger, head of global product innovation at Levi’s, a few days after at Levi’s, a few days after the company’s 2030 fiber strategy had been approved. That strategy included a commitment to use recycled fibers, and when she showed him the fabric, his jaw dropped. He hadn’t guessed that recycling technology was already so sophisticated. “He said, ‘I’d planned on you coming, but I didn’t know you’d be here in a week,’” Flynn says.

Dillinger had the fabric sewn into two pairs of 511 jeans. And she and Stanev left that meeting with an early-adopter agreement from a global brand.

One of the two pairs of Levi’s 511 jeans made with Evrnu. “First of many” was printed on the label. “Someday,they’re going to be in a museum,” Flynn says.

Then she returned to her contacts at Target, offering them a sturdy yarn that could reduce their reliance on resource-intensive fibers. “I told them, ‘Now I’m going to need to you to sign on, because I am going to fundamentally change the way you do business.’” They signed an agreement to redevelop one core item, such as socks or underwear, using Evrnu technology. Flynn believes that the Evrnu product will ultimately outperform other fibers in durability, softness, and, of course, sustainability, at a competitive price.

Flynn and Stanev are confident that consumers will prefer Evrnu simply on the basis of quality. The cellulose strands in Evrnu are very long, giving it superior durability. The extrusion process can create microfiber strands finer and softer than cotton. In its liquid state, additives can be mixed in, giving it moisture-wicking or antimicrobial properties, for example. Or the cellulose can be stripped down to a pure carbon chain, three times stronger than steel and one-fifth as heavy. “You can make a car if you want,” Stanev says.

The environmental specifications are stunning, too. Producing Evrnu consumes 98 percent less water than cotton and emits 90 percent less carbon dioxide than polyester. There is minimal off-gassing and wastewater discharge during production. Evrnu takes dye efficiently, with a 30 percent reduction in impact compared with dyeing cotton or polyester. Though the Evrnu process shares similarities with making rayon, the solvents used are much safer for humans and the environment. And, best of all, clothes made from Evrnu can be recycled back into fiber at least three times before the fiber breaks down into sugar.

Flynn and Stanev’s next challenge is to ramp up production. If all goes well, the first Evrnu garments may appear on shelves as early as 2018, and mass quantities of the fiber could be available in 2019.

The technology could also be used to replicate polyester, rayon, and other materials, reducing our reliance on natural resources such as petroleum and water. Flynn gets requests every week to collaborate on something new.“It’s shocking how much we have been able to do with this technology,” Flynn says. “We still haven’t seen the limits.”