What are you printing onto? Fibres of the Future Unspun

Debbie McKeegan
August 31, 2023

Environmental conservation is driving systemic change within the textile printing industry. At all touchpoints – technology and material science are evolving to secure a viable and increasingly sustainable supply chain.

Traditional textiles are spun from materials derived from natural fibres or petroleum based, fossil fuels. Both demand significant cultivation and processing. Their footprint continues to cause significant harm to our natural habitat and the delicate balance of nature’s biodiversity.

Meeting market demand. Is the eco-conscious consumer driving change?

We are witnessing a generational shift in buying behaviours. What will the Alpha generation be wearing and why? The Alpha generation (2013-2025) are acutely aware of the environmental crisis, climate change will have catastrophic consequences within their lifetime. Influenced by their millennial parents, this generation will also soon have the power of purchase, and as such, their choices will increasingly inform and make a significant impact on the textile industry. They are born as eco-conscious consumers and will choose and actively source, environmentally secure products.

Are we at the gateway to a new landscape for printed materials?

Developing new bio-based materials has become a race to secure a sustainable supply chain. Fibres of the future must be both renewable and circular, transforming the core components of every textile that we have casually consumed for generations. It’s a new frontier, and one that marks a new landscape for every stakeholder. Biomaterials represent a growing culture within our society where environmental and market demands fuse to deliver a better future for our planet.

At the heart of fibre innovation resides a company built to make a positive impact – Pangaia. A brand that’s committed to protecting, preserving, and promoting biodiversity on earth with a vision to nurture and accelerate an “Earth Positive Future”. Pangaia are rewiring Apparel – to add and not subtract from nature. Each and every product is crafted in partnership with like-minded “scientists, technologists, and designers – joining forces to accomplish together what we cannot accomplish alone” they state. Material innovation is at their core, pictured is the world’s first bio fabricated hoodie, a fabric created using microbes. This brewed protein fibre builds on natures DNA to create a petrochemical free textile feedstock.

Image Credit: Pangaia

What are bio-based materials and what are the benefits?

Bio-based materials are derived from renewable sources, sources that we have overlooked in the past. Who would have thought that we would be wearing clothes made from mushrooms, pineapples, bananas or potatoes?

Diving deep into waste streams to recover and repurpose cellulose polymers is essential, taking nothing for granted, we can harness the power of waste and natural feedstocks (with respect and responsibility) to rewire the fibres of the future.

Image credit: Spinnova

By example, Spinnova transforms the way textiles are manufactured globally. Based in Finland, Spinnova has developed breakthrough technology for making textile fibre out of wood or waste, such as leather, textile, or food waste, without harmful chemicals. The patented SPINNOVA® fibre creates zero waste and side streams or microplastics, and its CO2 emissions and water use are minimal.

The scale of innovation required is immense, as is the financial investment to offer these potentially lucrative new materials in the volume demanded. As a cautionary note, using cotton as an example of a cultivated fibre that damages our ecosystem, the fibres we choose to implement at scale must have a significantly reduced environmental impact.

Returning fibres to mother nature: Why biodegradability is essential?

 Natural resources are in short supply. If we are to harvest, we must also replenish. Biodegradability is essential as is regenerative agriculture. Building a new supply chain for textile materials must also consider the future of our earth and the quality of our habitat. Biomaterials must be either repurposed efficiently, or returned to nature not to just simply degrade, but to replenish and restore our planets fragile ecosystem.

Printability and the rise of pigment ink for textile printing

As our industry evolves to utilise new substrates, we must also consider how we print onto these new surfaces and the impact of the technologies we choose. Waterless technologies are an obvious choice for numerous reasons, but we must now also consider and take regulatory accountability for each and every printed metre that we supply and question how the products we manufacture are to be repurposed or recycled?

Pigment inks play an important role for the future of printed production, they also offer innate flexibility and can be applied to almost any textile surface.

Image credit: Achikam Ben Yosef

In a recent collaboration between Kornit Digital and FishSkin, digital printing technology and pigment inks were used to print directly onto fish skin to create two artisanal handbags, the products were designed by Ori Topaz of Shenkar. FishSkin have developed Fish leather – a new raw material generated from waste feedstock. The salmon skins were supplied in partnership with Nordic Fish Leather of Iceland.

Why are pigment inks so versatile? Because pigment ink sits (bonds) on the surface of the textile, it’s a bond that can potentiallybe broken using new technologies that aid the reuse and recycling of printed textiles. Developments in decolourisation using ozone science continue to evolve as the ink industry strives to improve the circularity of printed textiles. This continued science plays an important role in the future and recyclability of printed materials.

Rewiring the fibre supply chain demands a monumental technical shift on a global scale

In conclusion, bio-based substrates offer the digital textile printing industry significant potential for driving sustainability and environmental change, by reducing the industries environmental impact and restoring ecological balance.

Undoubtably there are challenges ahead in terms of cost, availability, and performance optimization. But the long-term benefits cannot be ignored. Rewiring our fibre supply chain is critical and will deliver environmental stewardship steering the industry into a new frontier.