Ecosystem-centric co-designing with mycelium for textiles
There is growing interest in the utility of fungi in many areas of human and ecological life. There are many species of fungi all with different qualities and unique potential, however their primary function is to decompose. Fungi feed off the forest floor, dying trees, even living organisms. They consume and transform anything that needs to continue on from one stage to the next in the circle of life.
Most people contextualise fungi as mushrooms. These are the fruiting bodies, or reproductive organs, of a fungi. I am interested in the part of fungi we don’t see; the mycelium. Mycelium is a branching network of micro-filaments called hyphae. Hyphae are formed by cells separated by cross walls, or septa, with nuclei enclosed within a cell wall. The cell walls of mycelium are mainly composed of a layer of chitin on the cell membrane, glucans, whose composition varies between species, and a layer of proteins on the surface. This natural polymeric structure makes the ideal composite for material production that is biodegradable and in many cases has been reported to be hydrophobic, when processed, which is very rare in natural fibres.
So far the development of mycelium materials has mostly produced hard materials. The leading company utilising this technology is Ecovative Design LLC. They grow packaging and various other products which replace common uses of polystyrene and aldehydes. At the University of Utrecht designer Maurizio Montalti is testing a number of ways that mycelium can be grown. He has generated various material properties out of mycelium, from dense building materials to malleable rubber and leather like substances. By being selective of the mycelium species, substrate and structure of the substrate I believe we can grow attractive malleable fabrics for various uses. My focus is in the textile industry. I want to produce materials grown from mycelium that might be applied to fashion, upholstery or various other malleable textile uses.
There is overwhelming evidence that the textile industry is having detrimental effects on the natural environment, its inhabitants and the inhabitants of communities that produce large quantities of the world’s textiles. The development of natural alternatives to textile structures and systems which alleviate the stresses of current production are imperative to moulding the industry into something that benefits the earth. Not destroy it.
To address this I will position my practical work within a posthuman discussion around moving design from a place of human centrism to ecosystem centrism. Generally we perceive ourselves, as a species and individually, as separate entities from the spaces we inhabit, and the organisms that are our co-habitants. We situate ourselves somewhere in between inanimate objects, and the wild world. Effectively like computers made of biodegradable materials. I would argue that a primary function of homo sapiens is to create and use tools. Design is the visual organisation of consciousness. Tools are created objects/systems which turn a problem, something we don’t understand or have not materially realised, into a solution. For a large portion of recorded sapien history, starting with the agricultural revolution, the prevailing cultural forces have driven the intention of design towards making homo sapien lives more efficient or pleasurable. A lack of consideration for anything but our experiences has inevitably led to the demise of many once healthy ecosystems. We have reached a stage in our evolution where we are able to contemplate the atoms we consist of. These same atoms make up everything. With this knowledge we can no longer only consider improvement on the amount of time or energy a task will take, or how to achieve pleasant sensations. As atoms that can contemplate atoms we have a responsibility to consider how the objects and systems we generate affect our direct ecosystems.
Throughout this project I would like to reflect on my practical developments with the mindset of co-designing with my direct ecosystem. In their thesis, Tatiana Rubiano Goubert discusses thinking of mycelium as a co-worker rather than a medium to work with. It is a living organism, complete with its own directives and limitations. This design strategy reminds me of an aesthetic and philosophical inspiration of mine, Anni Albers and her threads;
“Now, material, any material obeys laws of its own, laws recognizably given to it by the reigning forces of nature or imposed by us on those materials that are created by our brain, such as sound, words, colors, illusions of space—laws of old or newly invented. We may follow them or oppose them, but they are guidelines, positive or negative.
In my case it was threads that caught me, really against my will. To work with threads seemed sissy to me. I wanted something to be conquered. But circumstances held me to threads and they won me over. I learned to listen to them and to speak their language. I learned the process of handling them.”
As a weaver myself I know the temperamental nature of working with various threads. As you produce a woven fabric you become more able to serenade your threads into the positions you intend. Sometimes, however, threads have limits and may not mold to your desires. This is part of the design process, especially when beginning work with a new medium. I expect my design choices and research structure to be largely directed by the growth needs and characteristics that I discover while working with mycelium. I wish to extend this collaboration with my medium, mycelium, to my direct ecosystem. This means contemplating the end use of the tools I employ, waste the project produces and overall potential benefit to the wider New Zealand ecosystem, and communities.