We are constantly researching and exploring new and innovative materials and in this article we look at the history of Mushroom leather. Could this organic material be the answer we have been looking for?
It was in 2013 that Danish product designer Jonas Edvard developed organic mushroom textile using mushroom spores and plant fibres. The material was called MYX, from mycelium and it was created using the waste material from commercial oyster mushroom production. After harvesting the mushrooms, Edvard discovered that the remaining material could be shaped and dried out. (1)
To standardise the material and make it useful for multiple applications, Edvard tested growing the material on different substrates. In the end he settled on using a fibre mat with a mix of hemp and linen fibres.
Mushroom leather is an environmentally friendly material because it can be treated without using polluting substances. At the end of it's life, the material is completely biodegradable and compostable. It is extremely light-weight and flexible too, which makes it effective for a wide range of products.
What is Mycelium?
Mycelium is the vegetative part of a fungus, consisting of a network of fine white filaments. Mycelium can be grown in almost any kind of agriculture waste, including sawdust and pistachio shells.
There are several ways to make mushroom leather and these techniques are still being enhanced today. The potential of this material is far reaching and could replace certain plastics and reduce the need for animal agriculture to supply leather. Below we look at how mushroom leather can be made for different applications.
The Jonas Edvard Myx Mushroom Lamp
Jonas Edvard is a Danish Product Designer educated from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Denmark. His work is focused on research into raw and natural materials. It was in 2013 that he first presented his work with mycelium and he exhibited the MYX Lamp and MYX Textile material samples at MaterialXperience in Jan 2014.
The lamps consist of plant fibre and mushroom-mycelium. The lamp is grown into shape over a period of 2-3 weeks. The mushroom mycelium grows together the plant fibres into a flexible and soft living textile.
The mushroom mycelium stabilizes the construction by physically growing together the material and behaving as a glue between the fibres. The MYX consists of waste – the mushroom organism comes from a commercial mushroom farm and the plant fibres are a leftover material from the textile industry. MYX is an optimized end-waste product with a nutritious food product during the growing cycle.
After 2 weeks you can harvest the healthy Oyster mushrooms. The waste product ‘shaped as a lamp’ can then be dried and used as a lightweight material, that is both organic, compostable and sustainable. (2)
There was an earlier development with mushrooms for a completely different application. Troy Eben Bayer grew up on a farm in Vermont learning the intricacies of mushroom harvesting with his father. After graduating from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, he began using that experience to create an organic building insulation made from mushrooms.
Combining his agricultural knowledge with colleague Gavin McIntyre’s interest in sustainable technology, the two created their patented “Greensulate” formula, an organic, fire-retardant board made from water, flour, oyster mushroom spores and perlite, a mineral blend found in potting soil.
Here is how it works
A mixture of water, mineral particles, starch, and hydrogen peroxide are poured into 7-by-7-inch moulds and then injected with living mushroom cells. The hydrogen peroxide is used to prevent the growth of other specimens within the material.
Placed in a dark environment, the cells start to grow, digesting the starch as food and sprouting thousands of root-like cellular strands. The process is fast. A 1-inch-thick panel of insulation can be fully grown within two weeks. It is then dried to prevent fungal growth, and according to Bayer, this makes it unlikely to trigger mold and fungus allergies. The finished product resembles a giant cracker in texture. (3)
Today, Bayer and McIntyre are better known as Ecovative Design, a company dedicated to growing materials that can be used for packaging, skincare, textiles and apparel.
The team at Ecovative Design have partnered with high-performance textile developers Bolt Threads to make their innovative materials more accessible to the fashion industry. Bolt Threads aim to turn innovative materials into mainstream textiles by working with brands such as Stella McCartney and Adidas.
Mylo™ is the mushroom textile which has been developed by Bolt Threads. It is a supple yet durable material that has the potential to biodegrade and could replace real and synthetic leather. The material can be produced in days rather than years too, which significantly reduces environmental impact.
German company nat-2 are creating high-end, vegan shoes made from fungus. The concept and material was developed by Berlin-based designer Nina Fabert of vegan materials company Zvnder. The leather component of the shoe is made from Tinder Fungus, a mushroom that is mostly forgotten.
The shoe is made with a combination of eco-cotton terry cloth, microfiber suede from recycled bottles, cork, and rubber. This alternative to animal leather—which the brand says has a “vintage look” and a soft texture—is environmentally-friendly, organic, vegan, gluten-, and chemical-free (4)
The tinder fungus - 'Fomes Fomentarius' is a parasite and a decomposer. As a tree fungus, it grows on weakened deciduous trees and breaks down their wood components. There is a deep material history is hidden under its hard shell, but the name originates from its use as "tinder" for lighting fires. (5)
Footwear occupies 70% market share for the application of leather in the global market. Indonesian sneakers brand BRODO wants to break this stigma with plans to launch the first shoe from Mushroom Leather using
MYLEA™, a material which is produced by MYCL (Mycotech Lab), a bio-material star-tup.
Brodo is a shoe brand that is well known for using leather but recognises the increasingly urgent sustainability issue and the contribution that the livestock and leather industry contribute to climate change. Now, they are aiming to make better shoes, not leather shoes and Mushroom leather is a good way to do that.
The Mushroom leather from MYLEA™ is made from agroforestry waste and is fully processed using non harmful chemicals which are free of heavy metal compounds like chromium, which are often used in the leather tanning industry.
Mushroom textiles certainly have a future in many industries. It can already be found in clothing and bags, and even durable furniture and building bricks. Mycelium are carbon-negative and can be naturally dyed any colour.
Fabric created from mycelium is non-toxic, waterproof, and fire-resistant. It can be as thin as paper for dresses and lamp shades, or incredibly thick for heavy-duty items, and in both cases, the result is remarkably flexible and strong.
With so much potential, is it any wonder that so many companies are now working to make this remarkable material part of our everyday life?
The process of making mushroom leather can reduce water usage (when compared to animal leather), by up to 99%, which includes the water used to grow, and dye the final material.
Mushroom leather is no longer a concept material, biotech start-ups like the ones listed above, are producing Mushroom Leather, but are not producing it at scale yet.
Mushroom leather is just one of many materials being developed to lower our environmental impact. Although few are fully biodegradable, many do contain a large percentage of organic material. For example, apple leather and corn leather which are both made with more than 50% organic material. Pinatex utilises the waste material from the pineapple industry. It is made entirely from plant material, but its durability does limit how it can be used.
For now, designers must continue to balance the need for sustainability and a circular economy with the consumer demand for value and longevity. One thing is for certain though, with textile development moving at the current pace, it will not be long before many more organic based materials will be fully biodegradable.
[updated 30th March 2021]