Reweaving the Future: Inside Fashion’s Biomaterial Revolution

Reweaving the Future: Inside Fashion’s Biomaterial Revolution


words by Daphne Chouliaraki Milner

photographs by eduard sánchez ribot





From seaweed-based yarns to plant-derived sequins, meet the innovators redefining beauty and combating waste through planet-positive biomaterials.

This story was published as part of a wider series that delves deep into the fast-developing world of material solutions. Discover more from Fabricating Change here.


What struck Elissa Brunato most was the scale of the pollution. 


She’d been working in fashion for years, splitting her time across manufacturing, product development, and design, and her job frequently required her to travel to some of the industry’s most prominent production sites in places like India, China, and Italy. Faced with the reality of the industry’s fragmented supply chains and systemic misuse of harmful chemicals and waste materials, Brunato knew she had little choice but to become part of the solution.


“I started to really understand the global environmental implications of our production processes, and how that links to our design choices in these studios,” she told Atmos. “The more I visited factories, the more I saw how materials were being treated first-hand. The way that materials flow through the [fashion] system made me so aware of all the waste that was being produced.”


For Brunato, the solution came in the form of Radiant Matter, a material innovation company specializing in the development of naturally sparkling, iridescent, and sustainable materials, which she founded in 2020. The aim was to develop a new generation of shiny, colorful materials that lessen the industry’s reliance on petroleum and mining for minerals by providing a solution for traditional metal-coated plastic sequins. After all, in the UK, around 33 million sequined garments are bought during the festive season alone, and around 1.7 million of those end up in landfill after just five years.


Radiant Matter’s sequins are made from plant-based cellulose, which is the long-chain polymer that makes up important structural components of the wall of green plants, including grass and algae. Cellulose is also one of the most abundant organic compounds on Earth. Following only natural processes, Radiant Matter creates their vibrant metallic colors through the material’s structure, which can refract light and create a range of colors that mirror those found in nature. “Think of peacock feathers, jewel beetles, and butterflies,” she said.

“The way that materials flow through the [fashion] system made me so aware of all the waste that was being produced.”

Elissa Brunato
Radiant Matter

While traditional sequins are mostly made from PVC plastic, meaning they contain toxic and carcinogenic chemicals that are hazardous to the environment, Radiant Matter’s bio-sequins are non-toxic, pigment-free, and completely natural.


Radiant Matter is not alone in its mission to revolutionize textiles—and the wider fashion system. Biomaterials are rapidly gaining popularity with brands and consumers alike because of their transformative potential to address the industry’s urgent environmental and ethical challenges. Biomaterials are often hailed as one route to reducing the industry’s enormous carbon footprint, and that’s a promise that is reflected in the numbers, too. The biomaterials market had an estimated revenue value of $35.5 billion in 2020 and is projected to reach $47.5 billion by 2025 with a compound annual growth rate of 6%. By contrast, the global nylon market has a compound annual growth rate of 5.1% between 2023 and 2030. In a world that’s teetering on the verge of environmental collapse, biomaterials are becoming a beacon of hope for a more responsible future in one of the most polluting industries.


The use of nature-derived textiles is by no means new. 

Coils of hemp rope
Algae spread out like a fan
A bunch of mushrooms

Indigenous communities the world over have long been harnessing their natural surroundings to create wearable materials with deep cultural and ceremonial significance. For instance, banana silk yarn has been woven and used for centuries by the aboriginal Kavalan tribe in Taiwan—a technique that has been passed down through generations. As per Kavalan folklore, bananas were chosen for their abundance and year-round availability. Meanwhile, the Khmu—the Indigenous inhabitants of northern Laos—have long been crafting hand-knotted bags using a locally sourced liana vine. The vine is typically collected post-rainy season, and transformed into raffia-like fibers, which are then hand-knotted into thread. And Muka—the processed fiber from New Zealand flax—is a crucial component in traditional Māori textiles. It is typically prepared through scraping and washing, and was the primary material for crafting clothing through tāniko, or twined weaving, in pre-colonial times.


Today, the respectful, regenerative, and resource-efficient practices of Indigenous peoples serve as a valuable source of inspiration for wider efforts to develop and scale non-polluting biomaterials across the fashion industry.


One such organization is Natural Fiber Welding (NFW), a material innovation startup that works with nature to develop plastic-free performance textiles. The driving principle is simple: each one of NFW’s materials comes from nature and should return to the Earth as valuable nutrients that can feed future growth. Its materials range from a bioneutral plastic-free foam made from a combination of natural rubber, vegetable oil, minerals, and cork to a plastic-free leather alternative made from responsibly-sourced natural rubber, plant-based oil, natural pigments, and minerals to textiles that perform like synthetics without plastic. 


“The scale of the fashion industry, especially textiles, is enormous. It can be quite challenging to grasp when we’re discussing billions of garments and hundreds of millions of square meters of fabric,” said Greg Stillman, vice president of product line management at NFW. “Our mission isn’t just about scaling niche products so that the very wealthy can buy beautiful things and feel emotionally comforted that they’re doing right by nature. Our mission is about displacing substantial portions of synthetic and high-intensity materials.”


The demand is there. NFW has worked with brands like Stella McCartney, Allbirds, Reformation, and Pangaia. And an increasing number of brands are citing a surge in interest from consumers toward biomaterials. “I think the consumer has been on this quest of clean living—from the backlash against synthetic foods maybe 10, 20 years ago, which made its way to [the rise of] paraben-free makeup and clean beauty,” said Stillman. “The next manifestation has to be the physical soft goods that we wear, that we sleep on, and that we spend our living lives with. In many ways, I think we’re just addressing what is a logical next chapter in this evolution of consumer demand.”

A coil of hemp rope

Kintra Labs is on a similar journey with polybutylene succinate (PBS), a bio-derived, biodegradable, and compostable polyester alternative. Using a farm-to-fiber approach, PBS yarn is derived from monomer feedstock (currently sourced from corn), which is then chemically engineered into their continuous filament yarn. The final result shares many qualities similar to polyester, including stretch and softness, and can be used as a drop-in solution across existing supply chains. The ease with which it fits into existing industry infrastructure means that Kintra has already seen interest from some of fashion’s biggest companies including Inditex and H&M. 


While Kintra has effectively steered clear of fossil fuel feedstocks, cofounder and COO Alissa Baier-Lentz is certain about the company’s plans to move beyond corn and further minimize its environmental footprint. “Corn isn’t necessarily the most favorable crop from an environmental perspective, but that shouldn’t block anyone from starting,” she said. “It’s a step in the right direction, and it’s still better than fossil fuels. It can be challenging when brands and manufacturers are looking for perfection over progress, especially for a startup that’s in very early stages. We can’t do it alone.”

In a world that’s teetering on the verge of environmental collapse, biomaterials are becoming a beacon of hope for a more responsible future.

Spiber, on the other hand, is betting on fermentation. The company’s Brewed Protein materials are made from naturally-derived protein fibers, and then produced through Spiber’s unique brewing technique that relies on sugars and microbes over petrochemical and animal-derived raw materials. The resulting textile, which is known as Brewed Protein and which began mass production in 2022, is durable and versatile; it can attain both a sleek, glossy surface appearance and a soft, cashmere-like or wooly texture depending on the spinning method employed.


“We began by taking inspiration from creatures in nature, performing gene sequencing and physical property analysis, and accumulating an integrated database,” said Noriko Fukushima, communication specialist at Spiber, when asked about the creative process behind the Brewed Protein materials. “We believe that our company has a mission to contribute as much as possible to the Earth’s future, not just in a few decades, but also over the course of the next century, and beyond.”


While NFW, Kintra Labs, and Spiber are working with land-based source materials, Tessa Callaghan turned her attention to harnessing the natural power of underwater ecosystems when she established Keel Labs in 2017, a material innovation company committed to upending the waste and pollution created by the fashion and textiles industry by emulating the efficiency of marine life.

A bunch of yellow hemp rope
Close-up of linen fiber

“We knew that we had to keep the supply chains the same because we’re talking about a globally-established, trillion-dollar industry,” said Keel Labs co-founder and CEO Tessa. “And we knew that synthetic processing doesn’t work. Highly intensive chemical usage doesn’t work. Land-based agriculture as we’re able to access it today doesn’t work. So, we were forced to look at the oceans for a [source material that is] abundant, accessible, and well-known to be planet-positive.”


The resulting textile is Kelsun, a seaweed-based fiber that can be used for the most common applications of natural yarns and textiles. Here’s how it works: Keel Labs sources seaweed-derived polymers through a global network of suppliers connected to responsible seaweed harvesters. These polymers undergo a proprietary, eco-friendly formulation process that eliminates harmful chemicals. And this then creates a non-toxic, biodegradable fiber with a significantly lower environmental footprint compared to traditional yarns—kelp ranks among the planet’s most regenerative organisms because of its remarkable capacity to sequester and store carbon dioxide in the ocean.


That material alternatives with smaller or no environmental footprints are available on the market is crucial for designers looking to build responsible brands. New York-based fashion label Collina Strada, for instance, has been using grape leather, a textile that harnesses the waste from wine production, and rose sylk, an organic cellulose fiber made from rose bush waste, alongside deadstock fabric and recycled cotton—the brand has long been advocating for the urgency with which the fashion industry needs to transition towards sustainable material solutions where possible.

A damaged coconut rests in front of a blue background.

“For me, biomaterials have proven to be the simplest solution in this journey [towards sustainability],” said Hillary Taymour, founder and creative director of Collina Strada. “Working with biomaterials means I no longer need to be concerned about microplastics, and it’s much more manageable to trace—especially as a small brand.”


Every materials lab Atmos spoke with has been quick to stress that the yarns and textiles they develop are not necessarily substitutes for say leather or polyester, but rather an entirely new material with its own unique properties that behaves in ways similar to traditional fabrics. And that this, in turn, could require an industry reset—including how brands design their clothes. For Taymour, the materials she sources will often shape the final outcome of a design. But that’s not necessarily bad.


“You can design well within the constraints of the materials, even if it’s not necessarily the easiest path,” said Taymour. “There are lots of designs that don’t come to life because certain materials can’t achieve them, and I mention this frequently. But that doesn’t mean we should lose focus. It’s like aiming for 70%. It’s not a terrible ratio. It’s just that if you want to push boundaries and create extravagant pieces, you might face limitations, and that’s perfectly fine.” After all, creativity flourishes within constraints.

Close-up of biomaterial
Overripe banana skin
Yellow corn seen through a magnified lens
A green, wrinkled biomaterial lays flat on a surface.

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