Rowena Gonzalez brewed up around 12 gallons of kombucha, but the Washington State University sophomore wasn’t thirsty. She was making a purse.
Gonzalez and her advisor, Armine Ghalachyan, an assistant professor in WSU’s Department of Apparel, Merchandising, Design, and Textiles (AMDT), seized on fermented tea and the film it produces as they searched for alternative, sustainable materials for apparel.
Gonzalez came to WSU for the AMDT program and hit it off with Ghalachyan almost immediately. They met at a meeting for IGNITE, a program that supports undergraduate research opportunities in WSU’s College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences.
“I told Armine about my interest in the environment and biodegradable materials,” said Gonzalez, a California native. “She mentioned this work she had done in graduate school, and I wanted to learn more right away. The apparel industry is the second largest polluter globally, and I want to be part of the move toward sustainability.”
The two brewed up some tea and got to work. First, they let the kombucha ferment in a sterile environment for nearly four weeks, ensuring the development of a thick surface film. Next, Gonzalez skimmed off that film and started the drying process. Then, the duo experimented with different methods for treating and drying the gelatinous mass of cellulose to yield a good material.
“We placed the film in a wooden press to squeeze out as much moisture as possible, then let it dry for another week,” Gonzalez said. “It went from a wet, slimy, substance to a leather-like material that we could cut and sew.”
She applied glycerin to the material’s surface to help keep it soft and flexible, resulting in a leather-like product that eventually became an attractive bag.
“I had an overwhelming feeling of disbelief,” Gonzalez said. “I made this with my bare hands. If you told me I would make leather out of tea when I came to WSU, I would have thought, ‘no way.’ Seeing the different stages and ultimate outcome was mind-blowing to me.”
That bag and the research that went into it will be included in WSU’s upcoming SURCA, or Showcase for Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities. The idea for a fabric from kombucha is based on research Ghalachyan has done using bacterial cellulose to develop sustainable alternatives to leather.
“Leather-making is an environmentally harmful process,” Ghalachyan said. “Using the cellulose produced through kombucha fermentation as a novel material source could have a huge impact on the apparel industry and the environment.”
Gonzalez decided to make a purse after considering other items, like a vest or shoes. She created a pattern and got to work making the material into something useful and attractive. But even with a finished bag, there’s still a long way to go before kombucha apparel shows up in stores.
The finished product looks very similar to a leather bag, but it has drawbacks.
“If it’s exposed to water, it can expand or revert back to its original state,” Gonzalez said. “We’ll keep refining and working to improve our results.”
The duo is testing different teas to see if they get varied results and exploring coatings that can prevent the material from getting wet.
In addition to participating in SURCA, Gonzalez received an AATCC Foundation Student Research Support Grant to help further her research.
“Students learn so much more when they’re involved in research,” Ghalachyan said. “Rowena was completely fascinated with this project right away. She held the material and said she couldn’t believe she made it. Seeing that spark is what teaching students is all about.”