Lesley Sleight, Head of Life Skills, Queen Elizabeth II High School, Isle of Man, writes about how her students have been growing their own clothes.

A group of year 13 pupils from Queen Elizabeth II High School, Isle of Man have spent the last year growing clothes from green tea, sugar and bacteria.  The tragic deaths in the factory fire in Bangladesh brought to pupils’ attention the problems of fast fashion.  As fashion conscious teenagers they were aware that many of their peers had to have the latest styles and since clothing was cheap many saw it as disposable.  A BBC News item on fashion designer Suzanne Lee who grows her own clothes was played at an eco committee meeting.  A group of girls were inspired and thought they would try it themselves and use it as a way to highlight their concerns about the throwaway fashion industry to their fellow pupils.

Using plastic under-bed storage boxes as containers the girls experimented with different amounts of tea, sugar and vinegar.  The material is created from Kombucha which is a mixture of bacteria, yeast and other micro-organisms.  The bacteria feed off the tea and sugar and start to spin cellulose.  Eventually, after some weeks, a cellulose mat is formed. This can be dried to form a vegetable leather and then sewn conventionally or can be moulded whilst wet around objects so no sewing is required.  The girls made two hats from the different methods.  They also made two waistcoats, a skirt, an apron and a bag.  They conducted experiments on the material including use of dyes, flame tests, stretch tests and allergy tests. The tests were very positive.  The girls discovered that they could re-use their tea solution.  Only a small amount of tea and sugar needed to be added for another sheet to be grown in the same brew.  This meant large quantities of water or raw materials were not wasted in the process of producing the material.  The garments could also be composted after use.

The girls have managed to spread their concerns about ’fast fashion’.  Their ‘Grow your Own Clothes’ project was broadcast on BBC North West Tonight and BBC Songs of Praise.  The students would now like to showcase their clothes in prominent places: banks, airports, schools etc.  They are hoping the clothes will have an impact and attract attention so that people will read about their environmental concerns around ‘fast fashion’.  It will be an educational tool as well as providing a talking point.

The project has given the students the chance to be involved in independent real-life science by conducting their own experiments and research in a field that is relatively new.  They have had to develop problem solving, teamwork and presentation skills.  They have had to be resilient, learning that real life experiments take a long time and the need to persevere when they come up against obstacles.

The students were named Ecover Young Green Champions at the Observer Ethical Awards 2013. They also won the Society of Biology Prize in this year’s National Science and Engineering Competition.

For more information, write to Lesley at: L.Sleight@qe2.sch.im

…………………………………………………………………..

This article was first published in NAEE’s journal, Environmental Education (Vol. 106).  To read more articles like this, you can join the Association and receive three journals a year.