Half Baked or Fashion Forward? – The Latest in Environmental Fashion

Dr. Gary O’Bireck

What is mycelium? Typically found in soil and other organic matter, mycelium is the vegetative structure of fungi that consists of spiderweb-like tentacles that grow as long cream-colored fibers. Through a process of spore release, the interlocking root system of mycelium can join to create fruiting bodies, which are more commonly known as mushrooms. As growth evolves, mycelium form in varied sizes, from microscopic to as large as football fields while moving through soil and other settings to provide protection and solidification by binding things together.

Recently, the fashion industry has looked to biodegradable and renewable fabrics for creative outlets in green fashion and environmental benevolence. A citrus byproduct material that feels like silk, faux leather created from pineapple leaves, an entire satin-like cocktail dress made from mycelium and mushroom lamps are a few examples. Smithsonian Magazine reports that graduate student Jillian Silverman of the University of Delaware fashion and apparel program has advanced this idea to craft a prototype shoe that combines mushrooms, agriculture waste and fabric scraps. In her shoe, Silverman believes that, “everything is natural, everything is biodegradable, nontoxic. It’s a perfect solution to reducing the impacts of textile waste, reducing toxic inputs and using all renewable inputs.”

To accomplish these goals, Silverman grew cornstarch-fed mycelium to bind chicken feathers, a landfill-destined insulation material made of recycled cotton and jute, reishi, oyster, king oyster, and yellow oyster varieties with strength-producing psyllium husk to create her shoe. A shoe sole mold was designed to grow the mycelium into the required shape, which typically takes a week. Baking halts any further growth to establish that no live fungi will exist in the finished product. In her view, this natural growth process produces a compostable, biodegradable mushroom-based sole with the potential to replace rubber and other manmade materials.

It appears then, that mushrooms have grown into place in the fashion industry. As the innovation of material increasingly evolves and as more consumers realize that fashion can be both stylish and sustainable, fungi fabric may become as common as silk or cotton. According to Silverman, “Bio-waste materials in general are gaining a lot of attention and a lot of traction in the sustainable fashion industry, as well as other industries.”