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An Artisan and Scientist Fronting the Sustainable Materials Design Revolution

Candid industry expert interviews 

Last December, we were lucky to meet materials researcher and designer Jen Keane and discover her amazing work as she was a Resident at The Mills Fabrica in Hong Kong. We’ve just caught up with globetrotter Jen, currently in California, so she would share on her journey in innovative sustainable material design with our community.

Photo Credit Adam Toth

Guest Introduction

Jen Keane is a designer and creative researcher working to connect the dots between design, science, technology, and craft to help drive sustainable innovation.

With a background in performance materials and a fascination with new digital and biological tools, she has been developing a process she calls ‘microbial weaving’, employing bacteria to design a new generation of materials, and perhaps change our approach to making altogether.

Taking an organism-driven approach to material design in fashion

M You went from a design career in a major sportswear brand to being a full-time independent researcher, what prompted this career move?Tell us a bit about your professional journey so far, and how you made the transition.

 J  Working for Adidas  was an amazing experience and I learned loads, but after five years, I was looking for a new challenge to push myself creatively. I decided to go back to school to do an MA in Material Futures at Central Saint Martins in London where there was a lot of interesting future-facing work happening.

I never planned to work for myself after, it just end-up making the most sense because I wasn’t quite ready to give up on the work I had started in my ‘This is Grown.’ project, and knew it would be impossible to further my research while working full time for someone else.

M What is your ‘This is Grown.’ project all about?

 J  ‘This is Grown.’ was both a response to the emerging plastic crisis as well as an attempt to push a new approach in material design inspired by nature. Nature has had 3.8 billion years to perfect the ultimate circular economy: life. I didn’t just want to use natural materials to recreate materials we already have. I wanted to learn from the way nature makes to design new material processes, to imagine a future where designers work from raw materials forward and products can be grown to shape employing living organisms.

I thus took an organism-led approach to material design, studying the natural process of cellulose producing bacteria to employ them in a new type of ‘microbial weaving’. Essentially I weave the ‘Warp’ and the bacteria grow the ‘Weft’. I grew the upper of a sneaker to show the technical and aesthetic potential of this process.

The process is interesting because you can ‘weave’ patterns to shape which allows you to create designs not possible with traditional weaving. It also could allow you to program levels of strength and stiffness into different parts of the material.

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'This is Grown.' - Jen Keane
M In 2018 you won The Mills Fabrica Tech Style Prize, how did that benefit the advancement of your project?
 J  Winning the Techstyle prize gave me the space and technical facilities to continue my work. One of my biggest challenges has been toolmaking. I developed my own looms and equipment from scratch and without access to workshops and machines to test out new ways of building equipment, I really couldn’t further my work. I spent most of 2019 working on the next generation of my tools to allow me to grow more consistently. Leveraging The Mills Fabrica network was also critical in acquiring new yarns and getting custom parts made.
M What are the next milestones for ‘This is Grown.’? Is commercialisation the ultimate goal and what hurdles do you have to overcome to get there? What kind of help or support do you need to move forward in your project today?
 J  The original intent of the project was more ideological than commercial but I am now currently exploring different options for commercialisation, because I realize I won’t be able to achieve the full potential of the project without the help of the industry. I have had a great deal of help from Bolt Threads, the materials innovation startup where I am currently Creative Resident, in process development. The next stage would require a bit of fundraising to set up my own lab and hire scientists to help me with initial scaling and material testing.
'This is Grown.' Photo Credit Adam Toth
'This is Grown.' - Photo Credit Adam Toth
"This is Grown.' - Photo Credit Jen Keane
'This is Grown.' - Photo Credit Adam Toth

Biotech and sustainability in fashion

M When one hears about Biotech, the application domains that come to mind are usually more pharma & healthcare or agriculture than fashion. At which stage of development and application is it in the fashion industry?

 J  I think it’s a shame most people are never exposed to the amazing technical material advances happening in the fashion industry every day. The same goes for biotech. I think for a long time there just weren’t enough conversations happening between scientists and creatives. I believe that has changed tremendously over the last few years. We are at a critical juncture for fashion and biotech where several startups are just on the verge of coming to market. I think in the next decade we will see a huge transition here.

M In the press we hear more and more about nature inspired new materials, such as pineapple and fungi leather or synthetic spider silk. Is it still a marginal trend or have you seen more investment/traction in such projects since you started your research?
 J  There is huge investment in this area right now. But material innovation and scaling both take time and significant capital investment. It will also take a lot of work to convince fashion brands who have been very cost and performance sensitive to take a risk on new materials.
M Your career and research project have taken you to several continents, do you feel the understanding of and approach toward sustainability in fashion varies in different parts of the world?

 J  Definitely. I find Europeans generally to be quite educated and interested in sustainable materials. In the US and Asia I have had a wide variety of reactions to my work. Some people just aren’t able to imagine the potential and seem confused as to why you would go to the trouble of trying to grow a shoe. On the other end I get business people who only see the work as an opportunity to make more money and ignore a key part of the project which was the idea that customization could actually reduce consumption.

M Do you see any skills gap in the fashion industry, especially regarding sustainability? Materials is a very specialised area, but more generally do you feel design and development teams are equipped with sufficient knowledge to make the right calls sustainability wise?
 J  It really depends on the individuals in those teams but honestly I think it is becoming increasingly necessary for sustainability specialists to be embedded within fashion organisations because things are changing so quickly, and it is very difficult for designers and developers to be aware of all new developments in this area.
The MOTIF Team meets Jen Keane at The Mills - Photo Credit The Mills Fabrica
'This is GMO' Exhibit at The Mills Fabrica - Photo Credit The Mills Fabrica
'This is GMO' - Photo Credit Jean Keane
'This is GMO' - Photo Credit Ed Tritton

Pushing the boundaries of materials design in fashion

M Any exciting upcoming projects or collaborations you’d like to highlight?

 J  I’m most excited about the work I am doing currently as Creative Resident with Bolt Threads.

Last year, I also launched a fun project in collaboration with Imperial College called ‘This is GMO’ where we grew a genetically modified version of the ‘This is Grown.’ shoe that dyes itself black. I worked with synthetic biologist, Marcus Walker, a Ph.D. candidate at Imperial College London, who has used genetic engineering techniques to develop a self-dyeing bacterium that produces both cellulose and melanin, a natural pigment found in squid ink, hair and skin. By employing this bacterium in my microbial weaving process, we’ve grown the first sneaker upper woven and dyed by a single genetically modified organism. It is 100% compostable and contains no synthetic materials or dyes

The potentials of synthetic biology in fashion are really mind blowing, taking part in the sustainability innovation journey is hugely stimulating and gratifying.

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