the Age of
Throughout history, material innovation has marked civilization’s progress. In the Stone Age, we mastered natural materials like leather, silk and wool; the Plastics Age brought us synthetic polymers, and the Information Age unlocked life itself: DNA.
And now, building on decades of innovation, we are able to tap into nature’s toolkit to create biologically advanced materials that signify a new era: The Biofabrication Age.
The Stone Age
While no physical remains exist, it is thought humans began wearing animal skin clothing as early as 170000 BC, based on the cold climate conditions and the evolution of clothing lice that is believed to have happened at the same time.
Sewing needles made of bone were used by humans around this time. The needle allowed humans to begin constructing more complex clothing and to string together beads, shells and other objects.
During this time people produced bone and stone tools and eventually pottery. The earliest examples of tools use have been recorded up to 2.5 million years ago.
Clay textile impressions left in caves in what is now modern day Czech Republic provide some of the earliest evidence of the weaving of cloth.
Linen, Hemp & Flax+
Some of the oldest woven linen cloth was found in Turkey. Around 6000 BC, flax was grown and used to make linen fabric in the Middle East and Egypt. Hemp and flax fibers were used for making baskets and cording.
Cotton threads have been found from these areas, the remnants in Jordan may have been imported from India and Africa. Some of the oldest remnants of cotton textiles have been found dating to around 4500 BC.
Some of the oldest wool fabric remnants have been found in Egypt and date to around 4000 BC.
Evidence of sericulture and silk production in China. Later, silk became a highly valuable textile in Ancient Greece with the beginning of the Silk Route. This began the import of silk and other valuable goods from China, Persia and the Far East along the trading route to the Mediterranean.
The oldest existing closed-toe leather shoe consists of a single piece of tanned cowhide formed around the foot and tied with leather laces. The shoe was found in the Areni-1 cave. This period of history may also have been when humans invented the wheel and domesticated horses.
Dyes & Colorants+
From Egypt to Switzerland and Peru, ancient people began to use substances to color materials—from iron, ochre and colored earth, to shellfish dyes. Some of the earliest archaeological evidence of murex, indigo and woad comes from Minoan Crete around 2500 BC.
2500000 BC - 3000 BC (approx.)
The Bronze Age
3000 BC - 1200 BC (approx.)
The Iron Age
In Iron Age Britain, clothes-making tools including loom weights, spindle whorls and combs were made using antler, bone and baked clay.
1200 BC - 500 AD (approx.)
The Middle Ages/Early Modern Period
The Spinning Wheel+
Early machine for turning fibre into thread or yarn, which was then woven into cloth on a loom. The spinning wheel was probably invented in India, though its origins are obscure.
The first example of purl stitch was found in a tomb in Toledo, Spain. This stitch allowed for the production of knitted panels of material. Previously material had to be knitted in the round and then cut open.
Silk & Sea Silk+
Around this time there was considerable growth in the silk industry due to its desirable, luxurious characteristics. Sea silk, a fiber from another organism, was harvested from the byssus of mollusks. It was woven and knit into textiles and written of in folklore from the 18th to 20th centuries.
500 - 1750
The Industrial Revolution
John Kay invented the flying shuttle in 1733, which was a key step toward mechanizing the process of weaving. This allowed for mechanical machines to be operated by just one person weaving any width of fabric.
The Spinning Jenny+
The spinning jenny helped to revolutionize the process of spinning cotton fiber into threads by spinning eight spindles of thread at one time with a single wheel, allowing for the mass production of cotton textiles. Cotton then became the most used apparel textile.
The Power Loom & Jacquard Looms+
The development of the power loom allowed for the mass production of affordable clothing. In 1801 the Jacquard loom mechanized the manufacture of textiles with complex patterns. At ten times faster than hand weaving, it was controlled with punched cards laced together to form sequences. The loom was also important in the development of computer programming.
Charles Goodyear discovered the vulcanization of rubber. This process stabilizes natural rubber and facilitated its industrial production. It made possible a variety of commercial uses including rubber tires, erasers, rubber gloves and life jackets among many others.
‘Mauveine’ was the first synthetic textile dye. It was a mauve colored aniline dye invented by chemist William Henry Perkin of England.
The Sewing Machine+
Elias Howe was the first to patent a practical sewing machine. Later, Isaac Singer’s company released The Singer Sewing Machine in 1851.
Rayon is an artificial silk spun from a cellulose-based solution developed by Frenchman Hilaire de Chardonnet in the late 1880s. He began producing the fiber in the US in the 1910s, and DuPont purchased the rights to produce this artificial silk in the 1920s.
Mid 1700s - Mid 1800s
The Early Twentieth Century
Cellophane was accidentally discovered by Swiss textile engineer Jacques Brandenberger while he was working to create a protective coating for restaurant tablecloths. The rights were sold to DuPont in 1924, and shortly thereafter, William Hale Charch created a moisture-proof version. In 1935, fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli used Rhodophane, a cellophane material, to make tunics and other accessories.
Aerogels are silica solids made by replacing the liquid in gel with gas. The result is a nearly invisible, almost weightless solid material. Aerogels are one of the best thermal insulators in the world—they were first used on NASA’s Mars Pathfinder mission and continue to be used as a spacecraft insulator. Aerogel has also been used as non-woven insulation in apparel.
Duprene & Neoprene+
Neoprene was one of the first innovations to result from DuPont’s research program. In the 1920s, high natural rubber prices spurred researchers to find a synthetic alternative. A chemist produced a rubbery substance that DuPont began marketing in 1931 as Duprene. In 1937, DuPont discontinued use of the trade name in favor of a generic name: neoprene. Neoprene is used in products from wetsuits to computer cases.
Nylon is the first true synthetic fiber. It is a thermoplastic resin from the organic compounds polyamides, these can be formed into yarns as well as injection molded. Nylon fiber is used to make products such as hosiery. Nylon was used as a replacement for silk stockings during World War II.
This extremely slippery, chemically inert substance was discovered when a sample polymerized to form polytetrafluoroethylene PTFE, now known as Teflon. It is useful in industries from aerospace and communications to electronics and architecture. It is commonly used for nonstick coatings, flexible hoses and stain and soil repelling textile coatings.
Acrylic fiber, a synthetic fiber composed of polyacrylonitrile, was discovered by a process of spinning acrylic polymers. It was renamed Orlon fiber in 1950s, when its chunky fibers began to be widely used for knitwear. Other acrylic fibers have been produced under the names Acrilan, Zefran and Creslen, and Courtelle Modacrylics included Dynel, Teklan and Verel.
Patented in 1941, polyester is a synthetic material made of polyethylene terephthalate, or PET. Whinfield and Dickson developed polyester fiber ‘Terylene’ basing it on William Carrother’s nylon invention from the 1930’s. DuPont purchased the patent and further developed the material which was released in the 1950s as Dacron.
Transistor & Silicon Semiconductors+
The point-contact transistor is a semiconductor device that can amplify or switch electrical signals. It was developed to replace vacuum tubes and has been called the most important invention of the 20th century. The first consumer product to use transistor technology was a Sonotone hearing aid in 1952. Silicon semiconductors have grown from a single transistor to integrated circuits in the 60s and 70s to today’s microprocessors.
DNA: The Double Helix+
Watson and Crick are credited with the discovery of the structure of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), but their work relied heavily on the research of others, including Friedrich Miescher, Phoebus Levene, Erwin Chargaff, Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins. This discovery provided the foundation for the rise of modern molecular biology, without which the Biofabrication Age would not be possible.
1901 - 1953
The Space Race
Shape Memory Alloys+
The shape memory properties of the alloy nitinol were discovered by scientists including W.J. Buehler at the US Naval Ordinance Lab. Shape memory alloys are ‘smart materials’ which respond to external stimuli and ‘remember’ their shape. The discovery led to development of products using the shape memory effect, including biomedical stents and textiles.
On April 12th 1961 the first space flight took place. Major Yuri Gagarin of the Soviet Air Force was launched in the Vostok 1 Spacecraft, his mission lasted only about 1.5 hours, but it was the first time in history that man achieved spaceflight.
Nomex & Kevlar+
Nomex is a meta-aramid fiber, and was the first aramid fiber. It was developed by scientists Paul Morgan and Stephanie Kwolek at DuPont’s research labs in 1961. The heat-resistant fiber can be a woven or a non-woven, in the forms of paper, fabric, fiber and felt. It was launched commercially in 1967. Kevlar is a para-aramid fiber used for ballistic and stab-resistant body armor and gloves, developed by Stephanie Kwolek in 1965 for DuPont.
Lycra / Spandex+
Spandex fiber was created in 1959 by Joseph C. Shivers after roughly a decade of research. The elastane fiber was commercialized as Lycra in 1962, and revolutionized textiles with its incredible stretch and recovery properties. The stretch from the addition of Lycra fibers which are woven or knit with other fibers— from cotton and wool to silk and nylon—making the resulting textiles more comfortable by allowing freedom of movement.
Discovered in 1958, carbon fiber is an incredibly thin and strong composite material. It began as a material for the aerospace market and became a commercially available material in 1964. Its wide use includes everything from spacecraft parts, to cars, to helmets and apparel.
Automated Glove Knitting Machine+
In 1964 SHIMA SEIKI created the world’s first seamless fully automated glove knitting machine. The company then went on to produce the world’s first commercially available wholegarment knitting machine in 1995. Seamless wholegarment knitting produces entire pieces of clothing in three-dimensions.
Charch began research for the non-woven textile Tyvek in the late 1940s. The research continued through the 1950s and Tyvek was first commercially introduced in 1967. The paper-like material protects against external moisture while allowing internal moisture to escape and is used in applications as diverse as protective clothing, sterile packaging and construction.
Father and son scientists created this strong, microporous material from ePTFE (expanded polytetrafluoroethylene) by laminating a durable, breathable, waterproof and windproof membrane between a lining and outer textile. NASA used GORE-TEX for spacesuits first worn by astronauts on the Columbia space shuttle mission in 1981. It is commonly used in high performance outerwear, footwear and gloves.
First Human on the Moon+
When NASA astronaut Neil Armstrong and fellow crew member ’Buzz’ Aldrin explored the moon on their famous 1969 Apollo 11 mission, they wore spacesuits developed by the International Latex Corporation (now Laytex). The 21-layer suits were custom made for each astronaut and comprised of a combination of synthetics, neoprene rubber and metalized polyester films.
1957 - 1975
The Information Age
Ultrasuede & Alcantara+
A synthetic microfibre fabric comprised of polyester and polyurethane. It is often described as an artificial substitute for suede leather. The fabric is used in applications such as fashion, interiors and automotive.
The Personal Computer+
In the 1970s, the computer evolved from the original, enormous ENIAC to a globally connected personal product. From build-it-yourself computer kits such as the Altair by MITS to the founding of Microsoft in 1975, the launch of the Apple II in 1977 and the development of the World Wide Web in 1990, computers have connected users across the globe and given birth to the Information Age. They continue to impact our lives in surprising and groundbreaking ways.
Polartec synthetic fleece was created by engineering polyester fibers in a knit construction. Soft, insulating, lightweight and warm, it is quick drying and easy to care for. This durable and versatile material is used in outdoor and functional apparel.
Ingeo is a polylactic acid (PLA) biopolymer made from plant sugars—such as corn. The biopolymer is molded into pellets which are then transformed into a variety of products— from textiles, to disposable cutlery, food packaging and consumer electronics.
1975 - 1999
The Biofabrication Age
Spider silk has long been a fascinating material due to the fact that it is stronger than steel. Several companies have grown this material: Nexia produces recombinant spider silk from transgenic goats; Japanese company Spiber created the ‘Moon Parka’ with The North Face; AMSilk produced the ‘Futurecraft Biosteel’ sneaker with Adidas; and Bolt Threads produced a knitted spider silk necktie.
The Human Genome Project+
2003 saw the completion of the project to sequence the entire human genome. While the first sequencing cost roughly $2.7 billion, in 2018, Illumina unveiled a new machine that the company says will one day sequence an entire human genome for less than $100. Otherwise known as the ‘Carlson Curve,’ this drastic drop in the price of sequencing the DNA of all organisms is helping to fuel the emergence of biofabrication for consumer materials.
Victimless Leather Jacket+
Victimless leather is an early provocation by Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr (collectively known as the Tissue Culture and Arts Project). In their piece, a miniature ‘leather’ jacket (measuring just 2" high and 1.4" wide) was made from a biodegradable polymer scaffold, upon which mouse cells grew to form connective tissue. In the piece, viewers are confronted with a garment growing in a bioreactor, making it a tangible example of a “possible future,” one that explores the “potential effects of these new forms on our cultural perceptions of life.”
Fashion designer Suzanne Lee coined the term 'biocouture' in 2004. Lee used microbes to synthesize cellulose, with the ultimate goal of growing a garment in a vat of liquid. In this process, the organism Gluconacetobacter produces microbial cellulose, a material close in characteristics to vegetable leather. A number of prototype garments were grown and exhibited globally, but the project was not commercially viable due to the challenging economics of competing with commodity fibers.
Mycelium, the vegetative tissue of mushrooms, is being explored as a sustainable alternative for products such as styrofoam, particle board and leather. Ecovative, founded in 2007, pioneered the use of mycelium in applications such as packaging and building materials. Officina Corpuscoli, founded in 2010, is working on prototype products for the home, such as tableware. MycoWorks, founded in 2013, is growing leather alternatives.
bioMASON, founded in 2012, uses microorganisms in addition to chemical processes to manufacture biological building materials such as bricks. bioMASON’s growth process eliminates the need for traditional firing by growing biologically controlled cement in greenhouses.
Modern Meadow Materials Prototype