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  • Writer's pictureDavid Connolly

Brewing a new blue

Japan’s reputation for trends acceleration makes it a hotbed for textile and fashion innovation. How this meshes with the archipelago’s cultural heritage, particularly its emphasis on living in harmony with the natural environment, often produces strikingly novel results. Biotech firm Spiber is making the best of both worlds as it steps into new territory: the country’s denim scene.    

The buzz around Japanese biotechnology company Spiber has been brewing somewhat organically since its founding just over 15 years ago in 2007. However, it was not until 2021 that the Yamagata prefecture-based company began exploring how to create denim fabrics with its proprietary Brewed Protein fibres, as marketing and communications specialist Ayana Nakajima tells Inside Denim. It subsequently unveiled a denim trucker jacket and jeans set with Goldwin 0, the experimental arm of domestic apparel group and long-term partner Goldwin, in March 2022. Both pieces went to retail this March.

Nutrient-dense threads

Spiber primarily turns plant-derived biomass into polymeric films and filaments via an in-house fermentation or “brewing” process, which remains unchanged whether the resulting Brewed Protein staple fibres and spun yarns are destined for denim products or not, Ms Nakajima explains. Its novel  protein-rich fibres can be fine-tuned and tweaked to produce a range of textures, suitable for various end uses. The blending percentage with more conventional materials can vary, depending on a brand’s desired hand feel, she adds. Trials undertaken alongside Goldwin 0 during research and development involved comparative surface property tests between denims woven from 50% Brewed Protein fibre in the weft versus 100% cotton versions. These tests yielded “relatively favourable” results, with increased slippiness and smoothness attributed to the blended fabric, as would be expected. 

The company next plans to continue moving forward with more fibre blends, especially those engineered for enhanced comfort and softness, gradually upping their Brewed Protein ratio as it goes. Now that its Thai facility is operational, there is much more leeway for working with spinners and manufacturers to develop denim fabrics with a higher percentage of Brewed Protein content. The material can later be broken back down into nutrients, which Spiber expects to be able to reuse as feedstock for fresh polymers, films and filaments. On denim’s suitability for its “biosphere circulation” project, introduced alongside brand partners Pangaia and Goldwin back in June, clothing and textiles made from the fabric may be included, the marketer confirms, so long as they are microbially digestible. The business has already been in touch with several mills and brands to discuss this, Ms Nakajima says. 

It is hoped that the two brands will begin supplying Spiber with their surplus fabrics for Brewed Protein fermentation feedstock, along with other “end-of-use nutrients” such as agricultural by-products. Spiber has been collaborating with Goldwin’s teams since 2015, when the biomaterials developer signed an exclusive operational partnership to provide its designers with synthetic spider silks for sportswear. Tokyo-listed Goldwin, founded as a knitwear manufacturer in 1950, made its denim debut with Cordura and Kaihara in spring 2020. Its sustainability targets include dedicating a 10% share of its overall materials mix to the Brewed Protein polymer by 2030.

Recipe for innovation 

According to Ms Nakajima, an especially popular fabric option among buyers in more recent times has been Spiber’s charcoal-dyed denim, produced at Nihon Menpu’s factory in Ibara, Okayama prefecture. The textile is woven from 100% organic cotton yarns in the warp, with 10% Brewed Protein fibre and 90% organic cotton for the weft, naturally dyed with traditional Japanese charcoal or binchotan, upon the manufacturer’s recommendation. First used by artisans during the Edo period (1603-1868), charcoal was selected as the “most reasonable” dye choice among those available at the time, she states, primarily due to internal testing and time considerations. The other candidates were natural indigo and persimmon tannin. Trials are currently underway at another factory, with the objective to increase the proportion of Brewed Protein in the denim fabric blend ratio. “If all goes well, we expect to be able to unveil new products at upcoming trade shows in Europe,” Ms Nakajima tells us, noting that several US and European premium and luxury brands have already registered keen interest in Spiber’s charcoal denims.

Japanese contemporary fashion label Yoke also included a lightly washed, matching jean jacket and trouser set in its spring-summer 2024 collection, which will be distributed locally as well as through overseas retailers. Each article contains 4% and 5% Spiber-made Brewed Protein fibre respectively, the rest being cotton. After viewing the garments up close at Première Vision Paris in July, Inside Denim’s Sophie Bramel was pleased to report that the fabric “felt just like regular denim”. As progress continues to be made with scaling up the technology, from production capacity down to tailor-made fibre blends, Spiber appears to be treading a path that few can navigate. In other words, how to consistently balance materials innovation, fashion and heritage techniques, all at the same time. 

Original article: here

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