A team of students at the Colombian Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá have crafted Woocoa, a wool-like product that is made from hemp, mushroom enzymes and coconut fibres. For their innovative product, students Ana Laura Andrade, Iván Caballero, Moises Hernández, and Manuel Ortiz, under the direction of Giovanna Danies and Luz Alba Gallo, and the collaboration of Carolina Obregón and Johann Osma were awarded the top prize in the Biodesign Challenge competition to find the best new vegan-friendly material, endorsed by PETA.
In the age of eco-friendly fashion, many of us are aware of alternatives to leather – aside from the tradition PU and PVC versions, the last few years have seen the introduction of more sustainable, natural materials such as pineapple leather, along with wine- and mushroom-derived options, to name a few. Innovation is slowly but surely making leather obsolete.
The problem with animal-derived wool
But just as leather takes lives and contributes to environmental destruction, wool has its own issues: numerous investigations into shearing facilities on different continents have all shown cruelty to animals. Sheep were seen kicked, beaten and left with bleeding cuts – workers are commonly paid by volume, as opposed to by the hour, prompting them to work very quickly, without any regard to animals. And of course, once they are considered no longer valuable to the industry, the sheep are sent to slaughter.
The environmental aspect of wool is not often discussed, but sheep, along with cows, are among the animals that release the most methane gas that contributes to global warming and climate change.
Engineering a solution
So what exactly is Woocoa, and how was it made? Manuel Ortiz, one of the creators of the material, explains: “We first settled on using coconut fibers based on a previous project to replicate “coco-form”, a material made with coconut and natural latex to make biodegradable packaging with thermal insulation. With this, we were able to emulate the hygroscopic properties of wool, which is able to wick humidity and maintain heat. Then, we decided to blend this fibre with hemp fibres. As you may know, the fibres extracted from hemp were widely used in ancient and modern times to make a wide array of products. But, the war on drugs completely eradicated its use for quite some time. Hemp is very durable, soft, breathable and fine. Then again, we wished for Woocoa to be a noble material, that is why the extraction and production of these fibre will be handled by communities in the Caribbean region (who grow coconut and extract its fibres), and former illicit marijuana growers that used to work for drug cartels and the F.A.R.C. guerrilla group. The later is an interesting case, since these people were forced into growing these kinds of crops, but with the peace deal signed in 2016, they were widely left without jobs. Our intent is to legalise their labour and knowledge to grow hemp. The next challenge was very clear: hemp and coconut fibres clearly do not feel like wool, so we had to develop a way to make them softer even finer, without them losing their strength. Through our research, we found out that we could use certain types of “white rot” fungi to lightly degrade the fibres and making them softer without using harmful chemicals. This way, we kept our promise to make the product environmentally sustainable.”
The advantages over animal fabrics
The process of transforming these natural, yet innovative fibres into wool is intricate, as Manuel Ortiz continues: “After getting the fibre from the different communities, we proceed to treat them with isolated enzymes from the white-rot fungi in bioreactors. The idea is to get rid of lignin, a biopolymer that exists in plant cells which make them tough and rough. By isolating the digestive enzyme in charge of degrading the lignin to feed the mushroom, we are able to make the fibres feel like wool. Afterwards, we spin the fibres in order to create Woocoa yarn, or create felt by making an agglomerate. From then on, the idea is for it to be used for many applications.”
The advantages of Woocoa over animal-derived wool are essentially the lack of cruelty and a lower environmental impact, but it also has an effect on human lives in the area where it’s produced: “The first benefit is that Woocoa is a completely vegan material. Not a single animal is harmed to produce it. But it also encourages and helps different communities in Colombia by creating a new kind of industry in the country. Woocoa also replicates the hygroscopic, antimicrobial and thermal properties of wool. Furthermore, it is hypoallergenic, which means that the thick and itchy wool sweaters would be a thing of the past. On the other hand, we expect Woocoa to be cheaper than wool, but we still need to confirm this fact once we establish our production process and get to a final prototype by the summer of 2019.”
See more about Woocoa in this trailer video
For more on vegan fashion, follow Vilda on Instagram
All photos courtesy of Woocoa.