Are Self-Cleaning Clothes on the Horizon?

“There is profundity to explore, but also laundry to do”, the American writer Bruce Feiler was once quoted as saying. Feiler, it turns out, was not wrong. Cleaning our clothing has been a regular practice since the early stages of civilisation. From scrubbing clothing down a grooved metal sheet (washboard) downriver, to the mid-18th Century when Stender designed the first washing machine, humans have bathed in the sensation of clean clothing well before the invention of the washer/dryer as we know it. Far from the automated luxury we enjoy today, washing in the 1800s involved clothing being soaked overnight to then “be soaped, boiled or scalded, rinsed, wrung out, mangled, dried, starched, and ironed, often with steps repeating throughout” (Library Company of Philadelphia). Whilst exhausting to consider the physical toll that would take on those tasked with washing clothes at the time, the demands on our environment through our current laundry habits are unparalleled. According to the European Parliament, the washing of synthetic clothes “accounts for 35% of primary microplastics released into the environment”, whilst “a single laundry load of polyester clothes can discharge 700,000 microplastic fibres that can end up in the food chain” (European Parliament).

So, if we know that our washing machines have a catastrophic impact on our planet and we’re managing to send people to Mars, isn’t it time to invent clothing that doesn’t require being thrown through up to 130 litres of water per wash (Springer)? As it turns out, behind the scenes, the scientists have been busy. Let’s explore the less familiar territory of self-cleaning clothes.

Since the mid-2000s, experts have been exploring the advantages of the integration of nanotechnology into our clothing, stating that “people will be able to replace washing machines with the help of sunshine” (Innovaty). Researchers are developing the possibility of growing nanostructures on textiles which, when exposed to light, create an energy that can degrade organic matter, in other words, remove the red wine stain on your jumper. There has been further evidence to suggest that the integration of silver nanoparticles and it’s antibacterial qualities could combat odour in textiles (Azo Nano). The nanoparticles, that can’t be seen or felt by the wearer, “discharge positive ions”, thus killing the bacteria that would normally trigger us to wash our clothing. In 2007, the design student Olivia Ong infused her graduate collection with metallic nanoparticles, “never before seen in the fashion world” (Cornell Chronicle). Ong’s dress was able to repel bacteria, as silver holds antibacterial qualities, thus reducing the need to wash so frequently. Although such a garment would be immensely practical, at $10,000 for one square-yard of nano-treated cotton, it remains an unrealistic option for the rest of the fashion industry.

Back in 2015, San Francisco apparel company ODO attempted to create a line of “never stink or stain” pieces (Dezeen) for the mainstream. By infusing silver, its fabrics “permanently kill the odour-producing bacteria” and, like rain sliding off a ducks back – or rain drops gliding over a waxy leaf – once moisture hit the garments, it slips straight off, leaving nothing behind. However, according to the Swedish Water Association, a study showed that “antibacterial silver from treated textiles is the largest known source of silver in water treatment plants” and therefore “toxic water ends up polluting lakes and seas” (Water News Europe).

© Pangaia

The materials science company Pangaia is here to deconstruct, challenge, and reinvent the opportunity for integrating self-cleaning clothing, direct to consumer. The LA-based organisation is renowned for its groundbreaking development of seaweed fibres, grape leather, and most recently it’s natural, plant-based, peppermint oil (PPRMINT™). The brand first piloted this newly developed substance in their seaweed fibre range – a fibre derived from saltwater which, at the end of its life, seamlessly biodegrades. The oil is extracted from the Mentha Piperita plant through steam, without the use of chemicals. PPRMINT™ is then used as a finishing treatment on the garment, adhering seamlessly to the fabric, its antibacterial and antimicrobial properties allowing for a prolonged freshness, to be worn the next day instead of being thrown to the laundry basket (Pangaia).

Over the pond, Danish brand Organic Basics incorporates bluesign® approved Polygiene® into their sportswear. The recycled silver salt is integrated into the textile, stopping “the growth of odor causing bacteria on the fabric” (Organic Basics). Organic Basics hasten to add that Polygiene® is not considered a nano-silver, and has no detrimental effect on the environment during the process of washing.

© Organic Basics

Whilst many technologies are still in development, as demonstrated by Pangaia and Organic Basics, there is much hope for the advancement of “self-cleaning” clothing. Through the employment of such textiles in the mainstream, we could soon be using our washing machines a little less.

– By Eliza Edwards

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