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The Building Blocks of Everything

The Textile Designer Who Wants to Grow Leather in a Lab

And silk, and pearl, and nylon.

Kari Paul

Kari Paul

​A magnified silk suture thread. Photo: Amy Congdon

Someday, we may be able to wear real leather without harming cows.

This is just one of the potential outcomes of a new project by Amy Congdon, a textiles artist who does experimental work in tissue engineering. The experiment could have implications in a variety of fields, from fashion to medicine to product design.

In collaboration with a tissue engineer at King's College London, Congdon is growing various kinds of cells over embroidery scaffolds. The goal of the speculative project is to test the limits of the technology and lay the groundwork for someday growing luxury materials, like leather and hybrid textiles, in the lab.

The process itself is not necessarily new: growing cells on different kinds of scaffolding is common in medicine. But Congdon wants to expand the technology to other fields, like fashion and product design. Similar research is already being done in the field of biotechnology, including one company that raised $10 million​ last year to grow leather in labs, and another, Organovo, that is using lab-​generated human tissue as an alternative to animal testing.

"You bring people together from the material science side, and the design side, and look at this emerging field that offers a radical new way of producing materials and products," she said. "Ultimately it's about the intersection between design and science."

Embroidering scaffolds used in the process. (Image: Amy Congdon)

Some similar products are already on the market. For example, Congdon said, one company is using living organisms to create Styrofoam, but she says there is still a long way to go in the field of biotechnology.

"This field has been around for quite awhile, but it's still in its infancy in terms of its way of producing lots of materials," she said. "It definitely has huge potential."

So far, Congdon is growing bone cells and skin cells over embroidery scaffolds in the lab, monitoring the effects, and developing a materials and technique archive for future work. Trained as a textile designer, Congdon said the experiment was a learning process for her.

"It makes a difference based on the kind of material you use, whether it is a smooth thread or a twisted thread so everything has an effect on the cells," she said. "You can make a slight change to the media and it makes a big change to the cells, either they're really happy or not happy at all."

The project is early in development, she said, and right now they are just testing as many materials as possible, such as silk, pearls, and nylon to see how the cells interact with them, as well as experimenting with growing two different materials concurrently on one scaffold with the aim of creating unique hybrids. She said this has important implications for the future of animal products. 

Scaffolds in culture (Image: Amy Congdon)

"One of the implications is that it is a much more sustainable way of producing things, so you can grow exactly the amount of material to the exact shape and size you need," she said. "Also in terms of engineering unique properties and material hybrids you wouldn't be able to get in nature, which is an exciting possibility."

The project is still in its speculative days, but it could mean big things for the future of your leather jackets. 

This story is part of The Building Blocks of Everything, a series of science and technology stories on the theme of materials. Check out more here.

​Lead photo: A magnified silk suture thread. Credit: Amy Congdon