A typical waterproof winter jacket is made with nylon—a material that, like other plastics, is made from petroleum. But a new limited-edition jacket from The North Face Japan uses something called “brewed protein” instead. It’s a material inspired by spider silk that is fermented in giant vats, the same way that breweries make beer.
It’s one of the first uses of a material produced by the Japanese startup Spiber, a company that has spent more than a decade developing a new process to make high-performance textiles and other products that don’t rely on fossil fuels, animals, or natural fibers like cotton, all of which have environmental issues. “Our primary motivation is that for any application that we work on, we want to be moving towards something that is more renewable and more sustainable,” says Daniel Meyer, the company’s head of corporate global marketing.
The company designs genes that code for a specific protein—the first was an exact replica of natural spider silk, known for its extreme strength—and then introduces the genes into microorganisms that can produce the protein efficiently. Inside giant tanks, the microorganisms are fed sugar, grow and multiply, and produce the protein through fermentation. A purification process pulls out the protein, which is dried into a powder that can be made into a fiber for a textile or for carbon fiber that could be used in the body of an airplane or a car.
Spiber first started collaborating with Goldwin, a Japanese outdoor brand that owns the Japanese rights to The North Face, in 2015, and created an early prototype of a jacket then. But it quickly realized that an exact replica of spider silk wouldn’t work well for the application; the material sucks up water, and the jacket needed to be waterproof.
“We spent the last four years going back to the drawing board, redesigning our protein molecule—the very order of the amino acids in the molecule,” says Meyer. “And we created our own hydrophobic version of spider silk. It’s inspired by natural spider silk, but we have made our own design changes such that it would be more hydrophobic and meet the performance requirements of The North Face Japan.”
The company worked with academic partners to collect samples of spider silk from around the world and analyze it, understanding the “programming language” of the amino acids; changes in the sequence can make the material stronger or more heat resistant or stretchier. To work on weaving machines in the apparel supply chain, it couldn’t be too stretchy, but it also had to be strong enough that it wouldn’t break as it was processed at high speeds in industrial manufacturing. “We used what we learned from the project to kind of plug and play, as it were, with the different amino acid sequences that we saw in nature to get the properties that we wanted,” he says.
The new jacket, called the Moon Parka, uses the “brewed protein” only in the shell. But in the future, versions of the protein could be used throughout an entire garment. Because the material is biodegradable under the right conditions, future clothing made from it could potentially be composted at the end of life.
At the moment, Spiber only has a pilot-scale production facility at its office in Japan, and it can only produce a couple of tons of the material in a year. “From the perspective of a large multinational apparel brand, that is almost nothing,” says Meyer. (A Moon Parka, for reference, uses about a kilogram of material per garment; the first run of the jackets includes only 50 pieces, are being sold through a lottery at a hefty price of ¥150,000, or around $1,377). But the company is now building its first commercial production facility, around 100 times larger, in Thailand. “We will be able to produce materials on the scale where it’ll be within reach of the average consumer,” he says.