A new sweater from the Japan-based companies Goldwin and Spiber looks like it’s made from wool. But the yarn partially came from a bioreactor, not a sheep.
The new material—named “Brewed Protein”—is designed to mimic common fabrics while shrinking their environmental footprint. Spiber first began developing a biotech version of spider silk more than a decade ago. The process starts by designing the genes to make a specific protein, such as silk, and then inserting the genes into microorganisms that start pumping out the protein in fermentation tanks.
The company puts microbes, sugars, and minerals in large tanks, says Gen Arai, general manager of Goldwin, a technical apparel brand that has been working with Spiber. After they culture, the microbes are separated from the protein, which is dried and transformed into a fiber. Then a mill spins, twists, and dyes the yarn. In the case of the new sweater, the material has been combined with 70% wool because very little of the new material exists yet.
“The biggest obstacle to mass-producing Brewed Protein is processing the raw material—basically the Brewed Protein before it’s spun, twisted, and dyed into an actual yarn,” says Arai. But Spiber is currently building a large factory in Thailand that will make it possible to scale up production.
In 2019, Spiber, Goldwin, and the North Face collaborated on a limited-edition run of a jacket, available only in Japan, made from a form of the material designed for outerwear. The new sweater will also be produced in a very limited edition, but will be available in a few additional countries—until November 29, customers in Japan, the U.S., Germany, Denmark, France, Italy, Portugal, Spain, the U.K., Sweden, and the Netherlands can enter an online lottery, with the winners eligible to buy the $800 product.
Ultimately, the companies envision the material beginning to replace fossil-based materials like polyester, while it also provides a lower-impact alternative to materials like cotton, which requires large amounts of water, or wool, which comes with the environmental footprint of raising sheep. For synthetic fibers like polyester, it could potentially help avoid the challenge of microfiber pollution in the ocean, something that happens when tiny fibers wash out during the process of doing laundry.
Early tests also suggest that the new material may be biodegradable. The material also avoids the use of fossil fuels; right now, synthetic fiber production for textiles uses an estimated 342 million barrels of oil a year. “Brewed Protein could one day replace every petro-chemical dependent material used in consumer goods,” Arai says. “We know it’s possible—it’s just a matter of figuring out production on a large scale.”