Penmai Chongtoua, an associate researcher in the Natural Materials Lab at Columbia University, working closely with the lab’s director, professor Lola Ben-Alon, has created fabric using at least 60% dirt. Although it is normal for the lab to be filled with buckets of earth and clay and fibers such as hay and hemp, Chongtoua’s project is unique among those being worked on there. Rather than researching building materials and processes she is turning earthen materials into wearable products, thereby encouraging people to examine their relationship with the earth and pursue more symbiotic ways to coexist with it.
Chongtoua has a design background in textiles and fashion from her undergraduate studies and didn’t expect to turn into a materials scientist, but by collaborating with Ben-Alon, Chongtoua began to explore the possibility of wearing “earth.” After experimenting with many raw materials, they landed on a recipe that’s more than 60% soil. The new BioEarth fabric is “a flexible, wearable, movable piece of fabric,” she says, and is strong enough to be laser-cut, embroidered and machine sewed.
The researchers are currently developing a course that would teach future designers and architects the art and chemistry of bioplastics and earth-based materials. Additionally, they are working with Columbia Ventures to register a patent on the fabric invention.