Science & Technology

Artifact: Natural or Synthetic?


The Heatherette taffeta skirt and bustier combo to the right, by designers Richie Rich and Traver Rains, did not make it to the runways of Milan. Instead it was featured at a fashion show last July at the World Congress on Industrial Biotechnology and Bioprocessing in Toronto. The skirt's fabric is woven from the new compostable biotech fiber Ingeo, made from dextrose corn sugar. The bustier, made from recycled polyester, reminds us that not all synthetic fibers are meant to be worn.

The distinction between "natural" and "synthetic" fabrics has always been a bit of a conundrum. Sheep, after all, do not weave their wool into Harris tweeds, nor do silkworms spin kimonos. The first manufactured fiber, rayon, was produced from wood or cotton pulp; the initial version of the highly flammable material was called "mother-in-law" silk, apparently due to some unfortunate accidents involving sons-in-law. The first useful fiber produced by chemical synthesis of compounds derived from air, water, and coal or petroleum was nylon, introduced in 1938.

Ingeo, produced by the agribusiness giant Cargill from renewable resources that will safely biodegrade, is being marketed as an environmentally friendly fiber. The eco-activists at Earth Pledge endorse it, but the greener-than-thou sportswear company Patagonia turns up its nose. Apparently, the manufacturer won't guarantee that the fiber is not derived from genetically modified corn.