IN THE LAB
with Tahiya Hossain
Sofia Fortunato, SciArt Magazine: What does SCOBY stand for, and what made you decide to use it to create textiles and garments?
Tahiya Hossain: SCOBY stands for Symbiotic Culture Of Bacteria and Yeast. I personally never knew what this small squishy living thing was capable of until 2014, when I first discovered the grow-your-own-clothes idea during a late night Youtube browsing session and happened upon Suzanne Lee’s TED talk. I was fascinated by the thought of being able to create something that gives hope to the future of fashion. So I gathered images and journal articles that talked about the science and process of using SCOBY, and saved those files until I felt like it was the right time for me to put them to use. That time came during my sophomore year of fashion design at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT). In spring of 2017, the annual student exhibition theme was announced as “Breaking Boundaries.” All of a sudden had an urge to open up my SCOBY files to make work for the exhibit - to show that we can think beyond rules or standards. I knew it was going to be a hit or a miss, but I had to take the risk.
SF: Tell us more about the process of “growing” a dress – how long does it take? How do you achieve different colors? What is the most difficult aspect of working with this material?
TH: First I grew a small sample in a 8.5” x 11” container with a simple sugar and tea solution, taking about two weeks to get to a good thickness and weight. Once you take out the grown layer from the solution, you have to let it dry out, and as it dries the colors starts evolving. Since I used a tea solution, the color came out very neutral, but it changed over time from nude to brown to dark brown. Temperature affects the fabric greatly; if it’s cold, it gets brittle and can crack, but if it’s hot it gets moist and easier to handle. I tried sewing it in my home sewing machine to see if it was strong enough to withstand the mechanical needle going through (it was).
The most difficult part was to get the same result every time in order to create similar looking patches – after much trial and error (and failure) I ended up with enough similar material to use for a simple design. The other unexpected challenge was the smell. SCOBY has a very strong (and gross) smell, which if you’re working at home like I was, can become an annoyance for those you live with.
SF: Your project requires detailed experimental procedure. Where does the science end and the art begin?
TH: I always believed that science is art. After setting up a growing tank, you have no control over how the SCOBY grows, but it’s fascinating to see science unfold naturally. In this way, the art begins from the very beginning. You have to have a vision going into any project in order to get a successful result. The vision creates art.
SF: In thinking about your work in the broader sense, how do people react to the idea of wearing dresses made of bacterial waste?
TH: One of the main elements on wearing clothes in general is about comfortability for the consumer. So the first thing people will usually say about the bacteria dress is “how can I wear this? Is this wearable?” Realistically, yes it’s wearable. But, with the many components that still need to be worked on, it will take some time to actually produce a comfortable garment that people can easily get their hands on in a market. This is one of my goals for the future; to have this “bacteria grown” garment embedded into a regular everyday clothing shop.
SF: What are you planning on making next with SCOBY, and what implications does your work have for tomorrow’s fashion and the environment?
TH: My current research development is going into more advanced samples of the SCOBY with the incredible help of Genspace and their professional guidance. I no longer have to do in my home (haha!), and am experimenting with color, temperature, and other elements that can enhance this textile to have more functionality wearable garments. My goal is to provide a new perspective on the way we think about clothes, and to start caring more about what we wear.