Change-makers: Carolyn Raff | An ocean full of opportunities

Melisa Monti
August 28, 2020

When we think of the future of the fashion industry we may think of cutting-edge technologies, 3D printing or virtual assistance, but one topic that has been creating interesting discussions is bio-design. Carolyn Raff has been part of the movement of new experimental textiles and has created new ways of producing materials. In 2015 she went to Copenhagen for what was intended as a semester abroad, but came back with a renewed vision on how to transform the industry. Nowadays she works on her project called ‘An ocean full of opportunities’ where she researches and generates different kinds of biopolymers that come from algae. In an online interview we talked about her discoveries in the field and how she envisions the industry in these new times.

Better Magazine: What pushed you to start working in sustainability?

Carolyn: The realization that the industry that I’m supposed to work in is one of the worst.  I’m a textile designer and I studied in Stuttgart. Here textile design is very handicraft focused, so you learn to knit and weave and screenprint by hand, you learn the basics of how textiles are made. This is nice because you get a wide understanding on what a textile really is all about and how you can manipulate it. I went to Copenhagen for a semester abroad and I really enjoyed it there, because where I live we are about 550 km away from any ocean, which may sound odd after you know the title of my project (laughs). Here is where I learned how to implement sustainability into your design and the importance of this. I got introduced to a concept called cradle-to-cradle, which I still think is one of the most advanced sustainability concepts that is out there. It links the consumer and the consumption in general to sustainability. In all the other concepts it always felt like as a designer you are basically forbidden to do or produce anything, which is a bit against our own nature. Upcycling is a concept that I knew about, but was not for me to be honest, so I decided to dig deeper. I had a project during University about sustainability and we had to create something that could be implemented into the future. I also learned about sustainable design, which goes beyond just eco or bio.

BM: How did you come to the idea of using natural resources, such as algae, in your designs?

C: I think that biomass in general is an interesting term when it comes to sustainability. You can compost it and specially fast growing biomass are very interesting to me. That’s the reason why something like bamboo or viscose is a big thing right now. Bamboo for example is just growing easily without any proper care. Algae has a similar behaviour and you can harvest algae without interfering into the ecosystem, which I think is quite important. Algae are one of the largest plant groups in the world, they are everywhere, so the possibilities are endless in terms of location of the harvest.  Of course if you would exchange every oil based plastic in the masses that we are using right now and try to replace it with algae, that would definitely bring the ecosystem out of balance, so scaling is important when it comes to designing.

I was fascinated by all the different types of algae based materials out there. Then I did my graduation and I applied for a postgraduate scholarship at my university in Stuttgart, and I got it. My first thought was that I wanted to continue my research on algae. As I said, we are handicraft focused, so I started dyeing with different algae colors, until I realised that this was not really working. The colours within any sort of algae are not made to be a dye, they are always linked with a certain function within the cell. I was using for example the spirulina blue, which you can buy as an extracted powder. I quickly found out that his colour is actually made to support the cell with the photosynthesis process. You can’t boil it, which is essential in the dyeing technique. The colour will fade out of the fabric in a week, especially if you hang it in the sun, because it’s not UV stable. That was the first lesson I learned. I had 2 years of research and the first experiment absolutely failed. Then I tried putting the dyes into agar. I discovered that agar is a beautiful material to work with, because you can make it in around half an hour and you will get a jelly like material which you can carve, shave or you can even change the mixture of the recipe. There are so many screws that you can change and everytime it will behave a little bit differently. So I dove into the pool of possibilities that agar had to offer and I do enjoy it until today! Now I’m dyeing with different natural colors, such as cochineal, which is a small insect that lives on cacti and produces this beautiful fucsia.

BM: Is there something you’ve learned through experimenting that you see can be applied to other areas?

C: One thingthat I’ve learned is that you don’t necessarily have to be an expert or get a specific education in the biology or chemistry field. I had never thought that I would end up researching algaes, I was not even sure at the beginning if I was qualified for that. So sometimes learning by doing is a good approach, you just have to push yourself. I had the privilege of receiving a scholarship from my university to do this, which gave me the time, space and money to actually do what I wanted to. Sometimes pushing the boundaries of expertise can be quite helpful, and becoming cross-disciplinary and learning from different fields can help you obtain better results. I also learned that even if you have one material to work with, like for example how I mainly use agar to create bio-polymers, there are still endless possibilities with it. I even haven’t finished discovering all the variations. Sometimes designers can quickly say that using one material can get very boring and you can’t express everything with just one material. But when you have very strict parameters for your project it can really push you to find those boundaries and see what can happen, this can be applied to so many fields.

BM: What do you see in the future for the fashion industry?

C: I can’t really tell for sure, because at first I thought the future would be buying everything second hand and starting to repair our own clothes. Now I feel that this is not the case anymore. I can’t really put my finger on why not, but it feels like that trend is already falling off the surface. I really hope that my field (environmental sciences) will go through the roof, and I feel that this is already happening. There are so many insanely interesting projects that involve artificial spider silk, mushrooms, there are new applications and fashion designers are really appreciating this, but right now everything is still in a prototype stage. Our consuming behaviour and the new bio-prototypes could come together with a common denominator: the speed. A t-shirt doesn’t need to exist for the coming 200 years, it’s fair enough if it’s wearable for a season. If people are willing to accept that materials change over time, for example that colors are fading or that the pattern isn’t as clean as in the beginning, then that might be the future. I really hope so (laugh). The biggest struggle right now with this kind of innovation is the scale up, but it’s something that we are working on and is really doable.

There are also new techniques when it comes to recycling, where you can split a yarn from different materials and re-integrate them into the cycle. If the technical side of recycling becomes stronger and more efficient and gets out of the prototype stage that would also make a huge difference. There is already so much worn clothes out there, we need to recycle them, these resources are insanely important and necessary. If the biobased sector and the recycling field get stronger, more independent, get more financial support and are integrated properly into the chain, well that might be it.

BM: What advice would you give to any young bio-designers who are starting?

C: I would quote Nike on that, and would say ‘’just do it’’ (laughs). If I could do it you can definitely do it. If you are interested in bio-materials or bio-polymers there are so many open source platforms that are giving you a good head start with recipes, and you don’t need to be your own chemist and try to figure it out on your own.

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