For centuries, garments and accessories made of animal leather, especially cowhide, have been used, worn, and cherished by cultures from all around the world. There are few materials that feel as luxurious as a beautifully tanned full-grain leather or a supple suede, and leather’s tensile strength makes it a natural choice for belts and bags. Consumers who choose not to purchase animal products, however, sadly do not have access to this useful and ubiquitous textile. There are many leather substitutes currently on the market, but most have an unnatural, plastic feel to them, and some, like PVC leather, are environmentally harmful to produce.
That lack of decent substitutes might soon be a thing of the past, thanks to a handful of innovative companies doing incredible things with fungi. Grado Zero Espace is an Italian company that produces synthetic textiles ranging from ultra-reflective alternative leather to a high-strength yarn made of a silk and polymer blend. Its most recent development, designated Muskin, is a material extracted from mushroom caps, and the final product very closely resembles suede. Pictures of samples reveal what appears to be a slightly napped finish on the surface of the Muskin, and the company even claims that their new material is “very similar to suede but much softer.” That texture, combined with the fact that Muskin is completely non-toxic, makes for a textile perfect for producing shoe insoles or other pieces in direct contact with skin. Its ability to be worked into different shapes is also unquestionable — Grado Zero has released pictures of hats and bags made of the leather substitute.
For applications that call for materials other than suede, Californian startup MycoWorks produces alternative leathers from a different part of the fungus than Grado Zero does. MycoWorks harvests the mycelium, the rootlike structure that grows under the soil. Using that fast-growing part of the organism and a whole lot of ingenuity, the company has developed a process that not only creates strong, flexible leather using relatively few resources and little time, but also mimics different types of animal leathers — patterns and textures emulating elephant skin, snakeskin, and sheepskin are grown right into the material. This means that MycoWorks leather not only provides an ethical alternative for those who elect not to use animal products, but that rare and expensive hides like crocodile skin may soon have a cheap and high-quality alternative, as well.
Both Grado Zero and MycoWorks have yet to break into the market at large, but with the global population’s growing environmental consciousness, it’s unlikely that the two companies will have any shortage of demand in the near future. Muskin samples are currently available for purchase at lifematerials.eu, and CCTV America has recently posted a video of MycoWorks founders showcasing the efficiency and versatility of their product. Hopefully, high-profile designers will consider these alternatives going forward, and pretty soon, the controversy surrounding traditional animal leathers might become obsolete.
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