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Wearable Pineapple Fibres Could Prove Sustainable Alternative to Leather

Wednesday, February 04, 2015   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Anne Piacentino
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Source: The Guardian

At weddings and formal events in the Philippines, men can often be seen wearing the Barong Tagalog, a thin and transparent embroidered garment worn over a shirt.

One of the more surprising materials used in its manufacture are fibres from pineapple leaves – and long strands of the leaves could soon also be used to make a host of other products, from trainers and clothes to bags and car upholstery.

Called Piñatex - piña is Spanish for pineapple - the new material was created by Carmen Hijosa, who worked as a consultant in the Philippines leather goods industry in the 1990s. She was unimpressed with the standard of goods produced and started to look for alternatives. It was the strength and the fineness of the pineapple leaf fibres used in the Barong Tagalog that first alerted her that there was another option: “I was looking for an alternative to leather. That was the beginning of my thinking. ‘What is going to be in these beautiful bags that is not leather?’,” the Spanish designer said.

The breakthrough came when Hijosa realised that she could make a non-woven mesh – a fabric which is bonded together without knitting or weaving – from the long fibres, in a similar way to felt.

The fibres that make up Piñatex are extracted from pineapple leaves on plantations by farmers before they are cut up and layered. They are then put through an industrial process at the end of which emerges the textile. A byproduct of the process is a biomass which can be converted into fertiliser, giving additional income to the farmers.

With a similar appearance to canvas, it can be dyed, printed, and treated to give different types of texture. With treatment, the Piñatex can closely resemble leather while separate thicknesses are also produced, depending on the use of the finished product. For more heavy wearing items, such as bags, a thicker material will be required.

Leather prices have been pushed up because there are fewer animals from which to make it, says Hijosa. “Leather is becoming a luxury, placing itself in the higher price point of the market.” she said.

“There is a gap in the market between petroleum-based textiles and leather, which is the middle price point, and that is the gap that Piñatex the product is really seeking.

“We can make shoes, we can make bags. We can make chairs, sofas. It can be panelling. Eventually it can be made into the interiors of cars, even linings.”

Hijosa has spent the last five years developing Piñatex in the Royal College of Art and sample shoes have been made by Camper and Puma. Designer Ally Capellino has also made bags from it.

While Hijosa wanted to create a product that could act as an alternative to leather, she also wanted it to be environmentally friendly. As it is a byproduct of the pineapple, Piñatex is not using additional land to be produced, she said.

“We are completely new. We are not replacing, we are an alternative. We are an alternative to leather and an alternative to petroleum-based textiles which is sustainable and has a strong sociological and ecological background,” she said.

The cost of Piñatex, which was launched in London earlier this month, is currently about £18 per square metre (a piece of furniture would require about five square metres) while leather is between £20 and £30, according to the designer. “We have the advantage that our waste is about 5% whereas leather’s waste is about 25% so there is a price to pay for waste as well,” she said.

So far, industry players have been eager to experiment with the new textile as they search for fresh ideas, although Hijosa concedes it will take some time to develop in the market. She believes consumers will be interested in buying a sustainable product which helps farming communities on the other side of the world.

“There are more and more brands looking for new and sustainable textiles, which is really the market position where we are placing ourselves. It is difficult, it has to perform, and will take time because now they are making the first prototypes, you may or may not buy it. It is neither the cool Converse nor is it a leather product so the market has to warm to it,” she said.

But she believes the market is quite open to new products that are well-priced: “It is a little bit like when formica came into being. First of all it was a substitute for something – wood – and it looked ugly to our eyes. But eventually it became a product by itself with its own look and feel and I think Piñatex will do the same thing.

When she first started looking for an alternative to leather, Hijosa wanted the new product to look like the one it was replacing. Now, however, she says: “I am not really happy if it looks like leather because it has to start looking [like] itself.”

The projections are that 1m square metres of the Piñatex will be be sold every year by 2018, which Hijosa believes is “quite feasible”. Talks are underway to secure more funding for the company behind the product, of which she is the majority owner.

Future plans will see research into further possible uses for Piñatex. These might include anti-bacterial wound coverings, as the material would allow air to circulate to an injury, and also insulation for homes.

16 pineapples, 480 leaves, 14 months
The average pineapple plant has between 30 and 40 leaves around it, each about one metre in length. In order to produce one square metre of medium weight Piñatex, 480 leaves are needed – or the byproduct of 16 pineapples, of which there is a crop every 14 months in countries such as Brazil, Thailand, the Philippines, China, Kenya and Ghana. Usually the leaves are left to rot in the ground after the pineapples are harvested, said Hijosa

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