An ever-increasing number of people are trying to live more sustainable, environmentally-friendly lifestyles. This trend has been accompanied by a greater awareness of intensive farming practices and animal cruelty. Therefore, more people are becoming vegetarian and vegan than ever before.
It is now common to find plant-based meat alternatives on supermarket shelves, and veganism is steadily finding its way into fashion too. One of the latest innovations to hit the catwalk is mushroom leather. But how are these products made, and are they as durable as the real thing? Let’s take a closer look.
What Is Mushroom Leather?
The term mushroom leather is actually slightly inaccurate. This is because mushrooms are just a small part of a larger fungal organism. The term “mushrooms” typically refers to the visible cap portion of the fungus; the function of which is to reproduce by releasing spores into the air. For this reason, mushroom caps are sometimes known as ‘fruiting bodies.’
However, the bulk of the organism is a concealed network of cells known as mycelium, which lies hidden beneath the soil’s surface or deep within a tree or log. Mycelium consists of interwoven filaments called hyphae, and these are what manufacturers use to create mushroom leather. So, although ‘mycelium leather’ might not be a catchy name, it is in fact a more scientific way of describing this novel material.
More and more companies are jumping on the mycelium leather bandwagon to fabricate things like shoes, bags, and more. Here’s how they go about creating these products.
How to Grow Mycelium Leather
One of the leading fungi leathers is Mylo™, by San Francisco-based company Bolt Threads. According to the company’s website, they grow their mycelium indoors in an environment that reproduces natural conditions as accurately as possible. Expert mushroom farmers oversee the process in temperature and humidity-controlled grow rooms.
The first step in growing fungi leather involves inoculating a substrate with fungus spores. In the case of Mylo™, they use sawdust and other industrial by-products to do this. Other possible substrates include beet sugar and molasses.
Following inoculation, the spores rapidly develop into a spongy layer of mycelium. During this process, the fungus transforms the substrate by breaking down cellulose – a primary component of plant cell walls. It then reorganizes sugars and proteins to create a tough, leather-like material.
One of the significant advantages of mycelium leather is that a cowhide-sized piece can be ready in just two weeks. This is in stark contrast to genuine leather, which takes years.
How to Make Fungi Leather
After harvesting, the fungi leather must be processed. Just like animal leather, it undergoes a practice called tanning to make it more durable. It can then be dyed and cut into appropriate shapes for making various garments and accessories.
Manufacturers use mild acids, alcohol, and dyes during the post-harvest process. They can also emboss their mushroom leather with patterns, such as snake or crocodile skin. It is even possible to manipulate the mycelium’s thickness by adjusting its growing conditions.
The aim is to create a product that closely resembles real leather, while avoiding animal cruelty and environmental harm.
Fungi Fashion Is Booming: Famous Brands That Use Mylo™ Leather
In the past, many fashion designers have been less than ethical in their choice of materials. However, this situation is steadily changing.
For example, Prada recently made the decision to stop using animal fur in its collections. It seems logical that switching from animal leather to cruelty-free alternatives could be the next step. Here are some famous brands that are leading the way.
Adidas was one of the first companies to start using Mylo™ leather. The sportswear giant has launched a pair of its iconic Stan Smith shoes using mushroom leather. Although they are not yet available to the public, vegan leather Stan Smith sneakers could soon hit the market.
Adidas was one of the first companies to start using Mylo™ leather.
The shoes’ outer upper, heel tab overlay, perforated stripes, and branding all showcase Mylo™ mycelium leather. Meanwhile, the sneakers’ soles are made using natural rubber.
Stella McCartney is another designer who is embracing the mushroom leather revolution. She recently unveiled a stunning bustier and utilitarian pants combo created using Mylo™ and recycled nylon scuba.
Once again, these garments are not yet on general sale. However, the designer does plan on using mushroom leather clothing in future seasonal collections.
The world-famous French fashion label Hermes is also getting on board. Known for its high-class accessories, the company has produced a more sustainable version of their Victoria travel bag. It uses a mushroom-based leather called Sylvania from California-based company MycoWorks.
Hermes uses a mushroom-based leather called Sylvania from California-based company MycoWorks.
Although the bag is more eco-friendly than the original, it combines Sylvania with canvas and calfskin (meaning it is not vegan). The bag is due to go on sale in late 2021.
Will Vegan Leather Made From Mushrooms Shape the Future of Sustainable Fashion?
When it comes to sustainability, mushroom leather products have several advantages in comparison to their animal-based counterparts.
The most obvious of these is that they do not involve cruelty to animals. This is great news for vegetarians and vegans who would prefer to avoid leather from cows. And while there are already numerous vegan leather alternatives available, they are usually synthetic rather than natural.
Synthetic leather tends to be made from plastics, and is not biodegradable. So, for individuals hoping to reduce their impact on the planet, it is not an ideal choice.
Mycelium leather is far more sustainable, although it is not 100% environmentally friendly at present (we explain why in the FAQ below). That said, the product’s carbon footprint is much less significant than that of animal leather.
In fact, raising livestock is responsible for a large percentage of human carbon emissions. Conversely, producing mushroom leather can be an almost carbon-neutral process. Mycelium is also renewable, meaning there is no danger of exhausting the resource in the future.
Mushroom Leather FAQ
Is mushroom leather durable?
Mushroom leather is less durable than animal skin, which contains collagen for strength and flexibility. However, the mycelium-based alternative is reasonably hardwearing due to the interlocking nature of the hyphae that form it.
Bolt Threads, the company behind Mylo™, recommends storing its products in their original packaging to extend their life. It is also advisable to stuff mushroom leather boots and shoes with newspaper to help retain their shape.
To keep these items clean, simply wipe them down with a soft, damp cloth. They should develop an attractive patina with time.
Is mushroom leather waterproof?
Unfortunately, mushroom leather is not naturally waterproof. While it does an excellent job of wicking moisture away from the skin, it cannot stand up to heavy rainfall. Some reports suggest that getting mushroom leather wet causes it to become sticky and uncomfortable.
Bolt Threads have made Mylo™ water-resistant by adding a small amount of plastic. Of course, this means that the product is not biodegradable, which the company says it is addressing.
Is Mylo™ leather biodegradable?
Due to the presence of plastics in Mylo™ products, they are not biodegradable. Bolt Threads say that they are committed to being as sustainable as possible in the future, and are working toward a solution. They suggest that repurposing and reusing their fungi leather is one way to reduce its environmental impact.
How is Mylo™ leather more sustainable than synthetic leathers?
Although it does contain a small amount of plastic, Mylo™ is 50–85% bio-based. Therefore, it is more sustainable than traditional synthetic leathers, which are often 100% plastic.
Is Mylo™ leather genetically engineered?
According to the product’s website, Mylo™ products are not genetically modified. Since mycelium naturally grows to form a flat, flexible mat, there is no need to interfere with the process.
Final Thoughts on Mushroom Leather
As the market for vegan leather products grows, so too does the demand for innovative new materials. Therefore, it seems mycelium-based leather is destined to become a popular alternative to animal hide.
As the market for vegan leather products grows, so too does the demand for innovative new materials.
Companies like Bolt Threads and MycoWorks are leading the way with a range of items, including mushroom leather shoes, bags, and more. Their products provide cruelty-free leather alternatives with a significantly lower environmental impact than the real thing.
At first, the idea of making mushroom leather might sound whimsical. However, it is already making serious waves in the fashion industry. Therefore, we expect to see far more of this ingenious product in the future.