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EcosystemsPenmai Chongtoua Turns Soil Into Textiles

Penmai Chongtoua Turns Soil Into Textiles

Let Them Wear Dirt: Penmai Chongtoua Turns Soil Into Textiles

Scraps of BioEarth fabric, which is comprised of over 60% soil. The novel fabric was made by Penmai Chongtoua (right) and Professor Lola Ben-Alon of the Natural Materials Lab at Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Preservation, and Planning. Photos courtesy of Natural Materials Lab

Penmai Chongtoua pulls out fabric scraps from a jar and lays them on a table. The strips have a leathery feel and a slight sandiness. They’re astoundingly thin and powerful, considering they’re composed of over 60% soil. These are samples made from the novel “BioEarth fabric,” which she co-designed — through a painstaking process — to be worn as clothing.

“It’s so interesting the way in which this material behaves over time,” says Chongtoua as she examines the cracked edges of the scraps, that are slowly drying and becoming less flexible over time. “It evolves and has its own life cycle.”

After graduating from the MA in Climate and Society program on the Columbia Climate School in 2022, Chongtoua got here to work as an associate researcher within the Natural Materials Lab at Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Preservation, and Planning. Directed by Professor Lola Ben-Alon, the lab explores using low-carbon, non-toxic constructing materials. The space is stuffed with buckets of earth and clay, chunks of granite, and fibers akin to hay, hemp, and hair-like flax. Bricks, curtains, pottery, furniture, and other intriguing products created from these materials decorate the lab.

Unique amongst her labmates, Chongtoua is attempting to turn those earthen materials into wearable products. Her hope is that by bringing us intimately near a component that the majority of us rarely consider in our day-to-day lives, her textiles will encourage people to look at their relationship with Earth, and maybe re-imagine more symbiotic ways to coexist with it.

Social fabrics

Chongtoua wasn’t the form of child who played within the mud. She grew up in Colorado, surrounded by natural beauty that she felt disconnected from. Because the daughter of first-generation immigrants transplanted to a majority white community, interacting with green spaces appeared to be tied to a culture she wasn’t necessarily a member of.

Although she knew she loved the environment, she felt that something was missing: the human element. Chongtoua believes that human beings mustn’t be regarded as separate from “pure” nature. So, as an undergraduate at Brown University, she studied environmental politics with a purpose to explore the relationships between people, communities, and our natural, built, and social environments.

To take it a step further and check out to know how you can deepen the symbiotic relationships between people and their environments, she enrolled within the MA in Climate and Society program on the Columbia Climate School.

It was through the Climate and Society program that she came upon concerning the Natural Materials Lab. Ben-Alon, the lab’s director, was on the lookout for a graduate research assistant to conduct life cycle evaluation for a project. Chongtoua was captivated, and even though it turned out she didn’t have the software expertise for that exact role, Ben-Alon was impressed by her passion and desire to work within the lab, in order that they brainstormed other ways they could collaborate.

During their conversation, Chongtoua brought up her design background in textiles and fashion, cultivated during her undergraduate studies. Fabric and clothing had all the time appealed to her not only due to their function as a basic human necessity, but in addition because fabric and clothing communicate culture, technology, politics, and social information.

“I’d all the time been drawn to the connection between textiles and the body, after which also how that relationship impacts our relationship to the social world and to the natural world and to the built world,” she says. “It’s all interconnected for me.”

Brainstorming with Ben-Alon, the 2 of them began to wonder how those relationships could be different if the textiles were made from earthen materials. Thus, their collaboration was born.

“I had no idea I’d soon turn into a cloth scientist,” says Chongtoua. “I had no idea I used to be going to be conducting in-depth microscopic studies of the fabric and cross-pollinating with research hubs just like the Liang Tong Lab and the Climate Imaginations Network, and just connecting with so many interesting humans who’re asking the identical philosophical questions as I’m.”

Material evolution

Chongtoua’s first goal was to explore what it will mean to wear earth.

Her first earthen garment was molded to a model’s body like a forged — heavy, solid, and inflexible. The model could wear it only while sitting or lying still. Consequently, she felt very meditative while wearing it. It enabled her to decelerate and reflect.

One in every of the most important conclusions from this primary phase of research, explains Chongtoua, is that when wearing earth, “you’re in a position to think more critically, more intentionally, and more mindfully concerning the interactions you have got with the environment.”

woman lying on the ground wearing an earthen top

The lab’s first generation of earth-based clothing was sculptural and static, encouraging stillness and meditation. Photo courtesy of Natural Materials Lab

The subsequent step was to make the fabric more dynamic, similar to the human beings wearing them. Chongtoua and Ben-Alon considered quite a lot of ways to extend its flexibility. Should they alter the method by which it’s constructed? Should they interweave the soil with natural fibers?

Ultimately, they decided to check out bioplastics — plastics derived from natural materials akin to corn starch, cellulose, or alginate present in brown algae.

With chemistry flasks, a hot plate, and a cooking pot, Chongtoua carried out a rigorous series of experiments trying out dozens of “recipes” combining soil, fibers and various bioplastics in numerous quantities.

“Finally, we found a recipe composition that has over 60% of soil — so nearly all of the fabric remains to be soil-based,” says Chongtoua, “nevertheless it is a versatile, wearable, movable piece of cloth.”

This latest “BioEarth fabric” was strong enough that it could possibly be laser-cut, embroidered, and machine-sewed. Chongtoua incorporated pieces of it right into a kimono that’s vastly lighter and more flexible than her first-generation garments.

kimono made with bioearth fabric, seen from multiple angles and in motion

Lighter, stronger, and more flexible, the second generation of earth-based clothing — just like the pieces on the kimono here — has more dynamic applications. Photos courtesy of Natural Materials Lab

Next, she hopes to proceed improving upon the material until it matches the strength and suppleness of mainstream textiles like cotton. Toward that end, she recently began working with a bioplastics expert on campus to check out latest iterations and recipes.

She and Ben-Alon are currently developing a course that will teach future designers and designers the art and chemistry of bioplastics and earth-based materials. Moreover, they’re working with Columbia Ventures to register a patent on the material invention. Additionally they aim to expand public engagement around the brand new fabric, to ascertain other applications for it.

Slow fashion

Will the sustainable, biodegradable fashion of the long run be made from BioEarth textiles?

Not so fast, says Chongtoua. She and Ben-Alon are proceeding cautiously in terms of envisioning their textile on the mass market.

Currently, the Natural Materials Lab uses waste soil from construction sites. But when BioEarth fabric were produced on a big scale, it’s difficult to assume that process similarly counting on waste soil.

The BioEarth fabric is robust enough to be laser-cut (left), machine-sewn (middle), and embroidered (right). Photo courtesy of the Natural Materials Lab

Over a century ago, petrochemical plastic was introduced as a sustainable alternative to chopping down forests for industrial production of natural gums and resins. Today it has grown into its own environmental crisis. Humanity has seen repeatedly that mass production can result in massive environmental impacts.

“After we’re fascinated about the scalability of BioEarth fabric, will scaling its production processes also produce environmental catastrophe in the long run?” asks Chongtoua. The starches and vinegar she uses to make the bioplastics also must be produced somewhere, she notes, and people processes have an effect as well.

The answer may lie in a decentralized approach of sharing the research with other groups who can apply it locally in their very own supply chain and extraction contexts, she says.


One in every of the things that made this work possible, says Chongtoua, are the interconnections she formed on the Columbia Climate School.

People, culture, clothing, and the environment — these are all interwoven for Chongtoua, and never just figuratively. She says that being a component of the Climate and Society program was a turning point for her profession, since it connected her with a community of world-leading professors and peers with radical perspectives.

“Columbia really gave me the chance to construct meaningful relationships with like-minded individuals who had the identical type of philosophical goals for his or her vision of what a sustainable world is.”


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