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Dog hair spun into yarn and pre-repaired sneakers: what’s next?

«My aim was to show natural materials that have potential in a product, not to make a sneaker». In conversation with designers Emilie Burfeind and Matthew Edwards

Exploring the potential of sustainable materials in sneakers

Most sneakers are made from over ten different synthetic materials and plastics, which take decades or longer, to decompose in landfills. Material designers, from different continents, Emilie Burfeind and Mathew Edwards are individually exploring the potential of sustainable materials in sneakers. Based in Germany, Burfeind is a recent graduate and teacher at The Institute of Material Design based in Offenbach am Main. Burfeind has created a sneaker from three materials – all of which are completely biodegradable. Her design called Sneature, a portmanteau of the words sneaker and nature, is an exploration of materiality and renewable substitutes for sneakers.

Edwards is a South African experimental designer who has investigated the materials and sneaker designs made for posterity, by introducing an interactive component to two of his sneaker designs. The first design is a conceptual pair of Nike Air sneakers covered in moss or Lycan. The moss is neither alive nor dead, but dormant, sewn into two-layer mesh onto the shoe.

«The moss is dormant; harvested and treated, so that it doesn’t grow any more. But it’s still reacting to the environment in the way that it’s decomposing. There’s an active sort of maintenance and care that you have to give to the shoe in order for it to sustain itself. You can attach it to the shoe – but if you leave it out in the open sunlight for too long, it becomes hard and it loses a bit of color». The Moss Airs interrogate the notion of how our relationship with a pair of sneakers may change when they require as much care as a houseplant. 

No plastic in sustainable shoes production

Edwards’ second sneaker design is a pair of sneakers which are ‘pre-repaired’, which entails off-cut leather patches to re-enforce parts of the shoe which are expected to have the most wear and tear. «I applied a gold leather paint to the underlayer. tYTen worked out a way of applying a black coating that would rub off over time. I encourage people, by placing a tool on the shoe to scratch away the black to show the gold». The idea of making sneakers easily customizable reiterates the idea of people deepening their relationships with the objects around them which would drive more consumers to repair, recycle and re-use sneakers.

Instructed by materials, Burfeind created Sneature with as few materials as possible, and using manufacturing processes with a low environmental impact. Just like commercial sneakers, Sneatures have ventilation, cushioning, are water resistant and insulated. «My aim was to show natural materials that have great potential in a product, not to make a sneaker». Burfeind conducted a series of tests and experiments on various materials which led her to a knitted membrane made from dog hair, natural rubber encasing the bottom of the knitted membrane and a sole made from mycelium.

Dog hair. An abundant resource

«That was an iterative process, where I evaluated the test results and then came up with new ideas on how to get the process more suitable, or to find materials that were more suitable than the ones I initially used». Experiments included spinning a series of raw fibers into yarn in order to determine which raw fiber was the most durable. The winning fiber? Dog hair. An abundant resource collected with the help of German company Modus Intarsia, a company which collects undercoat dog hair around Europe, and turns it into wool or yarn. The use of dog hair has no negative effect on the environment and is a readily available resource.

After a series of tests with corn leaves, poodle hair and other fibers, Burfeind found that dog hair yarn, or Chiengora, was durable enough for an industrial knitting machine. The same process was applied to the materials for the sole of the shoes. «then I also tried out knitting, stitch bonding, felting for all the textile fibers and for the mycelium composites, I tried out different sorts of fungus- like oyster mushroom for example, oyster mycelium». Burfeind also investigated different composites such as coffee waste, vegetable waste, hemp or textile waste. The rubber coating on the sole of the Sneature is natural and responsibly sourced in order to protect local tree species.

Processing the raw material

Edwards was informed by the conditions South African football players experience; how their particular environment could influence both the design and materials of football boots. «The footwear industry doesn’t really look at particular spaces or conditions or geographies in their design». Edwards designed a prototype multi-purpose sports shoe, created in such a way to allow for repairs. «I was getting football boots repaired by a neighborhood cobbler. Someone who sits on the side of the road, and repairs shoes for the community. I saw a link there between knowledge of repair and maintenance. Using a low-tech method of hand, strong thread and glue. I wanted to incorporate that knowledge and process into the beginning of a design».

The multi-purpose sports shoe is the second iteration of a repairable sports shoe. The multi-purpose aspect of the sports shoes lies within the sole which has enough grip to be used for any sport. The sport shoes also include stitch holes between the sole and the upper. A cobbler can use to repair the shoes without ruining the aesthetics of the shoe with thick, obvious stitches. This integration of repair into the design of Edwards’ shoes is an exploration of decentralizing the repair of sneakers. Mitigating the carbon footprint one pair of sneakers produces. Instead of a pair of damaged sneakers being collected and sent back to the country it was manufactured in. Built-in repair mechanism allows for sneakers to be repaired by existing systems.

Sneature made from 3D knitting

Burfeind’s Sneature was created with the idea of including as many functional requirements as possible for a sneaker in one part. The body of the Sneature is made from 3D knitting which allows for air permeability and elasticity. «To come up with the design, I used parametric designing. This means I had the form of the shoe shown as a diamond grid, which represents the shape of the shoe. Then over the shape I created a pattern adaptable to the foot». 3D knitting also offers individualization in not only design and style, but in shape and the needs of the wearer. Sneatures can be designed based on the shape and requirements of a person’s foot, ensuring wearability by athletes.

«The whole idea of using additive manufacturing methods allows for individualization. This also meet anatomic needs or whatever needs people have. For example, 3D scanning of a foot or pedobarographic measurements of each foot». With the use of 3D design and 3D knitting, Sneatures is available on demand which eliminates waste from overproduction. The mycelium sole was originally a monolithic shape which covered the full sole of the Sneature.

It is a mixture of mycelium filament from mushrooms and a cellulose substrate made from agricultural waste. The mycelium wasn’t flexible enough to allow movement when walking. «When the mycelium grows through the substrate, it’s quite soft or foam-like. But after it dries out, it becomes more rigid. This is why I decided to divide the sole up into three parts. To enable movement when walking in the shoe». Each aspect is an intentional decision to mitigate environmental impact or to increase both comfort and performance for the wearer. 

The circularity of recyclable and compostable sneakers

For Burfeind, each component of Sneature can be taken apart and directly recycled or industrially composted after use. «The idea was to use the fixed duration period of the life of sneakers to reflect the current use of textile products discarded after a short time. This is why I came up with the concept of a biodegradable shoe. It is possible for anyone to recycle, because the sole, for example, are interlocked. Two-part pieces that can be disassembled or recycled».

Burfeind imagines that potential distributors of Sneatures can offer a pick-up service. It can ensure the proper recycling and composting of the shoe. Each element of Sneature is natural and biodegradable. Re-using the materials from a used pair of Sneatures is possible. In the case of the knitted membrane, the dog hair yarn gets short after recycling. This is difficult to use by way of industrial knitting processes. «There is also the idea of repairing parts. If the textile is not wearable anymore, it’s exchangeable. The same with the sole. If it’s worn out, it’s replaceable». The point of Sneature is to show the potential of sustainable raw materials and the implementation of a circular model.

The notion of making with what is available

Living in Johannesburg, South Africa, Edwards has experienced the innate circularity of South Africa. «South Africa, in a sense, is inherently circular. There are practices that happen in South Africa and the rest of Africa. As well as the global South, that are circular-either out of design or necessity. These are things that designers need to look at. In terms of processes and understanding where objects and things go». Circularity in South Africa moves beyond the design of an object and its materials. It includes the systems used to repair, recycle and re-use materials, both formal and informal.

The notion of making with what is available within a country because machinery or processes are out of geographical and economic reach. This is the idea of sustainability having a direct relationship with its environment. Both the materials and processes Burfeind uses in her Sneature design are scalable for mass production. Edwards built in repair designs can also be implemented in other types of sneakers. The larger sneaker companies could develop these processes and mitigate their carbon footprint; by exploring the idea of geography influenced design solutions. The future of sneakers lies in the use of locally sourced raw materials and innovations in industrial processes. Burfeind and Edwards both show that neither comfort nor durability need to be compromised in the pursuit of circular and sustainable sneakers.

Sneature

Sneature was Emilie Burfeind’s final research project at The Institute of Material Design, led by Prof. Dr Markus Holzbach. Burfeind is in the process of developing Sneature and with her small team, she is looking to grow the concept. She teaches and works at the Institute and focuses on material research.  

Matthew Edwards 

Matthew Edwards has an experimental design studio in Johannesburg called Matte. He studied Industrial Design at University of Johannesburg.

Caitlin Black

The writer does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article.

check and buy on Prototipo Store
item collections in limited edition
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Hemp / made in Italy
Lampoon is working to restore Hemp production in Italy
as hemp is the one and only natural vegetal fiber sourceable in the country
for more info, please email us

check and buy on Prototipo Store
item collections in limited edition
crafted according to our editorial search

Hemp / made in Italy
Lampoon is working to restore
Hemp production in Italy
as hemp is the one and only
natural vegetal fiber sourceable in the country
for more info, please email us at [email protected]

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