Interview #11: Bio-designer and Artist Zena Holloway

I stumbled upon Zena Holloway‘s amazing work recently in an article in Luxiders Magazine. I was blown away by the idea of growing clothes! And, as I started looking more into Zena’s projects I knew I had to contact her to learn more and do an interview with her for The Immaterialist.

Zena uses nature as a 3D-printer by growing grass-roots in moulds made from beeswax. The roots can form both hardwearing and light, lacey structures depending on the patterns they are grown in, which opens for an wide array of opportunities. Imagine growing clothes or other design-objects for that matter, perhaps also packaging, from grass-roots! It could be a way of legitimising disposability or a sustainable way of working with short-lived products. And, it could also be a way of altering the current consensus on object longevity being interlinked with materials that are basically imperishable.

Please enjoy reading about Zena’s visionary thoughts and grass-root approach to wearable design.

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What does sustainability mean to you?

For me it’s about shifting the collective conscious towards a circular economy.

We need to learn to be smart about the way we use resources and accelerate green innovation so that materials can be used again and again. We need to shift towards more sustainable ways of living because the current linear model, that exploits the Earth, has an expiry date.

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How did you get started growing wearables and sculptures?

I first went diving in the 90’s. I was lucky enough to work in the Red Sea and the Caribbean when the coral was still alive and there was much to see. Rather like fishermen with stories of huge fish they’ve caught, divers speak about the creatures and sights they’ve seen underwater. The old divers described seeing nests of nurse sharks, flocks of turtles and coral reefs that were boiling over with fish.

Sadly, in the times we live, much of that is gone and what is left is dying. The reefs make up less than 0.1% of the surface area of the ocean and support a quarter of all marine creatures, but the coral is bleaching and dying at an alarming rate. It was this, as well as the problem of single use plastics in our oceans that got me interested in bio-design.

I wanted to search for solutions. I began by growing mycelium in my basement, harvesting mushrooms for the dinner table, and looking at how I could grow materials to replace plastics. I started from ground zero, bought a few books, researched online, and loved the idea that whatever I made would eventually end up on the compost heap and not in landfill.

Whilst my adventures into mycelium weren’t particularly productive it made me look at materials in a new way and when I came across willow root, growing underwater in my local river, I became interested in its binding qualities. It seemed root had similarities to mycelium, and I wondered if I could grow textiles or materials with it.

I’ve been growing root for about three years now and I still feel I’m just on the first step of a very long ladder of possibilities.

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Tell about the process of growing clothes. What is your vision?

Early on it struck me that the white roots of grass seed have similar properties to coral. They both branch out into connected, living networks that are the building blocks for the natural world. Playing with this concept, I purposefully guide the root into shapes and textures resembling coral – it’s my way of bringing the conversation back to ocean conservation, bio-diversity loss and the climate crisis.

I’ve learnt how to keep the root soft and supple, as well as make it rigid enough to support its own weight. Different patterns have different properties, some become light and lacey, whilst others grow more thickly into stronger pieces.

The joy of this project is that I’m straddling a wide range of disciplines from botany to mould-making, material innovation to fine art, chemistry to fashion – and just teaching myself as I go along.

At this stage I’m still researching root as a viable, sustainable fabric for clothing, and I think its future is bright.

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What do you view as the biggest environmental problem?

Carbon. The scary thing is we haven’t even managed to bend the curve on our emissions yet. It’s still pouring out, increasing temperatures, causing extreme weather patterns, melting glacial ice, raising sea-levels, killing coral, turning the oceans acidic etc.

We know what we need to do, we just need to push policy makers to accelerate carbon drawdown at full speed because the consequences of not doing it fast enough don’t bear thinking about.

Read more about Zena’s rootfull project here and here.

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