Images: Christopher Gannon/Iowa State

It’s tough. It’s thick. It’s brown. It’s a lot like leather—but in fact this new material is made in the lab using leftovers from a brew of kombucha tea.

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Researchers from Iowa State University have developed the unusual new form of synthetic leather using some rather normal ingredients. It’s made in shallow plastic tanks that contain cellulose fibers taken from kombucha tea, along with vinegar and sugar. When a colony of bacteria and yeast is added, the material grows on the top of the liquid’s surface. It can then be harvested and dried and—bingo!—teather! (Actually it’s not called teather, I just made that up. They actually call it “cellulosic fiber.” Teather is more fun.)

The researchers have successfully used the material to make prototype garments, including shoes and a vest. But it’s not perfect. When the teather gets wet it softens and become less durable. In extremely low temperatures it can become brittle. Teather is also rather time-consuming to make—it takes up to four weeks to grow a sheet of the stuff—so right now mass production seems like a headache.

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Still, for all those issues, it’s entirely natural, sustainable, as well as biodegradable, so it offers plenty of green credentials. And it could, potentially, mean you get to wear the world’s first Tea-shirt.

[Iowa State University]