A Design Boost for Natural Fibre Composites

Wonderful Blog and would love to see the exhibition. Further evidence of the potential and relevance of natural fibres.


Layer Chair by Jorrit TaekemaIt is expected that the use of renewable raw materials can give a substantial impulse for a sustainable society. Natural Fiber Composites can provide an alternative for increasingly scarce raw materials.

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Binders and Non-wovens

So the key to getting started was first to source and identify potential non-wovens and binders.  I really was in the dark… My first stop was to go to the peaceful shop Handweavers in the no so peaceful location Seven Sisters Road.  I collected a sampling of fibres both cellulose (plant based) and protein (animal).

Selection of raw natural fibres from Handweavers and Wingham Wool

Selection of raw natural fibres from Handweavers and Wingham Wool

The benefit of protein fibres such as wool, all types animal hair and silks is that the keratins in the fibres allow for better tanglement of the fibres into a structure and absorption of an impregnated binding agent.  Cellulose materials are good in the sense of processing and renewable sources.  Many of the celllulose fibres are extremely strong such as hemp and flax.

So the decision to use particular fibres was based on a combination of material properties such as…




emotional appeal



And the list was reduced to

The leather and crochet may have seemed like the great-grandfather and distant cousin but I felt it important to include these.  See when something is forming and being created we hold onto things, ideas, notions for a reason.  It is the analysis later which places them or re-appropriates the thinking into place.  For me, these are “constants” in the thinking of this collection, the leather is traditional and the ultimate shrouding of animal mimicry to protect our feet and the crochet is the start of taking the fibres into woven structures.  Kind of the entrance and exit doors to the ideas behind the collection.

The Binders were a bit more tricky…

The polyester resin whist it works and is reliable is smelly, toxic etc…Epoxy resin is better but costly, Bioresin from Cannonbury Arts is great to work with in a non-toxic way but bubbles with the slightest bit of moisture even when degassed.  It may be my poor resining skills and there still may be hope but here is a sample on Linen Cannonbury did.

I did source Acrodur which is a non-toxic acrylic based binder used in the production of hemp car body panels as shone above in the Hemp and Acrodur material selection and on Ailssinger’s hemp chair.

Utopian world without the stuff that makes the stuff we use!

The problem is that although I believe the analysis of the situation being basically we have this technology of rapid prototyping which is the “great white hope” of a seamless world where we can avoid the clanking of heavy machinery, glues, plastics and bonding of  components together to form our shoes.  Where we avoid the packing, packaging, storing, transporting, fuelling and then on the other side storing, heating the stores, and the list goes on…What a wonderful utopia of a world without the stuff that makes the stuff we use!

But there is the one problem… this technology is not quite there yet particually in the availability of the natural materials we love under our soles, next to skin and between our toes.  It never ceases to amaze me that one of the most sensitive parts of our body, our feet, is also one of the parts of out body which takes a pounding.

I started this MA wanting to make rapid manufactured shoes.  I am not young and when I was a girl my father who was, in his youth, a tool and die maker, then a fighter pilot and for the bulk of his working life an aeronautical engineer spoke often that in my lifetime we would have consumer products coming out whole, perfect with out finishing. And I believed it!  It was part of my upbringing – I took it for granted, a given.  But when I learned of RP what a disappointment to realise we could not have the soft stuff.

Technology is evolutionary. And for it to work it needs to be driven by human needs.  And we are funny emotional creatures.  If you research the history of the gramophone for example Edison developed a playing device that looked like this.

Edison phonograph cylinder shape

The noise holder or “record” was a cylinder shape, hard to store and no place to highlight the artist in the packaging.

Emile Berliner with phonograph – a flat disc which could be stored and artist was important.

Then Berliner created the gramophone which used a flat disc being easy to store like a book and the artist and artwork was premier. Well we know which won out. See the gramophone took into account human emotional needs.  And that is exactly what I am saying is missing with the technology of rapid prototyping or manufacturing in the application to footwear.

Why do so many designers experimenting with RP use leather next to the foot?  Just google it and you will see. And for those who do not, does the lack of soft stuff next to our feet somehow lessen the value of the shoes even of the cost is still high?

So The problem with what I can do as a designer on a project like this for the MA is I am not an inventor of means and resources. I am a small cog in the big evolution of technological advancement in products particularly with footwear.  So the biggest thing I want to start scratching the surface is to highlight natural material options and to consider how these materials could be applied to footwear in modern ways.

Today we have Eco issues to consider and whilst it would be an insult to try to consider these issue in a project such as this one, I want to consider other disciplines where the exploration of natural materials are being used.  One of these area are in the application of natural fibres in bike frames.

hemp composite used in bike joins

Hemp composte on bike joint

And if it is strong enough for a bike the stresses of a high shoe are achievable.

These designers, inventors and mechanics are questioning the use of low tech verse high technologies. This stuff is easy to find in research.  It has the benefits of local verses global as it is the stuff of “shop” work. There is something intriguing to me about these eco naturalist warriors carving their own future their way by the means they have. Were self sufficient. So as RP potential matures we are seeing an emergence of low tech natural stuff.  How can this mix!

One natural material being tested wit RP is coconut.

R&D Coconut material for Rapid Protoyping

But I ask the question – at what point does the natural material lose it’s material qualities which touch our human emotions.

The wonderful Rob Thompson the product designer and materialologist (if that is a word) discusses these issues in his TED talk.  Please have a look it is so worth it!


I guess in my own way I am still raising the questions in this project.  My skill levels limit how I can address these things but I am sure of three things…

I can design some nice forms

I can research what is happening out there to a respectable, useful level

And I can think about connections, associations and applications – I can analyse!

So let’s get started….on a limited budget and timescale!