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.

sourcing the felt…

Industrial 100% wool felt was sourced from the high quality company Damier Filtz in Germany.  The quality of the felt is far superior.  The company has an understanding and  sensitivity not only to the production of the felt but also to the application of the material in innovative designs.  The colours are stunning but for my applications I needed to use smaller quantities of stock 5mm felt.

Damier Filtz shade card

Damier Filtz shade card

Structure and process as design…

I now realise what I am interested in is rapid production and equally natural materials. It may seem regressive but it is essential to explore material and what opportunities are inherinet in the material properties to allow for customization.  Natural materials are alive, mellow, wear and with them we form emotional connections.  The Fashion Footwear industry is a very mature market where  structures have evolved from specific industrial machines and these structures drive the designs.

If we move to a designs informed purely by process and we use natural materials what are we left with?  Here are some initial explorations of structure.  The last I chose from Springline followed the natural curve of the foot.

tapped top view last from Springline

last on cork heel

I wanted to wrap the footbead/insole around the arch to make it more pleasurable. I found every time I made a board insole it seemed to start to dictate the structure. Insole, heel and upper this is what Marloes spoke of as what she aims to do is to not think of structure in this way. So I started working with leather insoles.  Heather kept directing further research and suggested looking at Ferragamo. Mark suggested looking at Openka constructions.

Opanke sole Ferragamo

initial thinking on parts

wish it could be this direct

sole wraps around cork heel acting as harness

opanke insole and felt sock

Diamer Felt 5mm insole - holes punched to allow for spreading of material to mold into foot


industry research, bespoke and rapid manufacturing…

November the 22nd I too part in a research (as a guinea pig) on ways of making a stiletto more comfortable using rapid manufacturing and digital media. The project is being lead by Philip Delamore from London college of Fashion. The team included podiatrist, and the engineer company Within. From earwigging I was inspired because I feel this approach with research from specialist along with rapid manufacturing is exactly where innovation and future footwear will be. Companies such as Freedom Creation based in Amsterdam started in 2000. They are a research company specializing in 3D printing.  With 3D printers being predicted as costing as low as £300 for a reduced model the dream or soon to be a reality is that we can “order” designed objects on line and print out our purchase at home.

Freedom Creation based in Amsterdam are exploring rapid manufacturing with the idea of using home printers


Amazing stuff!

This has a huge impact on distribution and markets. As the founders state…

“Product lifespan decreases, while the amount of new products pushed to the market is ever increasing. This is not a functional global vision for the future. Most of these products are tailored for the unidentified masses, which due to this fast “push to market” approach, will only decrease the design quality and increase waste on our planet. And most of these consumer products are still produced via an old fashioned (a century) mass production infrastructure, which equals to large stock, high manual labor, big investments, long distance transportation, army of employees etc.”

To me this is the juicy stuff that I could delve into for market and cultural research. I thought best to use resources at LCF, a great place to start with contacting Philip Delemore requesting an interview and running by him the idea for my cultural studies essay…


I asked in an email…Philip’s response is in red.

2. Would it be possible to interview you in prep for my cultural studies essay. I am forming it right now but am thinking it might be something like… ” Does the fashion industry inhibit innovation is woman’s footwear designs” I think you need to reframe this-innovation in design is not the issue, as continual new designs are “innovative”, it is the functional innovation which is perhaps inhibited by fashion/marketing being the drivers of development rather than comfort or performance, in contrast to the sports and leisure markets-it would be interesting to look at how much the functional is used as marketing eg. Geox/MBT/FitFlop etc

This made me realize my definition of design is deeply rooted in a product and furniture background where ideally the design is the structure, comfort and performance thus “innovation”.

So I meet with Marloes Ten Bhomer….

She is lovely and an inspirational designer.  Two points she said stuck with me.

When I asked “How do you deal, evaluate your designs and have the motivation to keep working with unfamiliar asthetics?” Her response was if something does not look right or strange if means the design is not fitting the concept.

The  second was her aim

Marloes ten Bhömer new work in the Mechanical Couture; Fashioning a New Order exhibition at the Design Museum Holon

Process, materials and people…


Marcel Wanders changed things…

The first time I say and understood the Rope I knew it was genius! The rope is dipped in resin and dried in a designed rack to create the final shape. Process and form are one…

Marcel Wanders Knotted chair

Footwear is so complicated Then I discovered Marloes Ten Bhomer.

Did they come from the same school of tought? It was such a simple approach – molded veg tan leather and carbon fiber. Again process and form are one.

Marloes ten Bhomer - leather and carbon fiber

Marloes ten Bhomer - leather and stainless steel


Marloes ten Bhomer – rotational moulded


What struck me about both these pieces is the reduction of components.  In my limited work and exploration of footwear there seems so many processes and components.  In adjacent design disciples such as furniture design which deals with materials and structures the form drivers have been
materials and processes
reduction in parts
exposure of structure
structures as form
context of enviroment and use as part of outcome
To me it seems in footwear recent drivers are more related to cultural historical references put on top of a very mature production industry where low initial investment drives changes.


Mass customization and Rapid manufacturing/ prototyping…

Mass customization seems to be a bit of a buzz phrase in progressive business thinking. It has been around for awhile now but has not seem to permeate into our consumer culture. It is still relate early days and mass production is very mature business model.  We are talking about altering physical product not programing software only.

I personally really “got” mass production as a socialist movement in the early 20th century. Although there were many shortcomings and controversies the overriding “ideal” of a more equal society where craftmanship was available to the mass is something which connects with me.

Move to today mass production is a far cry from those ideals. Many sustainable, ethical, economic issues generally associated to mass production today. The hope of rapid manufacturing, reduction of components, local materials and services generally higher quality goods is where I would like to be a part of as a designer.

Visualizing concepts and designs for Mass customization

Might as as well start at the cutting edge…

First Rapid Manufactured Shoe 2006


‘Head over Heels’, is the first application of rapid (digital) manufacturing technologies to an entire product in the footwear industry, developed by Marc van der Zande from TNO Science and Industry (a Dutch research institute) and independent designer Sjors Bergmans of Sjors Bergmans Concept Design.

The Melonia shoe - wearable 3D printed footwear


In Stockholm  two design schools have collaborated to make fashion footwear in 3D printed in polyamid.

“Naim Josefi and Souzan Youssouf, of Beckmans & Konstfack respectively, designed and modelled the shoes for Selective Laser Sintering (the one with all the powder and the lasers) and produced five pairs for Naim’s “Melonia” collection, shown during Stockholm Fashion Show earlier this month.”


To me this footwear has a fresh approach, with the material and process dictating the visual outcome.  The use of one material reinforces the objects elegance. The waste in producing the piece is recycled so sustainability is a by-product of the process (we like good by-products!).

Stockholm Footwear are  not the only people experimenting with RPT

Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec - growing a chair


The French furniture design duo Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec explored structure and form for their Vegetal chair back in 2005 using stereolithography. The outcome predates the Melonia shoe but the form mimics the method or process used to create it.


Mass Customization initial research…

First delve into research available in the Library and online…

Reading through “Mass Customization and Footwear: Myth, Salvation or Reality?” by Claudio R. Boer and Sergio Dulio.  All very technical and intense for a visual person like me!  This is a long term study and applied research testing mass customization systems in footwear focus being on European factories.  Reason being most production is now in Far East where labour cost are low therefore solutions need to be addressed in premium factories which tend to be in Europe and other western countries. The thing is almost 80% of production is in Far East but when we look at GNP or profits European (mainly Italy) jumps up to at the time of publishing in 2007 second place.

So in my opinion, by using technology to produce a better product with more customer appeal we can give market appeal to “vernacular” or even more local production and design. That is what I am interested in!

Most of the test cases are sports or performance footwear customizing performance features and graphics mostly such as Reebok custom, Converse, Timberlands but also Steve Madden.

The Project and book divides customization into…

a. Soft customization – match to order, locate to order, bundle to order

b. Hard customization – assemble to order

c. Development to order – in which the customer co-designs

On a practical level, style/aesthetics are easier to put into practice followed by function/performance with fit and comfort being the more complex.

One of the more successful companies is Nikeid where you can customize colours and some finishes


And on the other end of the spectrum is Lodger in London providing a bespoke fit using digital scanners and softwear

Lodger - bespoke customer foot scanner

Lodger - 3D image of scanned customer foot overlaid with last to achieve bespoke fit.


Finnish based footwear company - LeftFoot

I find it interesting such bespoke classic design footwear companies are using such high tech systems.  I also find it interesting if there are bespoke woman’s footwear using the same digital scanning systems.

The interesting information on Left foot’s website is how the company educates the customer on the way footwear last have evolved and why a scanning is valuable.

“Today’s technology does not guarantee perfect fit Originally, shoemakers crafted shoes for customers, as and when required, using lasts that had been manufactured according to the customer’s foot measurements. Industrialisation brought mass production in which lasts were manufactured in sizes corresponding to various number systems. No exhaustive standards were created for shoemaking with the result that numbering varies form one manufacturer to next, and the ‘size’ only refers to the length of the foot.”