Chicken feathers may seem a very unlikely candidate for turning into textiles but it seems that making clothes from feathers could make sustainable sense after all.
As a by-product of the food industry, chicken feathers are often discarded by processors as waste – with millions of tonnes of feathers ending up in land-fills around the world each year. But new research is now being undertaken that could see these feathers being turned into yarns suitable for new types of clothing and other fabrics.
“About five million tonnes of chicken feathers are rendered into stock feed or landfill each year,” according to CSIRO research scientist Andrew Poole, who thinks that nano-technology could be one way of helping to make textiles from feathers. Speaking to the Stock and Land publication in Australia, he noted that feathers are made of keratin, the same protein found in wool fibres, and thinks they could be ‘regenerated’ into an environmentally sustainable, biodegradable textile fibre with the help of nano-particles. “Nanoparticles may be able to carry much of the stress that would normally be placed directly on a protein strand subjected to stress as part of a fibre.”
Although chicken feathers are composed mostly of keratin, just like wool, its structure is significantly different. Researchers are particularly interested in the barbs and barbules, the thin, filamentous network that forms the fluffy parts of the feather. These structures have a sturdy honeycomb architecture containing tiny air pockets that make the filaments extremely lightweight and resilient.
However, there are significant hurdles to overcome if this waste resource is to be utilised in textiles. Scientists will have to discover exactly how to separate the keratin proteins in feathers without damaging them. Then they will need to be aligned, glued back together and then spun into yarns. Scientists and technicians would have to take a regenerated fibre approach to doing this – just as some man-made fibres like viscose use regenerated cellulose for the fibre feedstock.
In other work, Professor Yiqi Yang of the Textiles, Clothing and Design department at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln has also looked at the use of chicken feathers in clothing – as well as making textiles from rice straw.
With millions of tonnes of chicken feathers and rice straw available worldwide each year, these agricultural wastes represent an abundant, cheap and renewable alternative to petroleum-based synthetic fibres, Yang says. And unlike petroleum-based fibres, these agro-fibres are biodegradable. “The development could be a boon to the nation’s (Canada’s) rice and chicken farmers”, Yang said.
The CSIRO team in Australia said the work was aimed at replacing petroleum-based textile fibres and was not intended to produce fibres that would compete with natural fibres such as wool, according to the report. However, Yang begs to differ: “These structures have a sturdy honeycomb architecture containing tiny air pockets that make the filaments extremely lightweight and resilient. These properties offer the potential for developing fabrics that have lighter weight, better shock absorption and superior insulation – properties that may eventually represent an improvement over wool.”
Ecotextile News, 2009-02-05.