Carnival costumes meet sustainable biomaterials
Natalia Lombardi is a sustainable textile researcher who graduated from Arts University Plymouth with an MA in Textile Design in 2022. Originally from Brazil, Natalia credits her cultural heritage as playing a big part in influencing her work and research during her MA journey.
During her postgraduate studies at Arts University Plymouth, Natalia responded in her research to the need to increase sustainability in the vibrant, eye-catching costumes that are typically worn in the Carnival of Brazil.
Natalia said: “Attending the festivities in Brazil, I began to notice how many of the garments were covered in plastic beads and sequins made from PVC, which can have a huge environmental impact during its life cycle, particularly when it ends up in landfill. The costumes worn can be so sparkly and beautiful, but many will only be worn once and far too many are subsequently discarded and end up in landfill, introducing toxic chemicals into the environment. In the past we used materials for carnival that were more natural, so it only makes sense to think of biomaterials as a starting point of the design process.”
The drive to discover sustainable materials that could match the vibrancy of carnival costumes created using more environmentally-damaging chemical processes led Natalia to begin her MA in Textile Design at Arts University Plymouth. Her goal was to research biomaterials that could be used for costume embellishment and retain some of the sparkle and glamour of the modern carnival, creating something aesthetically-pleasing that could potentially compete with the materials that currently dominate the supply chain.
During her MA, Natalia participated in the Fabricademy Textile Academy Bootcamp 2022 in Onl’Fait, the Fablab in Geneva, Switzerland. The Textile Academy Bootcamp is an intensive course for creatives, designers, digital fabrication experts and anybody interested in textile technology innovation. It offers participants an immersive experience to explore new possibilities and alternatives to the current textile and clothing manufacturing systems, guided by technologists, textile and fashion designers, computational experts and other international specialists in the field.
During her time at the bootcamp, Natalia focused on deepening her knowledge of biofabrication, biocouture and circular fashion. Returning to Arts University Plymouth with new inspiration to learn more about bioplastics and bacterial dye-processes, Natalia experimented with a range of recipes using agar as a biotextile.
Natalia also spent time working with Dr Mark Ramsdale, Associate Professor in Molecular Microbiology at Exeter University, learning about the qualities of mycelium leather and honing her work on bacterial dyes. This activity was part of a research trip organised by the postgraduate team at Arts University Plymouth, to enable students to access and learn about mycelium structures.
Natalia said: “My MA was such an intensive year of research. Early in my studies I made the decision that I wanted to use a biomaterial to create sustainable alternatives to plastic embellishments for costume design. In order to successfully cut and assemble the flowers used in my final project displayed at the MA Show, I needed to find a material that produced zero-waste and could be mouldable and cast into flat sheets.”
“By cooking powdered agar with glycerine and water, I was able to experiment by leaving it to dry out for different lengths of time, until I got the kind of texture and density that I was looking for. I also worked using the laser cutter in Fab Lab Plymouth within the university, to cut out the shapes that I needed from the dried agar, and to laser-etch the surfaces of the finished products.”
“The qualities of agar allowed me to try casting it into a range of surfaces and to add different types of pigments such as lab-made mica powder, natural dyes, and nano-cellulose to create colour, including shimmering, iridescent colours. That was incredibly important, because if you ever visit the carnival in Brazil, you’ll know that nothing is dull or boring, so your costume has to be exciting.”
The final outcome of Natalia’s MA research was a carnival garment influenced by traditional Brazilian ‘maracatu’ performances, embroidered and embellished with iridescent handmade agar biotextile flowers.
Natalia said: “I was happy to celebrate the end of my MA with such a colourful result, but for a journey like this one, one year doesn’t feel like enough time. I feel so passionately about the importance of research like this and the importance of sustainable textile design for the future. I enjoy the practical side and the research element and hope to find a way to continue doing both, finding others to collaborate with in a similar field and take these ideas forward to the next level."
MA Textile Design at Arts University Plymouth encourages an innovative and pioneering approach to surface pattern, construction and material practices. This programme provides students with the environment, knowledge and skills with which to challenge and develop textiles through material-led investigations. With technical and critical support, students will find their own creative voice and narrative through the development of an authentic and individual project, making use particularly of the university’s Fabric Lab, Textile Studios, Imprint Lab and Materials Lab. Arts University Plymouth offers unique interdisciplinary opportunities within one of the richest, most diverse ecosystem of materials, technologies, processes, practices, and exchange of ideas at any arts university in the UK.
In May 2023 Natalia Lombardi will return to Arts University Plymouth as part of a one day biomaterials workshop in the Materials Lab for students, sponsored by the Making Futures Research Group.