Kombucha may be that funny-sounding word often associated with words like ‘yoga’, ‘hipsters’, and ‘hippies’ but, jokes aside, there are other uses for the fermented, fizzy bottle of goodness besides
its known characteristics of promoting digestive health and wellness.
Generally made from green or black tea, kombucha is the term used to describe the drink, as well as the healthy organisms it contains that are made from a mixed culture called SCOBY (symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast).
The SCOBY – a mat of bacterial cellulose that can grow into any shape it’s contained in – grows on top of the tea during fermentation, creating a slightly alcoholic, effervescent, sweet drink.
During the growth process, you can make it thicker and have more layers by adding more sweet tea, and make it as large as any container you grow it in. Once its growth fills the growing space, it is then known as the ‘mother’, and can be used to make multiple new tea fermentations by dividing it into smaller pieces.
Because of kombucha’s natural properties and ability to be easily moulded into many shapes and sizes, fashion design graduate, educator, and cosplayer Christine Knobel decided to study its practicality for use in her grad school research on sustainable and biodegradable fashion in cosplay and zero-waste fashion.
Knobel has been an avid cosplayer since 2002, cosplaying as characters like the McVengers team member Wendy’s Widow (Black Widow and fast-food giant Wendy) and Marvel’s Galactus (which earned her a feature on the cover of Marvel Comics). After graduating from the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising (FIDM), she decided to apply for grad school at UC Davis, and got accepted.
While brainstorming textiles for her thesis research, she explored ideas like wearables, but ultimately went in the direction of her main interest: creating sustainable options in the fashion and textile industries.
Kombucha’s leather-like texture, mouldable capabilities during growth, and biodegradable properties made it the perfect choice for her thesis project: a biodegradable Wonder Woman costume.
The use of kombucha in the textile industry had only been reported about in research papers, up until the point Knobel decided to try it out, so there weren’t resources like YouTube videos to watch or blog posts to read, with tips and tricks for DIY kombucha leather projects.
This made it one of the most difficult and interesting projects she had taken on, and a whole lot of trial and error was involved. Knobel states that, while it took her about two months to complete the Wonder Woman cosplay, she spent the better part of a year researching and testing the kombucha’s effectiveness for use. She spent six months of that time in the lab every day.
During her time in the lab, she tested multiple types of dyes, as well as applications of the dyes, tested the strength and durability, sampled various amounts of layers, and tested various drying techniques.
She learned that four layers of kombucha, grown each one week at a time (four weeks total for the complete costume), made the layers thick enough to make the costume durable enough to last for a year of wear.
Knobel states that, since she enjoys making and wearing multiple cosplays and doesn’t want to keep her costumes around forever, the one-year time-frame felt like a perfect length of time for her before she moves on to creating a new cosplay with more kombucha.
From an outside perspective, the process for growing kombucha for textile use appears to be quite tedious, but Knobel explains after the initial trial and error, she finds it easy to use and make.
She can grow it in the comfort of her own home in the kitchen; mould, shape, and sew it as it grows; and use it immediately once it’s finished growing.
She grows the kombucha in multiple containers the length and shape she wants the sheets of kombucha to reach.
After mixing the ingredients, and pouring the ingredients into the containers, the watching process begins. Knobel states that the warmer the room temperature, the better chance the kombucha has for reaching its potential, but it is temperamental.
She says that a temperature of around 80–95 °F (27–35 °C) is what will make the kombucha really thrive and grow well, and that this step can also be achieved quicker with heat sources like a portable heater or heat applied throughout the process.
Once it’s time to dry the faux leather, you have to be a little bit careful about the environment. If the air quality where you live is too humid, it will make for
a much longer dry time (generally about a week per layer), and if it is too dry, it will cause the kombucha to dry brittle and crack.
To achieve the smooth, soft leather-like texture, she frequently massages the kombucha sheet throughout the growth process. During these steps, she also adds more ingredients to increase growth size if needed, and applies the dyes in various colours for her project.
The Suit Of a Superhero
For her Wonder Woman cosplay thesis project, she found inspiration in the Gal Gadot DC Cinematic Universe rough and tumble version of the famous Amazonian warrior costume.
The leather composition, rich colours, and bold design were an instant hit with Knobel. She’s watched the 2017 Wonder Woman movie many times over for costume study, just because she truly enjoys the film that much.
Once the seed had been planted, Knobel scoured the internet for Gal Gadot version Wonder Woman patterns and came across Beverly Downer of Creative Studios. She purchased her pattern, utilising all the pieces for her cosplay, with the exception of the bodice.
Knobel states that, while there are multiple sizes available, the bodice pieces were too large for her, and she also wanted to make some changes like adjusting the seam allowance to add a zip for ease of use.
To achieve this, she used Worbla, which she moulded around a body block that she made to her exact proportions to create the bodice needed for her perfect fit.
Knobel states that, while this experience has been rewarding and fun, since the cosplay only lasts about a year, she’s ready to embark on a new make.
She plans to make another Wonder Woman cosplay, this time experimenting with adding more layers for strength and durability, and using different colouring methods that are more environmentally friendly, like cake paints.
She says that the benefits of kombucha cosplay – like biodegradability, comfortability, and ease of use – far outweigh any cons.
Really, the only negative would be that the kombucha is not waterproof.
Those are things that Knobel plans to experiment more on in the future as her builds get more extensive, and as she continues to learn through the process.
When asked what her dream build would be, if she could make anything she wanted with kombucha in the future, she was quick to respond and had no doubt in her tone: Klingon battle armour from Star Trek: The Next Generation.