From birch to poppies – how the fabric was created for Marimekko’s unique shirt dress
Textile manufacturers around the world are looking for new ecological alternatives. One of these alternatives is the Ioncell® method developed by Aalto University and the University of Helsinki, which can be used to produce high-quality textile fibres from wood or recycled paper, cardboard, or textile waste.
Among other things, Ioncell® fabrics have been used to create scarves, iPad cases and Jenni Haukio’s evening dress for the 2018 Independence Day Reception. Now Aalto University and Marimekko have tested the properties of the fibre in a shirt dress which was produced as part of the SolvRec-project funded by Business Finland.
Dissolving pulp made from birch wood was selected as the raw material for the Ioncell® fibre. The fibre and yarn were produced by members of the Aalto community, while Marimekko was responsible for the design and production of the shirt dress, the printing of the cloth, and the fabric tests and wear tests.
For the first time, the researchers used a fully recycled ionic liquid to dissolve the fibre was used, a choice that was important to make the process environmentally friendly and profitable.
Project researcher Marja Rissanen explains that since the Ioncell® fibre is still produced on a laboratory scale, one of the challenges is to avoid material loss during production of both the yarn and the fabric.
‘The yarn production has exceeded our expectations. There was hardly any fibre waste. The yarn was as thin as commercial Lyocell yarns and its strength was even higher.’
The production of the Ioncell® fibers for the dress and the recycling of the ionic liquid was mainly done by PhD student Sherif Elsayed.
The light-weight fabric requested by Marimekko was woven abroad because there is no industrial manufacturer of thin clothing fabrics in Finland. The warp threads of industrial weaving machines are hundreds, even thousands of metres long, which is more than the current production capacity for Ioncell® fibre. For this reason, commercial NMMO-based Lyocell was used as the warp and Ioncell® as the weft.
After the weaving, the fabric underwent the normal pre-treatments and was then sent to the Marimekko fabric printing factory Herttoniemi. There it was printed with dark blue poppies, and then steamed, washed and dried with industrial production-scale machines. The Ioncell® fabric resisted well the high tensile stress of the machines and performed well in the Marimekko’s color fastness and strength tests.
‘Ever since the company was founded, the starting point for Marimekko Design has been timelessness – both from the qualitative and aesthetic perspective. Ioncell® fibre is a promising new material not only because of its ecological nature but also because of its other properties. Ioncell® fabric has a splendid silky glow and the comfortable feeling of a natural fibre. The fabric reproduces colours well and is good to work with. One of Marimekko's most important responsibility commitments is to continuously increase the share of responsible cotton and other more responsible materials in our products, so it has been a pleasure to be involved in this cooperative work to develop new materials,’ says Minna Kemell-Kutvonen, Design and Product Development Director of Prints and Home.
Ioncell® is a process, developed under the leadership of Aalto University Professor Herbert Sixta, for producing cellulose-based textile fibres. The most common man-made, cellulose fibre on the market is currently viscose.
The Ioncell® process makes use of a safe, non-toxic ionic liquid, developed by University of Helsinki Professor Ilkka Kilpeläinen.
There are three stages in creating Ioncell® fibres: cellulose dissolution, fibre spinning, and recycling of the ionic liquid. Then follows garding and yarn spinning, in the same way as other textile fibres.
What makes Ioncell® fibres ecological?
The global demand for textile fibres is growing each year by more than three percent. At the same time the cultivation of cotton is reducing and the hazards of oil-based, man-made fibres, like microplastics, are better recognised.
Wood grows in Finland without watering or oversight; in fact, yearly growth currently exceeds harvest and natural loss. Textile fibres made from wood have the potential to reduce carbon emissions, as recyclability means that carbon is stored for the fibre’s lifespan.
Finland has banned textile dumping in landfills in 2016 and currently about 80 per cent of recycled textiles are burned for energy, which leads to carbon being released into the atmosphere. Refining new textile fibres from waste, for example via the Ioncell® process, presents one solution.
Cellulose-based Ioncell® fibre is biodegradable and as a result does not release microplastics into the environment as it breaks down.
Project researcher Marja Rissanen
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