Take Finland’s lead and choose clothes you don’t have to feel guilty about

An Aalto University-designed and -produced dress made of birch trees shows how one day we will all look—and feel—good in sustainable fabrics
Haukio and Niinistö. Photo: Vesa Moilanen/Lehtikuva
Jenni Haukio, with President Sauli Niinistö, in the evening gown made of 100% birch-based Ioncell fabric at the Finnish Independence Day reception. Photo: Vesa Moilanen/Lehtikuva

Finland has always drawn on its vast forests for inspiration, and the country can now lay claim to fashion worthy of admiration by design and nature lovers worldwide. A diverse team at Aalto University has designed and produced an evening gown made of Finnish birch trees, using a sustainable technology called Ioncell.

Jenni Haukio, spouse of Finnish President Sauli Niinistö, donned the sustainable yet elegant gown to begin the holiday season and mark the Nordic nation’s 101 years of independence at Helsinki’s Presidential Palace. From fibre to yarn and fabric to final product, a diverse team of researchers, experts, and students made the gown a reality on Aalto University’s campus.

Ioncell: an ecological textile fibre

A process developed at Aalto University and the University of Helsinki, Ioncell aims to change the way we make clothes. It creates quality textile fibres from a range of raw materials, including wood, recycled newspaper or cardboard, and old cotton textiles.

Unlike environmentally demanding cotton or viscosethe most common wood-derived fibre despite use of toxic chemicals in its productionIoncell fibre is an ecological alternative that can also be recycled. It also makes an excellent material for clothing.

‘Fabric made from Ioncell is soft to touch. It has a lovely sheen and falls beautifully. Most importantly, it’s an environmentally sustainable option,’ says Pirjo Kääriäinen, Professor of Practice at Aalto University.

The team—made up of students and experts in wood processing, chemistry, engineering as well as textile and fashion design—is currently producing small batches of trial fibres and materials, like those used in Jenni Haukio’s dress.

Creating a gown for the Presidential Reception

Finland’s long-held respect for nature and history of gender equality inspired the dress designers, part of Aalto’s internationally renowned fashion, clothing and textile design programme.

I took inspiration from strong Finnish women, who are represented in the dress’ minimalist features and clear lines.

Emma Saarnio, fashion and clothing design student at Aalto

‘In the design I’ve combined Finnish traditions while at the same time looking to the future. I took inspiration from strong Finnish women, who are represented in the dress’ minimalist features and clear lines. The dress is a promise of an even brighter future,’ explains Emma Saarnio, who studies fashion and clothing design. She designed the dress with fabric carefully created by Helmi Liikanen, a student of textile design.

While Ioncell technology is still at the research stage, Haukio’s gown is not the first time Ioncell products have been seen at state events. French President Emmanuel Macron received an Ioncell scarf made of old blue jeans when he visited Aalto University in August 2018.

Plans are in motion to have an Ioncell pilot production line by 2020.

Questions and Answers

What is Ioncell?

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, which requires harsh chemicals in its production.

The Ioncell process makes use of a safe, non-toxic ionic liquid, developed by University of Helsinki Professor Ilkka Kilpeläinen. Wood pulp, recycled paper or cardboard and cotton waste can be used as raw materials. Haukio’s dress was made of birch pulp from Stora Enso’s factory in Joensuu, Finland.

There are three stages in creating Ioncell fibres: cellulose dissolution, fibre spinning, and recycling of the ionic liquid. Then follows carding and yarn spinning, in the same way as other textile fibres.     

What makes wood-based Ioncell fibres ecological? 

The forests of our planet are precious and we need to think carefully about how we use them. Raw materials derived from forests should be used for products that not only have high added value but are also recyclable. Sustainability demands that ecological values, experiences of nature and economic interests are in balance.

Responsibly grown and processed forest-derived raw materials may be part of the shift towards a more sustainable clothing industry. 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.

In Finland, wood grows without watering or oversight; in fact, yearly growth currently exceeds harvest and natural loss. Long-lasting textile fibres made from wood have the potential to reduce carbon emissions, as recyclability means that carbon is stored for the fibre’s lifespan. Cellulose-based Ioncell fibre is biodegradable and, as a result, does not release microplastics into the environment as it breaks down.

Refining new textile fibres from old textiles via the Ioncell process also presents a way to limit waste that, depending on local regulations, ends up in landfills or is burned.

Ioncell is not, however, limited to using fresh, forest-derived raw materials. It can also produce textile fibre from common household items like recycled newspaper or cardboard, and old cotton textiles.

When can Ioncell products be purchased?

At the moment Ioncell is at the research stage. To date, the team has created a number of unique products using the process, such as dresses, scarves, a jacket and iPad case.

Preparations for a pilot production line have already begun; it is estimated to be in use by 2020. The resulting fibre production will be significantly larger in scale than in the laboratory. If successful, the process could be ready for industrial production in 2025.

How does Ioncell material stand up to use and washing? What are its key features?

Ioncell textile fibres are essentially a raw material for products. The properties and feel of textiles are always defined during the long and multistaged production process by designing yarns, weaves, knits and finishings. When produced in industrial scale, Ioncell products will be both usable and washable.

Wood-based textile fibres and textile recycling are often in the news. How does Ioncell differ from other technologies?

Finland has become a hotspot for wood-based textile fibre research and knowhow. Various new methods focusing on creating textiles from wood, industrial or agricultural byproducts or even waste are under development. Each technology will result in textile fibres with different characteristics and potential end uses. Ioncell fibres are strong and durable, and can be used for high-quality clothing, interior textiles and even some technical textiles in the future.

More information

Pirjo Kääriäinen
Professor of Practice
Aalto University
Telephone: +358 50 381 0217 

[email protected]

Herbert Sixta
Professor and Head of Department, Chemical Pulping Technology
Aalto University
Telephone: +358 50 384 1764
[email protected]

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