Two University of Delaware students put their best foot forward at this year’s National Sustainable Design Expo, showing off a biodegradable shoe they fashioned using mushrooms, chicken feathers and textile waste. Jillian Silverman and Wing Tang, both in the Department of Fashion and Apparel Studies, created a bio-composite material – renewable and sourced sustainably from common regional products – that forms the sole of their prototype shoe.

“The fashion industry produces a lot of waste, so sustainability is an issue everyone is trying to address,” Silverman said. “It’s hard to believe that people are going to change their consumption habits, but with this shoe, when someone gets tired of it or it wears out, it can go into the compost pile and not the landfill.”

The project began in 2015, when Silverman conducted research as an undergraduate Summer Scholar, working with Kelly Cobb, assistant professor of fashion and apparel studies. They were looking for ways to make fabric from mushroom mycelium, the interlocking root system from which the part of the mushroom that we eat on our pizza grows. The exploratory summer project was less than successful, but when Silverman began work on her master’s degree, she said, “I just kept thinking about it. I couldn’t get mushrooms out of my head.”

The researchers experimented with growing different species of mushrooms and using different materials, known as substrates, in which the mycelium forms its network of roots. They grew numerous samples, dried them and tested them for potential use as the sole of a shoe. The nutrients in which the samples grew included chicken feathers and a textile waste product that’s most often used as a packing material. The team hopes to experiment in the future with discarded natural-fiber clothing, perhaps shredding it to create a fluffy addition to the feathers as a growth medium.

Once the mycelium samples grown by the research team were tested and analyzed for the best species and composition, work began on a prototype shoe. Mycelium was grown in a soft mold in the shape of a sole – “No waste from cutting it into that shape,” said Cao — and the team settled on a type of vegan “leather” to cover the sole and make it more durable. Tang then designed and made the top of the shoe, using discarded scraps from the muslin fabric that apparel design students use in the clothing they create. She used a sewing technique called smocking, in which she gathered the fabric to give it bulk and shape.

“The University of Delaware research combines the sustainability strategies of local production and the use of bio-based renewable resources to solve environmental problems related to the apparel and footwear industries,” Environmental Protection Agency said.


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