Tag Archives: kombucha

The Planting, Lock Making and Lessons Learned

You might have seen a few newsletter’s ago, we spent a Friday building the prototype of a DIY lock making/breaking workshop. Since then it’s evolved, improved and become something a little bit awesome thanks to Phil’s tireless (maybe slightly panicked) efforts in the couple of months since.

The Edge at The Planting Festival

The Edge Lock Making/Breaking workshops at The Planting Festival


But, what we didn’t say back then was the reason for this madness, and now is as good a time as any to explain ourselves.

They Edge was invited to Woodfordia to deliver workshops at The Planting Festival – the Woodford Folk Festival’s mid-year gathering. We took our lock kits and sheets of kombucha into the mud and sun, under a tent roof to deliver Edge style learning to a group of super enthused festival folk.

There, they built locks and fashioned kombucha accessories. Those locks were picked – we didn’t provide a key – and we learned that the kit wasn’t perfect; which is what delivering these kinds of projects are all about. It’s really easy to assume that something works after you’ve been staring at the thing day-in-day-out, living and breathing it. You fill in the gaps with logic and professional assumption, making intuitive jumps and fixing problems without realizing that there is a problem in the first place.

Then, you put your invention into the hands of community and watch as your best-laid plans go a little awry. The adage that no plan survives contact with the general public is as true today as the first time it was said. That doesn’t mean people don’t have a good time – everyone in those tents had a ball and it was the best kind of learning – the kind that goes both ways.

There was also mud and camping and awesome food and other amazing things to see and engage with. That’s the Woodfordia way of things; awesome times.

Would you like to see what we got up to at The Planting Festival? Check out all our photos in the Facebook Album.



Hello to all you science and fashion enthusiasts out there – my name is Alex and I want to share with you my eagerness towards a slimy, smelly, but revolutionary textile.

This textile is Kombucha scoby; a floating mat of yeast, bacteria and their byproducts created when Kombucha tea ferments. Ring a bell? Kombucha tea is a popular health drink renowned for its claimed health benefits. The tea’s bitter, fizzy taste is said to be evident in the scoby as well – yes, that means some people eat it!

Could you imagine eating something that looks like a Doctor Who villain? Now could you imagine wearing it? Hold on, don’t go draping pieces of soaking wet scoby on yourself just yet! Experimentation at The Edge has revealed that when dried and moisturised, the scoby adopts leather-like qualities.

It is strong and supple, and less smelly with the use of particular oils – pretty cool stuff. Through experimentation so far with the material, I have collaborated with other QUT fashion students in creating Kombucha shoes and individually created an outfit of kombucha and tulle.

The outfit sashayed down the catwalk in the Ipswich Fashion Gala and took out first place in the Wearable Art Student Awards. You can follow the creation process and runway show on video or check out the outfit and shoes on display at The Edge. Stay tuned for part 2 of my blog post about the amazing applications of Kombucha in the fashion industry. Also if you enjoyed reading this, definitely check out my page and give this link a big ol’ click!
Until next time,

Alexandra Bell, age 17, 1st-year fashion student at QUT taking the Bachelor of Design (Fashion) (Honours) course.

Image captions and links:
Kombucha scoby
SOURCE: http://inhabitat.com/diy-how-to-brew-kombucha-at-home/kombucha-scoby-mother/

Kombucha Mushroom Jerky
SOURCE: http://www.pennilessparenting.com/2013/07/making-kombucha-mushroom-jerky-recipe.html

Dyed Kombucha
Pieces of indigo-dyed and dried kombucha, moisturised with coconut butter to create Kombucha leather. Pieces are layered over tulle to create a tassel effect.
SOURCE: https://www.facebook.com/xandrabellthelabel/

Runway Show
The outfit reflects hard lines and square shapes you can see in city sky scrapers (my inspiration) and involves a layered tulle skeleton embellished with Kombucha paint (blended scobi, coconut butter, dye and glitter) across the shirt and side of skirt, and kombucha leather (dyed, dried and hole-punched) on décolletage and waistband.
SOURCE: http://websta.me/p/1106978987188607228_2046138253

Life in the Basement: The beauty of contamination.

Kombucha contamination

Kombucha contamination

I’ve been working with the microscope and attached camera which has been set up in the basement. To get used to taking images and test out the magnification, I took a few images of the bacterial and fungal contamination which resulted in a massive disposal of the infected yeast/bacteria kombucha colonies.

Despite contaminating the kombucha something fierce, I think the pics are still pretty darn pretty.

Kombucha contamination


Kombucha contamination


Awesome Space in the Basement

Lab space in the basement almost ready to start some serious work.

Lab space in the basement almost ready to start some serious work.

Well….we are finally getting somewhere with setting up a functional lab space in the basement at The Edge. Last week I cleaned all the surfaces and mopped the area to try and limit the further spread of a fungal infection that had permeated through the kombucha cultures. It was sad to watch the lovely thick mats of kombucha being discarded. That is unfortunately just the way it often is with biology and particularly microbiology — moist, warm and nutrient rich environments are highly favoured by fungus and bacteria.

I am hoping that we can keep the contamination at bay as I start working with my micropropagation plant project. I almost have all the required materials and hope to start plant culture in earnest next week.  We are just missing the Agar. Fingers crossed that it will arrive in the next few days.

The basic lab area for plant culture in the basement at The Edge

The basic lab area for plant culture in the basement at The Edge

I have started working on cultivating sweet potatoes. They form plants and roots very easily. So far I have been able to generate numerous clones from a single potato, simply by removing stem sections with rooting buds. I am interested to see whether I can also induce root and shoot formation from very small plant sections.

Sweet potato clones

Sweet potato clones

Potato roots from eye.

Potato roots from eye.

Potato root with shoot formation.

Potato root with shoot formation.

As part of this investigation, I am hoping to start documenting this cloning process as part of an evolving exhibition upstairs. I will start with a single potato stem and cultivate the maximum number of clones each week. I am interested to see how many clones I may be able to achieve in the last three months of my position. As my skills progress, I might even be able to cultivate thousands of individual plants from miniscule cuttings. Fun!

An Update: Organising Spaces and Materials

Organised space in Edge basement for kombucha growing and art/biology workshops

Organised space in Edge basement for kombucha growing and art/biology workshops

Well…it is all starting to happen. I have started to organise the basement area to enable a better workflow for Kombucha growing and other bio-related activities. I’ve done most of the groundwork for setting up a plant micropropagation work area and hope to begin actively experimenting in the next few weeks. I will start my exploration of plant cell culture using African Violets. They seem to be a pretty standard “getting started in plant culture” option and Jane’s African Violets online store has some really beautiful varieties available including double-flower and variegated varieties. They are sold by leaf for micropropagation and can be shipped to most Australian states excl. WA and Tas. I am particularly impressed by the amazing names: Blue Dragon, Galactic Star, Ghost Dance and Rainbow’s Quiet Riot — brilliant!

Along with organising a space to start experimenting, I have also begun actively mapping out the plant/bacteria growth pod. I was originally planning to build the whole thing from scratch to learn more about electronics and wiring, but it is actually much, much cheaper to buy pre-built components and cobble them together. Most of the equipment can be bought online from Ebay at a fraction of the cost of electronics stores. The main trick will be designing the housing and keeping the elements flexible to enable a variety of specimens for sampling.

We will be buying the main components this week, which means that I can get started on the actual pod pretty soon. At this point, I anticipate that the prototype will be pretty simple (and ugly), but once the specifications have been worked out it will be easier to fit them into a custom and more visually appealing structure.

Aeroponics set up.  Image credit: Thin Arir Growing Systes.

Aeroponics set up. Image credit: Thin Air Growing Systems.

Along with these elements I am also hoping to explore aeroponics. This method is similar to hydroponics, and involves the growth of plants without soil in a moisture rich environment. I am going to trial aeroponics with bonsai trees and a basic water misting/fog device from Ebay. It should (cross fingers) work in terms of sustaining the bonsai, but I also think it would look pretty spectacular!

Collaborative Fashion Project

We’re running a monthly ‘grow your own clothes’ meet-up starting on 1 August. Come along and experiment with us as we grow a sustainable bacterial-derived cellulose and turn it into fashion forward garments. Our Catalyst Cameron has been testing the growing conditions on this material for a while and he’s ready to share what he has learned. In a mere month we should have enough of this textile to start curing it and sewing up some clothes or cobbling some shoes. We’d love to hear your creative ideas of what you would like to make!

This project draws its inspiration from the work of Suzanne Lee from St Martin College, who recently presented her BioCulture project in a TED talk. Take a look for a little inspiration and join us for this meetup!

When: 6-8pm, monthly from 1 Aug
Where: The Basement, level 0, The Edge
Cost: Free
Bookings: Not required

Skin in a jar!

It looks like it, anyway.

That’s why my fellow catalyst is calling this the “Hannibal Lecter Project” 🙂

The stuff that looks like skin is actually cellulose – the same stuff (more or less) that paper, cellophane, rayon and cotton are made from. Here it’s home to a colony of bacteria (mostly acetobacter) and yeast that live in happy harmony atop a brew of sweet and sour tea, with the bacteria pumping out strands of cellulose about a hundred-thousandth of a millimetre thick. And it’s reported that the bacteria can produce about their own length in this fibre every hour or two.

I’m delighted and excited by how quickly the pellicle (the cellulose-rich “skin”) has been growing, so here’s a little photo-diary of the project so far.

The "kombucha mother"

This is the established pellicle in a bit of a previous batch of kombucha, which provides the micro-organisms and acidity required to start the new culture. This pellicle is sometimes called the “kombucha mother”, from which a “baby” forms atop the new culture. I am chuffed with how fabulously organ-like it looks! You can see here how it’s made up of a number of thin sheets that stack together: some of this layering is due to successive “mothers” and “babies”, but formation also seems to happen in cycles in each culture, as you’ll see below.

Hearty thanks to our generous Culture Club contact for getting us underway with the source material!

And this is what getting underway looked like:

A very large tea-bag!

Transferring the "mother"

The "crew" on board!

And here’s the second of our cultures, bought from a supplier in Darwin:

Second "mother", day 2


Self-assembled transient sculpture 🙂

Just a few days after starting the culture, a thin film of cellulose (and microbes) was beginning to appear atop the brew.

And a week or so later, it had grown to this!

Pellicle at ~2 weeks

At about the two-week mark, it had reached about 10mm thick. You can see here the layers I mentioned above – each about 1mm thick – suggesting it gets built in cycles. Cells are just like more complex organisms, in that they have a built-in “clock”; however, it could also be variations in temperature causing the different production rates.

The big bad 1st culture

The three cultures we have so far are each behaving a little differently, with the stuff we bought via mail order looking nice but growing more slowly. The rather splendid-looking “pancake” formed out of the litre or so of excess liquid I scooped out of the big 18 litre batch; this was a great surprise, because it had no “mother” in it, apart from whatever tiny things might have been swimming in the liquid at the time.

Two weeks ago, I decided it was time to try  “passaging” the culture (that’s what we call it in cell culture, when you take a portion of the culture and move it to a new home that has more room to move; splitting your culture from one flask into multiple flasks also lets you grow a lot more cells). We want to work up to large enough quantities to use the pellicle material as a kind of textile, so expanding the culture is a priority.

So I brewed up some fresh tea and performed a little surgery: a pellicular biopsy, if you like 🙂

The patient...


... the incision

... and the transplantation

And three days later, it was already starting to form an ever-so-slight film on top. This was a good sign of a robust process, because I deliberately made it difficult for the microbes by not giving them any of the “ripe” brew like one normally would. Instead, I just added vinegar to drop the pH to friendly levels, and relied on the tea, sugar and the microbes themselves to provide everything else. This one’s still growing more slowly than others, but it’s working nonetheless.

When playing with the cultures, I have been really impressed by how rigid the pellicle is – even the thin one shown at the top here is quite stiff. Although this surprised me, it actually fits with the microstructure shown by electron microscopy – an extremely fine meshwork of inter-weaving fibrils. Although the fibrils themselves are flexible, because there are so many and because they’re tangled over one another, they don’t easily move, and which makes the material stiff, strong and really difficult to cut!

It will be jolly interesting to see what it’s like once we get it out of the “vats”! I started one a few days ago, and it looks to be working nicely. More photos soon.

One last aside: another type of fermentation in which acetobacter make a cellulose-rich pellicle is in turning wine into vinegar. The pellicle in this case has been known as the “vinegar plant” or “mother of vinegar”. There’s a group at University of Western Australia who have recently started some similar textile-related experiments using this material.

More Microbial Cellulose

You might by now have seen some of the fashion and artistic applications of the “fabric from a vat” technology I mentioned yesterday. Now I’d like to show you some of the medical applications, because although a bit less DIY-friendly, it’s where some pretty magnificent research is happening. And at least one of the pictures looks like The Future if ever I’ve seen it; you’ll know which one I’m talking about when you see it, especially if you ever saw Terry Gilliam’s film, Brazil. Have a look; it’s exciting stuff! I’d love to hear from any dermatologists in Australia who use cellulose dressings like CelMat (Poland) or Dermafill (USA) for treating burns and other large wounds.

And to further update on yesterday’s post, I’ve just been informed by our Creative Production Manager that it’s the structure of paper that matters for writing on it – the ability for the ink to catch on the chunks of fibre. It’s the effective smoothness of bacterial cellulose sheets that might pose a problem for such applications, then. But there are always ways around problems like that. If anyone knows of people already making paper from microbial cellulose, please link away!

Growing fabrics?! (A call to collaboration)

One of my splendid Edgy colleagues spotted this presentation on TED. It got me rather excited. Suzanne Lee is using sheets of (mostly) cellulose manufactured by millions of microbes to make clothing! The project is called BioCouture (follow the blog link from the bottom of the BioCouture page for most up-to-date info).

There is so much to love about this, but as someone who loves a nice cup of Sri Lanka’s finest infusion, I am particularly delighted by the fact that the culture is grown in tea. The brew is called kombucha (which literally translates as “seaweed tea”), and has long been used as a kind of tonic drink, although having seen the stuff, I am curious as to how anyone thought to try drinking it! As you’ll see in Suzanne Lee’s videos, a couple of weeks of the microbes working away in a tub produces a thick mat on top of the tea, which looks to me rather like a big slab of pig skin.

The microbes that do the work are a collection of bacteria and yeasts: each helps keep conditions friendly for the other, which we call a symbiotic relationship (such a culture is sometimes known as a SCOBY – Symbiotic Culture Of Bacteria and Yeast). If my basic understanding is sensible, the yeast help keep the environment acidic, which makes the acetobacter cells happy to pump out cellulose fibrils; over time, these form a network that becomes great big floating home to all those tiny microbes.

Although kombucha has remained mostly in the culinary domain, Ms Lee isn’t the first to see the potential of cellulose-based materials made by microscopic things instead of plants (cellulose is the stuff we get from plants to make paper, cellophane, Rayon/viscose, and is the main component of textiles like cotton; it’s the main structural material plants make and are made from). Nöle Giulini used kombucha to make some rather fleshy-looking sculptures, and, as outlined in this jolly convenient article, microbe-produced cellulose has already found uses in food, medical and paper-making.

Despite the excitement and potential, there are always a bunch of intimidating technical challenges in projects like these. Suzanne Lee’s scientific collaborators are working on how to make the kombucha-derived material more water-resistant and durable (it currently absorbs water readily and breaks down quite quickly), as well as working on ways to optimise the bacteria’s productivity. This video touches on a few of the challenges and approaches. You may also note from Professor Brown’s summary that people don’t seem to be making paper purely from bacterial cellulose; I presume this is because you big sturdy fibres to make paper, and the bacteria (being tiny and single-celled) make tiny fine meshes. Or maybe it’s to do with the other material present that helps to bind the layers in wood-derived paper. Please comment if you know!

Clearly there is still much to learn and much to try, and one of the things I find exciting about this is that it’s science you can experiment with at home (or, say, at The Edge)! We are eager to see what we can do in this area, and would love to get more clever and enthusiastic people aboard. We’ll be teaming up with some university-based fashion innovators, and I would be delighted to hear from any kombucha enthusiasts, microbiologists, biochemists, polymer chemists, paper- and/or textile-makers, and anyone else who’s interested! So, if you want to get all mad sciency and try growing clothing, fabrics, fibres, paper or something entirely new in a vat, please leave a comment below or just drop in at The Edge: I’m usually about on Mondays, Tuesdays and Fridays, and will also be at the Mad Scientist Tea Party on 12 June and the Science Fair on 23 June.

Let’s get something brewing!