Imagine a cozy woolen sweater and a head of human hair sharing more than just a purpose in keeping us warm—they’re both crafted from keratin protein fibers. Now, a Dutch startup is challenging the norm, questioning why one is celebrated while the other is often discarded.
Enter Human Material Loop, a hopeful disruptor in the fashion industry aiming to repurpose human hair into a unique textile. Picture this: prototypes of stylish coats, jumpers, and blazers, all made from human hair. The dream is that one day, clothing companies will embrace this alternative material for their own creations.
Zsofia Kollar, co-founder of Human Material Loop, finds fascination in the potential of hair as a fabric. Delving into the emotional connection people have with their hair, she notes, “How much we care about our hair, but once it’s cut, we are so disgusted by it.”
When the world faced the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic, Kollar, experiencing an identity crisis as a designer, turned her attention to addressing the waste issue in the hair industry. The result? A mission to transform human hair into a sustainable and innovative textile, challenging the traditional notions of fashion and waste.
Every single minute, salons in the US and Canada generate a staggering 877 pounds of waste. What might seem like a mundane aspect of our grooming routines actually has significant environmental consequences. When hair breaks down in environments without oxygen, like in a buried garbage bag in a landfill, it releases greenhouse gases that contribute to the urgent issue of climate change.
Human Material Loop sheds light on the alarming statistic that 72 million kilograms of human hair waste find their way into European landfills each year. To put it in perspective, that’s equivalent to the weight of seven iconic Eiffel Towers.
Zsofia Kollar emphasizes the enormity of this waste stream, noting that there is currently no widely scalable solution in place. Most countries resort to burning this waste, but such practices contribute to environmental issues. Kollar points out that many alternative solutions either lack environmental friendliness or are not suitable for widespread use. The challenge lies in finding a sustainable and scalable solution for the abundant waste generated by the hair industry.
Kollar clarifies that creating fabric from hair is a process not vastly different from crafting a sweater with any other material. The short hairs are spun together, forming a continuous thread that becomes yarn, later dyed with pure pigments. As the company envisions scaling up production, there’s consideration for optimizing the dyeing process, whether applied to the yarn or the fabric, based on efficiency.
The debut prototype from Human Material Loop was a sweater, designed to evoke the familiar comfort of wool. Kollar explains, “I needed to make a product that people can relate to, and the jumper was one of the most feasible prototypes we could make, but also the most relatable.”
Building on this initial success, the company has ventured into testing other prototypes. One notable example is an outdoor coat insulated with hair to provide thermal warmth. This innovative creation underwent trials in challenging conditions during an expedition to Aconcagua, the highest mountain in Argentina.
These unique designs are not currently available for purchase, as the primary goal is to provide the material for other designers and brands to incorporate into their creations. Zsofia Kollar emphasizes that the pricing aims to be competitive with wool once production reaches a larger scale.
Recognizing that the idea of wearing clothing made from human hair may not be immediately embraced by the public, Kollar acknowledges, “We do know that to wear human hair on our bodies, it’s not something that most people are ready [for] yet.” However, she remains optimistic that the concept could gain acceptance over time. Kollar emphasizes that beyond the novelty or sustainability factor, human hair proves to be an incredibly durable material.
The sourcing of human hair for Human Material Loop involves collaboration with salons in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg. The chosen hair comes from cut or broken strands, ensuring it does not contain nuclear DNA that could identify an individual. The company is actively working on establishing a documentation chain to trace the origins and destinations of its material, ensuring transparency and accountability in the supply chain.
The utilization of human hair as a textile has historical roots across various cultures. For instance, the Kiribati tribe in Micronesia created woven armor using natural materials, including human hair, alongside coconut fibers, shark teeth, and palm leaves. In the 13th century, people in what is now the Southwestern United States crafted socks by knotting strands of hair together.
In a remarkable example, Kyoto’s Higashi Hongan-ji Temple, one of the world’s largest wooden structures, incorporated ropes made from human hair during its 19th-century reconstruction. Donated from across Japan after a fire damaged the temple, the hair was mixed with hemp for this purpose.
However, using human hair as a textile poses challenges, according to Sanne Visser, a Dutch material researcher and designer. She notes the existing taboo around human hair as a material, emphasizing that it is often not valued as a resource but seen as waste, especially when cut off. In her “Locally Grown” project for London’s Design Museum, Visser explored a future where hair becomes a valuable resource, coining the term “hair farming” and redesigning the barber’s chair to catch cut hair efficiently.
Despite these challenges, Visser acknowledges that incorporating human hair into products is not a simple task. “There is much more work to do to get people’s heads around accepting it as a material,” she says, but she remains optimistic, adding, “I can definitely see it coming more into our daily lives, with time.”