Fall Fashion Guide: The Chicken Feather Suit

Suits and dresses could one day be made out of chicken feathers. Researchers are developing a technique that could transform the feathers into wool-like fabrics that could help reduce the use of petroleum-based synthetic fabrics, the scientists say. (Image credit: USDA.)

Chicken feathers and rice straw could become commonplace in clothing in the future, scientists report.

These garments won't resemble plumage or lawns. Rather, the feathers and fibers will get transformed into fabrics resembling wool, linen, or cotton. Researchers hope these inventions, made from the farming industry's castoffs, could help reduce the use of petroleum-based synthetic fabrics such as Polyester.

"All those wastes don't have to be wasted anymore," researcher textile scientist Yiqi Yang at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln told LiveScience.

World consumption of natural and synthetic fibers amounts to 67 million tons annually, which are used not just in clothing, but in carpets, vehicles, construction materials and a host of other everyday applications. Satisfying the increasing global demand for fibers could prove challenging in the near future, the scientists explained, because of the limited availability of cultivable land, as well as the increasing price and decreasing availability of petroleum.

Just like cotton

The researchers turned their eyes to the millions of tons of rice straw and chicken feathers available cheaply, abundantly and renewably worldwide as farming byproducts. Unlike petroleum-based fibers, barnyard fabrics are biodegradable, the scientists added.

Rice fabrics are the most developed of the two fabric concepts so far. They are based off rice straw, the stems of the rice plant left over after rice grains are harvested. As much as roughly two billion pounds of rice fibers are available from rice straw in the United States, with about 20 billion worldwide.

In an environmentally friendly process that is now under patent review, Yang and research scientist Narendra Reddy purified out rice fibers by dissolving the rest of the components of rice straw using a combination of enzymes and alkali. Common textile machinery can then spin the fibers into fabrics.

The rice fabrics will look and feel similar to cotton or linen. The total production cost of the rice fiber is estimated at about 50 cents per pound, while cotton currently sells for about 60 cents a pound, Yang said. "We're actively interested in attracting potential investors into the rice fabrics," he added.

Chicken shirt

Chicken feathers are composed mostly of keratin, the same kind of protein found in wool. The researchers are specifically interested in their barbs and barbules, the stringy network that makes up the fluffy parts of the feather, which may have a similar feel on the skin as wool.

"More than 4 billion pounds of chicken feathers are produced worldwide per year, about 50 percent of the weight of which is made of the barbs," Yang said.

The researchers investigated the physical properties of these filaments and found they possessed a sturdy honeycomb architecture containing tiny air pockets, which make them extremely lightweight and resilient. They could possibly serve as an improvement over wool due to their low cost, light weight and excellent heat and sound insulation, Yang said. However, he added they are not ready to make fibers from chicken feathers yet.

The scientists reported results concerning their rice fabrics today at the American Chemical Society meeting in San Francisco and will present data on their chicken feather fabric on Sept. 13.

Live Science Contributor
Charles Q. Choi is a contributing writer for Live Science and Space.com. He covers all things human origins and astronomy as well as physics, animals and general science topics. Charles has a Master of Arts degree from the University of Missouri-Columbia, School of Journalism and a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of South Florida. Charles has visited every continent on Earth, drinking rancid yak butter tea in Lhasa, snorkeling with sea lions in the Galapagos and even climbing an iceberg in Antarctica.