Week 4: Victimless Leather – A Prototype of Stitch-less Jacket grown in a Technoscientific “Body”

Animals have a survival tactic to convert their skin into a protective material.  Humans take this external protection, and create it into a garment that is fashionable or for warmth.  Even back in the prehistoric days, humans would hunt animals for their skin, for the purpose of warmth.  Garment is used as an expressive tool to portray one’s identity, and outward appearance.  Nowadays, there are arguments about the inhumane act of killing animals for the sake of unnecessary “fashion.”

In 2004, the “Victimless Leather” project was introduced to the public at Perth’s John Curtin Gallery during an exhibition that focused on the future of textiles and fashion.  There, unsuspecting guests were confronted with the controversial idea of using cells to grow “semi-living” fabric – and reactions were mixed.

“Victimless Leather” is a leather-like material made from immortalised mouse and human cells.  Inside a specially designed bioreactor that maintains optimal growing conditions (temperature, supply of nutrients, waste removal, etc…), a biodegradable scaffold that directs the growth of the cells into a three- dimensional shape is “seeded” with the cells.  Gradually the polymer biodegrades, and what’s left is a stitch-less, coat-like shape – or a miniature “leather” jacket that could fit a mouse.

Calling this work “victimless” is quite ironic, because it still uses cells from mice and humans, but it does not require killing them.  Wearing animal skin for its reasons is more accepted than creating this cell-like structure in the shape of a sweater.  The engineering of “life” becoming a raw material is so amazing, and gives more way to engineers, scientists, and artists alike.  The exhibition of this piece demonstrates not only the possibility of making cells into a “leather” coat, but also demonstrating a manipulation of a living system.

This project begs questions about morality still, because although it is named as “victimless,” it still utilizes part of a living thing.  What kind of breakthrough could this be for future projects?  Could it help in the medical field?  Can we still argue that it is not “victimless”?

-Rasmikah Al-arfaj

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