From pineapples to mushrooms, vegan leather is in vogue. Here’s how to make leather alternatives from plants and where to buy them…
Leather was once a material much loved by the fashion industry, but it’s fast becoming something of a faux pas. With the emergence of commercial-scale factories producing luxury fungus leather, the vegan leather market’s growth is evident and is projected to surpass $106 million by 2030.
As buyers begin to take an ethical standpoint, designers are increasingly opting for more sustainable, plant-based materials which are free from cruelty and big on style.
In fact, notable figures like Pamela Anderson and Stella McCartney have already embraced this trend, introducing pineapple and mushroom leather handbags respectively.
Innovative and sustainable, vegan leather is revolutionising the fashion industry. Derived from diverse plant sources such as pineapple, mushroom, apples, coconut, and cork, these alternatives to traditional leather offer customers a more ethical and environmentally friendly choice.
From pineapple’s durable fibres to mushroom’s pliable texture, these materials are transformed into high-quality leather through innovative processes. But how do you make vegan leather from plants and where can you buy it?
Here’s how vegan leather is made using a variety of different plants…
1. Pineapple leather
To make pineapple leather, the tops of the pineapple and the pineapple leaves are harvested alongside the fruit and the long fibres are extracted, de-gummed, and woven into a mesh. Photo © Piñatex
A resourceful way to recycle pineapple leaves, this kind of fibre uses the commonly discarded parts of pineapple to create additional income for growers whilst preventing mass food waste.
How it’s made: The tops of the pineapple and the pineapple leaves are harvested alongside the fruit. The long fibres are extracted manually by the local farming communities using specially designed machinery supplied to them by the pineapple leather companies.
The fibres are then de-gummed and woven into a mesh, which are rolled together later on. Any excess waste is used to create biofuel.
Qualities: Pineapple leaf fibre is extremely similar to animal skin: durable, water-resistant and breathable.
Best for: Furnishings and fashion.
Where to buy: Excitingly, pineapple leaf fibre is one of the most abundant alternative fabrics on the market! You can find it being used to make shoes, handbags and accessories. One of the top brands is Piñatex.
2. Cork leather
Cork is lightweight, more durable than leather, and sustainable as cork trees are extremely resilient. Photo © bsanchez via Adobe Stock
Cork is harvested from mature cork trees, which are mainly found in rural Portugal. It’s lightweight as well as being more durable than leather.
How it’s made: Once the cork bark is harvested, the bare trees are then marked with a year of harvest and not stripped again for another 10 years.
Whilst the process is seemingly destructive, the cork tree is extremely resilient — in fact it can be harvested every 10 years over a 200 year lifespan! The cork is then boiled, dyed and treated.
Qualities: Cork is water-resistant and easily recycled. It retains a natural-looking fabric quality with an organic texture.
Best for: Water-resistant coverings.
Where to buy: Cork is often used as a protective covering on notebooks and smartphones. You can purchase from specialist crafters like malloryjournals.etsy.com.
2. Mushroom leather
Photo © Rodica via Adobe Stock
Often known as MuSkin, mushroom leather is made from the caps of the phellinus ellipsoideus mushroom species, which is native to subtropical forests. The fungus wraps itself around tree trunks to feed and grow.
This material grows at a rate of 1 inch per week, creating the area equivalent to a fully-grown cow hide in just two months! Other mushroom-based leather alternatives are grown using mushroom mycelium — the fibrous network of threads which spread laterally through the soil, providing the mushroom with nutrients.
How it’s made: Once the mushroom is harvested from the tree, it is then treated and processed in a similar way to animal skins, yet it’s biodegradable, natural and uses non-toxic processing agents. What you end up with is a strong and sewable fabric resembling traditional leather and the texture of suede.
Qualities: MuSkin is completely biodegradable, water resistant, tan- and dye-absorbent, versatile, easy to sew and completely breathable. What makes mushroom leather so unique is its incredible ability to prevent bacterial proliferation and growth.
This is because the fabric absorbs damp and moisture, and then immediately releases it, acting as a sort of dehumidifier ideal for use on shoes and boots. Initial studies also suggest that MuSkin is hypoallergenic too!
Best for: Breathable shoes and boots.
Where to buy: This is an emerging technology, so few UK websites carry MuSkin at present, however it can be purchased from lifematerials.eu in Europe.
3. Recycled inner tyres and rubber
Recycled rubber is sourced from inner tyres and industrial materials and is great for making accessories like shoes thanks to its durable nature. Photo © Harismoyo via Adobe Stock
Recycled rubber is sourced from inner tyres, industrial materials and household throw-aways. Recycling rubber is a fantastic way to reuse a hard-to-break-down fabric, transforming it from trash to treasure.
How it’s made: Used rubber is collected, washed and cut into the desired thickness and length to be used in further manufacture. The colour of the rubber is rarely altered, as this would require heavy-duty chemical processing.
Qualities: Rubber is naturally stain and scuff resistant as well as waterproof. It is also extremely durable, which makes it a perfect material for use in a variety of accessories — from boots and bags to belts and wallets.
Best for: Making tough, durable accessories like belts and bags.
Where to buy: Rubber leather alternatives can be bought from online websites such as Paguro Upcycle. Here, you’ll find a range of unique and individual rubber accessories such as cuffs, earrings and necklaces as well as bags and belts.
4. Apple leather
Vegan icon Pamela Anderson has even launched a luxury vegan handbag collection made from apple skin leather. Photo © Ashoka Paris
Apple leather uses the discarded skin from the fruit juice and apple-processing industry, to produce an innovative leather substitute from food waste. Creeping its way onto the fashion scene, apple leather brand Frumat was also used at the 2017 Millan Green Carpet Fashion Awards by designer Matea Benedetti.
How it’s made: The apple peel is mulched down into a powder or paste and then processed into a sort of pliable pasta sheet, which is pressed and set. This inventive way of recycling waste from the food industry is an ideal bio-alternative to leather.
Qualities: Apple leather retains heat, whilst remaining breathable and water resistant.
Best for: Waterproof handbags & wallets
5. Coconut leather
Using waste from the coconut industry, this biocomposite material is made from bacterial cellulose, grown from culturing waste coconut water. Photo © Malai Eco
You’ve heard of coconut water, coconut sugar, coconut flour and coconut nectar. But coconut leather — that’s a new one! An ingenious way of recycling waste from the coconut industry, this biocomposite material is made from bacterial cellulose, grown from culturing waste coconut water.
How it’s made: The fabric, known as malai, is grown using waste from farmers and processing units in Southern India. The waste coconut water is harvested and used to feed the growth of bacterial cellulose.
The cellulose is cultured and grown, before being extracted and treated to create a leather-like fabric sheet in an array of thicknesses and shapes. The malai is then dyed using non-toxic colourants before being stitched together to make accessories.
Qualities: Coconut leather is flexible, durable, water resistant and hypoallergenic.
Best for: Footwear, upholstery, and accessories.
Where to buy: This vegan leather is yet to hit the mainstream, but we hope to see it emerge in the near future. You can find out more by heading to manufacture Malai Eco’s website.
6. Cactus leather
Fashion house Karl Lagerfeld has created a collection of vegan leather handbags made from cactus and organic cotton instead of animal skin. Photo © Karl Lagerfeld
Derived from the prickly pear cactus, this unique material offers a solution to both environmental concerns and economic upliftment. Harvested from parts of the cactus that are often overlooked, cactus leather creates supplementary income for growers while mitigating agricultural waste.
Plus, the cacti are farmed without any chemicals, meaning the local biodiversity is preserved and the product is 100% organic.
How it’s made: The process begins with the collection of cactus pads, which are then cleaned and processed to extract the fibrous pulp. Utilising specialised machinery, local communities manually extract the fibers.
The extracted fibers undergo a meticulous degumming process and are subsequently woven into a versatile mesh, which is then expertly rolled together. Any residual waste is ingeniously repurposed to create biofuel, making this material even more sustainable as nothing is wasted.
The cacti plants are harvested every six to eight months, giving the plant time to regenerate itself which enables the process to be sustainable.
Qualities: Mirroring animal skin’s characteristics, cactus leather is durable, water resistance, and most importantly breathable – unlike synthetic leathers.. This biodegradable material is smooth to the touch with a luxurious feeling making it perfect for use in fashion, furnishings and more.
Best for: This versatile material finds its niche in furnishings and fashion alike, and has been used in footwear, handbags, and accessories. This innovative material has even been used by the likes of Karl Lagerfeld, who created a vegan leather version of the iconic K/Kushion bag using cactus as a cruelty-free alternative to animal skin.
Where to buy: Pioneered by Mexican fashion tech company Desserto, it was first showcased in Milan in 2019. Since then, Desserto has partnered with the likes of H&M, Givenchy, and Adidas to create sustainable fashion collections, shoes, and even vegan boxing gloves.
The company has also collaborated with Mercedes Benz and BMW to offer vegan leather seating in a bid to “contribute to sustainability in the automotive industry”.
7. Grape leather
Grape leather manufacturers Vega have collaborated with a number of footwear manufacturers like SUPERGA to offer vegan leather shoes. Photo © SUPERGA
Crafted from grape waste, this material is a resourceful and elegant alternative to leather. Graper leather was created by Italian furniture designer Gianpiero Tessitore who was frustrated at the lack of options for animal-free leathers available.
After three years of research, he discovered that the leftover grape skins, stalks and seeds from the wine making process could be used to make a stylish fabric with similar properties to leather.
How it’s made: Vegea collaborates with wineries throughout Italy to acquire grape skins, seeds, and stalks – remnants from the winemaking process that would otherwise go to waste.
Bio-oil is then extracted from the grape seeds and the remaining elements are carefully dried before being polymerised together.
Then, the polymerised bio-oils and dried grape materials are combined with natural fibers to create a soft, textured, plant-based leather.
Qualities: Grape leather is supple, durability, and has a luxurious appearance. With its super soft feel and has similar structure to animal leather, it’s almost indistinguishable from the real thing.
Best for: From stylish handbags to elegant shoes, its versatility lends itself well to a range of different applications.
Where to buy: Since winning H&M Foundation’s Change Maker Award in 2017, manufacturers Vegea have teamed up with hundreds of brands worldwide including Calvin Klein, H&M, Diadora and Bentley.
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Featured image © Pixel-Shot via Adobe Stock