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Student Showcase Archive

Piñatex™ Wins Arts Foundation Material Innovation Award

RCA Textiles Research Graduate and InnovationRCA Entrepreneur Carmen Hijosa has been announced as the 2016 Arts Foundation winner for Material Innovation. The £10,000 prize was awarded for her sustainable material alternative to leather, Piñatex™. The environmentally conscious, sociologically and ecologically oriented textile is a unique and natural non-woven textile made from the fibres of pineapple leaves, which are usually discarded as waste in the process of harvesting the fruit. 

Hijosa, who is Spanish-born, completed both her BA and MA in Textiles at the National College of Art & Design in Dublin. Before heading to the RCA's School of Material to undertake a research degree in Textiles, she co-founded and was designer of Chesneau Leather Goods – a manufacturing company of luxury leather goods in Ireland that exported to key global outlets such as Harrods and Liberty in the UK, and Takashimaya in Japan. Her work in the leather industry led her to design consultancy roles for the World Bank and the EU in South America, the Philippines, Thailand and EU.

Working with weavers, weaving communities and researchers in the Philippines, Hijosa came to understand the materiality of the indigenous fibres used by local farmers, as well as the enormous field of potential material innovation contained therein. Aware of the ecological damage caused by the tanning of leather, as well as its high level of waste – 25 per cent – due to the irregular shape of hides, the designer’s imagination was captured by the fibres of pineapple leaves.

Seen traditionally as a by-product of the pineapple harvest, the leaves are treated as agricultural waste and left to rot in the ground after the fruits are harvested. Hijosa realised that it was possible to make a non-woven mesh – a fabric that is bonded together without knitting or weaving (in a similar manner to felt) – from the long fibres of the laves. The mesh then goes through mechanical and chemical processes to become a strong, durable product—one that can seamlessly function as an alternative to leather to make shoes, bags, chairs, sofas and even panelling.

Similar in appearance to leather, Piñatex can be dyed, printed and treated to produce a variety of textures, as well as different thicknesses. With the rising prices of leather, Piñatex fills a niche in the market between leather and petroleum-based textiles: a mid-price point that also considers a core commitment to environmental sustainability. Since Piñatex is made from an already extant agricultural product, it does not require any additional land to be produced. The fibres are extracted from the pineapple leaves by the indigenous farmers themselves, following which it is industrially processed at a local factory before it is shipped to a finishing factory near Barcelona.

The durable Piñatex product, which has evolved into a material in itself, is attractive to the fashion, furniture, interiors and car industries as non petrol-based, natural, and undemanding of the environment – as well as being cost-effective: cheaper than leather, Pinatex also has only a 5 per cent wastage due to its efficient roll-to-roll capabilities.

Piñatex was launched by Ananas Anam, Hijosa’s cradle-to-cradle textile company, which was selected to take part in the InnovationRCA Incubator Programme. Hijosa completed the R&D for PiñatexIt as part of her PhD research at the RCA, and it was launched there in December 2014. Early work featured in the dedicated launch exhibition included collaborations with Ally Capellino, Patricia Moore, John Jenkins, Smith & Matthias, and brands like Puma and Camper.

The Arts Foundation awards, initiated in 1992, are designed to support the practice of professionally accomplished artists during a moment in which their career might critically benefit from a period of relative financial security. The grants provide financial assistance to talented emerging artists who have shown commitment to innovative and highly skilled work within their fields. Many previous winners have gone on to become leaders in their art form.

Hijosa intends to use her award to develop a 100 per cent natural, bio-based coating for Piñatex and will continue to research a more sustainable degumming process for the pineapple fibres. The values of Ananas Anam will remain core to her work: to find a replacement for leather in a textile developed from what is otherwise an agricultural waste product; and to bring extra income to the indigenous communities of farming areas. With viable pineapple crops every 14 months in countries such as Brazil, Thailand, the Philippines, China, Kenya and Ghana, the possibilities for positive outcomes on both these fronts are immense.  

Carmen Hijosa commented, 'The Arts Foundation Award is timely to further R&D on Piñatex and to support my work in Ananas Anam, a start-up company. Material innovation, particularly within Cradle to Cradle, Circular Economy principles is key to the development of products that are socially and ecologically responsible, as well as economically viable. My aim is to continue improving my product to fit C2C criteria.'