Golden fleece

Last night I went to the launch event for the Year of Chemistry, not least because it included a Merino Gold Fashion Show.

For the past five or so years, researchers from Victoria University’s School of Chemical and Physical Sciences and MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology have been researching gold and silver nanoparticles as colourants for high fashion textiles. Supervised by Prof. Jim Johnston, recent PhD graduates Fern Kelly and Kerstin Lucas [née Burridge] pioneered ways to embed nanoparticles of gold and silver in New Zealand merino wool.

“When the precious metals are reduced to the nanoscale (a nanoparticle is one billionth of a metre in diameter) they scatter light in different colours with silver appearing as yellow, peach, pink and purple and gold producing a range of brilliant hues. That means textiles in many colours can be created without using traditional—and mostly synthetic—dyes, adding to the sustainability of the innovation. Repeated testing by Drs Kelly and Lucas has shown that the gold and silver are bound to the wool with an ultra strong bond making the textiles totally colourfast and ensuring they do not fade in light or with repeated washing. In addition, the textile products incorporating silver nanoparticles have strong anti-microbial properties meaning they resist bacteria and pests, like moth larvae, that live in carpets. They also reduce the build-up of static electricity.”

Pretty exciting fibre science, to be sure. But I’m also completely fascinated by how it taps into broader cultural values. When NZ merino wool is already a high-prestige brand, the addition of precious metals only further stresses that quality. Drawing on the 100% Pure NZ brand, the fashions last night were introduced with terms like “pure merino,” “pure gold” and “pure luxury.” And sure enough:

“The initial target market for the golden wools is high end fashion accessories, fabrics and floor coverings. While it is around 100 times more expensive than wool coloured with organic dyes, there is interest for niche applications such as scarves, exclusive apparel and luxury carpet for residences, hotels or super yachts … ‘It’s had enormous market acceptance from the start. “Wow” is what people from across the wool industry say what they see what we are doing to add significant value to the New Zealand wool clip’.”

There’s a lot about the marketing strategy that deserves unpacking, and I think I’ll add a section to the paper I’m writing on NZ merino branding. In terms of sustainability, I understand that moving away from traditional (esp. synthetic) dyes is a big deal environmentally, but I don’t know enough about the process to know if the product isn’t automatically implicated in the environmental and health issues associated with gold mining. I mean, the gold has to come from somewhere, doesn’t it? I’ll definitely have to follow up on that.

I’d also like to talk with them about working with designers, and how they understand the connections between science and creative practice. For the fashion show they worked with final year students from Massey University Fashion Design, and Greer Osborne won the fashion show competition with her “ready to wear look inspired by the New Zealand environment and in particular the merino wool product.” Dr Lucas was quoted as saying “It’s been fantastic getting creative minds on to exploring the possibilities,” but I’d be surprised if she thought that scientists weren’t also creative. I’ve always been fascinated when artists and designers say that scientists (or other academics) aren’t creative, as if creativity belongs to some professions (or people) and not others. I know plenty of scientists who object to that characterisation and, when the description is reversed, just as many creative practitioners who do not appreciate being told their work lacks intellectual or experimental merit. Surely the boundaries are much blurrier than all this suggests! For example, the MacDiarmid Institute asked researchers from around New Zealand to “enter the most interesting images from their work in a competition”–which effectively put creativity in the hands (or eyes) of scientists–and then the best images were put on display in The Art of Nanotech exhibition. Sure, “interesting” might not be the same as “beautiful,” but it is just as much a part of creativity or creative practice.

In any case, I’ve got loads more to think about now and I hope to arrange some time with the chemists before classes start up at the end of the month.

Further reading:
“Going for Gold, and Silver.” Twist, October 2008