There were many who thought that the concept of recycling is a far cry from luxury until Julia Nikoleisen arrived on the scene to change their minds. A fashion design engineer focused on re- and up-cycling, she is finishing her MA studies in textile product design in Germany, for which she made sustainable fashion the focus of her work. For her final collection, she mostly used raw material or waste fabric, which she got from different suppliers from the Netherlands and Germany, such as leftover wool, cotton fibers, dried fur skins, and human hair. She created a new type of yarn, which is partly made of human and fur hair. She then incorporated it into the knitting of the clothing for her final collection “Unisex Collection A/W 2018 by NIKO IRON by NIKOLEISEN”, representing a unisex and modern lifestyle, inviting us to more openness and creativity.

“The idea of recycling human hair came to my mind one night. I seriously dreamed of the development of a yarn that consists of a combination of human and animal hair. I knew by then that there already was a type of yarn spun from fur. During the Fur Creativity Summer School, which was organized in 2015 by the Hellenic Fur Federation and Fur Europe in Greece, I got to know the possibilities of fur production and processing. Vasilis Kardasis, the mentor of this event, has been in charge of a fur yarn project at the Royal College of Art in London. I found the idea of fur recycling revolutionary. It was this idea I wanted to develop in my Master’s project. Though animal and human hair have identical characteristics, the idea of combining both had not even been considered. This was an opportunity to transfer the concept of recycling to human products. After it is cut, hair is only dead material, which is either disposed of or sold to wigmakers. There are plenty of sources—in this case, hairdressers that could cover the need for human hair for a small production of hair yarn. Just as many dry fur skins exist in the fur industry. The waste and the remnants, the fur hair, could be recycled after shearing for yarn. This yarn could effectively be used to conquer the recycling market because it is not only innovative, but also resource-saving and environmentally friendly. The use of hair yarn in the textile industry could minimize the burden of wool, cotton, and plastic production. Hair is also a renewable raw material that is sufficient and will not run out—a good reason to establish this raw material in the textile chain.

“For the realization of my Master’s thesis I first had to acquire background knowledge in different areas. I did research on topics like hair, spinning, trends, and target groups. Unfortunately, there are hardly any sources for obtaining yarn from human hair. In the 18th century, hair was artfully crafted into jewelry and was considered a memorial to the deceased, whose hair was integrated into a piece of jewelry, or it was given as a proof of friendship to loved ones. This custom was finally replaced by photography. Later, the processing of human hair became discredited. During National Socialism, hair from Jewish concentration camp prisoners was used to make felt covers. The involuntary shearing of the head was, and still is, common today in the military, a symbol of oppression and the exercise of power. For a long time and up to the present, therefore, the processing of human hair in our society has been frowned upon. According to a small survey I made, respondents were disgusted by the idea of wearing a garment of foreign human hair. In retrospect, they could not tell the difference between a common yarn and a yarn partly made of human hair. Only on closer inspection did they notice the fine hair that was spun into the yarn. Hair has a strong meaning and symbolism in our society. It is said to have magical abilities and it survives death though it is already a dead horn thread formation. It carries our identity and our genetic material in itself and provides information about our DNA, our health, and our character. It is not different to animal hair or fur. One single hair is enough to identify and describe the creature, its behavior, and maybe also its feelings.

“The wild seventies served as inspiration for my design concept. I have always been fascinated by the free spirit of this era. It was a colorful age, full of emotions, balance, and love. It was a time of revolt, committed to human and animal rights as well as nature. The revolutionaries were true heroes. They dominated the zeitgeist and were in harmony with nature. The love for nature was expressed in the desire and struggle for equality, self-determination, and upheaval. They propagated a peaceful world. I’m a big fan of the 70s and the attitude to life at this time. My collection aspires to bear a similar message. I wanted to develop a product that unites nature, animals, and humans, and makes them equal. Yarn should be a metaphor for their bonds. The spinning of these materials into a whole reflects their intertwining and interdependence. The recycling covers and addresses ecological aspects of environmental and resource conservation. Each hair gains meaning and value. The yarn is a unit of different individuals that are spun together and stand for the whole, regardless of race, gender or traits.

“After detailed research, I became informed about the possibilities of hair and fiber procurement. I contacted recycling companies, hairdressers, and foresters, who were willing to help me with my project. On the recommendation of Susanne Kolb-Wachtel from the German Fur Institute, I contacted the family-owned Hofstetter Company. They finally provided me with dry red fox fur from passage hawks. Texperium, a recycling company from the Netherlands, sponsored untreated raw wool fibers and cotton seedlings. From the Seidentraum Company in Berlin I came to Ahimsa silk, a non-violent silk, which is produced in India under ethnic and sustainable conditions. Finally, I received hair donations from the Unic local hairdresser. Of course, the customers were previously informed about the project and could decide whether they want to donate their hair. I shaved the dry fox skins and mixed the hair with the human and other raw materials. Since the human hair was already washed at the hairdresser’s, I did not have to prepare this for the spinning process. I sorted the fiber material into parts and carded these into three slivers, from which I finally spun three different yarns.

“The mixture of the fiber material strongly influences the properties of a yarn. I therefore experimented with various mixtures. It was clear to me that, with the facilities available at the university, I could not make a 100% human hair yarn. Human hair is too thick and smooth, therefore it needs a carrier material, for instance, wool in order to be spun. I could have only made felt from 100% hair. However, I wanted to combine different raw materials of human, animal, and plant origin. I decided to do three different experiments. For the first yarn I used a mixture of 90% Ahimsa silk and 10% hair; for the second yarn I mixed 15% hair with 35% cotton and 50% wool; for the last yarn I combined 20% hair with 30% fur and 50% wool. Each yarn was a challenge in itself. For some days I had to experiment with the machine settings. All three yarns are tied to the fully-automated rotor spinning machine from Schlafhorst. Fortunately, at my side was Mr. Werner from my University, who supervised my project and was available for questions. It took up to two months to produce suitable yarns that were stable enough for further processing. Each of the yarns was then subjected to a quality test, which to my astonishment was positive in terms of tear resistance and stability.

“For the design of my final collection I was inspired by classic swatches like stripes, hounds tooth check and herringbone. These textile patterns I combined with bright colors to break the conventions of classical structures. For knitting and patterning I had to mix the self-made yarn with other colorful yarn material. Since my developed yarns are natural, and therefore have a natural color, I had to complement my collection with color accents to fit the 70s theme. I used a complementary color palette, consisting of a bright grass green and a rich bordeaux red. I soon realized that these colors are in perfect harmony with each other and underline the theme of the collection. For the knitting of the textile I experimented with different bindings. Finally, I knitted patterned textiles on a fully-automated knitting machine from Stoll, which I used to make my collection prototypes.“Regarding the aspect of sustainability and conservation of resources, I placed a lot of emphasis on minimizing waste in creating the collection models. Therefore, I constructed modern, oversized silhouettes of geometric shapes to avoid this blending. The silhouettes are based on traditional Japanese cuts and Japanese fashion culture. Each garment is uncomplicated, offers space and comfort. When wearing the two-dimensional, generously-cut clothing, the garment first assumes a three-dimensional shape. Therefore, it is also a unisex product. I deliberately avoided the use of accessories such as buttons or zippers. From a sustainability perspective, I consider it superfluous for design and the statement of the collection. They only distract and pollute our environment. It is important to me that the details do not dominate the message of the collection. The message should always be in the foreground.

“It is important to highlight why the utilization of hair and fur is so important for our times. More and more animals and plants are dying out due to our consumption behavior. Biodiversity is steadily declining, nature has already been exploited by humans for generations. The consequences are frightening and our behavior manifests itself in natural disasters. The textile industry, in particular, is a heavy burden on our environment. It’s time to return to our roots and develop new, innovative concepts for resource conservation. My concept is to show people and the textile industry that alternatives and solutions exist and can be realized. There are now many sustainable concepts that could curb environmental pressures if we do not close our eyes to them and allow these new ideas to become a reality. We ourselves, as my experiment proves, can contribute much. We can be part of a project that positively influences and changes the world. We could donate our hair, the old fur pieces of our grandmothers or even recycle old clothes for new fiber material. All this is possible and could be a step towards improving the world. For me, it is important through my project to make my fellow human beings aware of what opportunities we have and how we can use them.

“In addition to developing yarn and designing a collection, I founded the NIKO IRON label. This represents the idea of sustainability, innovation, and equality of nature, animals and humans. It is a unisex label, so it can be worn by men and women. The philosophy is based on the free spirit of modernity; the collections are influenced by revolution, innovation, and cultural heritage with traditional craftsmanship and innovative methods forming the foundation of the collections. The target group is the modern subculture of our society, which is sporty and unconventional, young, dynamic, and intelligent.”

“In brief, I would describe my NIKO IRON brand and my final collection in three words: sustainable, innovative and revolutionary.”