The pioneering creator of Piñatex, Carmen Hijosa, talks to Grant Gibson
Congratulations on winning the 2016 Arts Foundation Award for Materials Innovation. Tell me a bit about the background of Piñatex.
For 15 years I had a company manufacturing leather goods in Ireland, so I know all about leather. I started doing some consultancy work and one of the places that had a resonance with me was Bolivia. I started to work in the Altiplano with the local inhabitants doing product development. These women were making a yarn from llama wool and were brilliant. They made me understand that a product isn’t just about the final piece but the people. After that, I was asked to go to the Philippines by the World Bank. I had realised that leather making wasn’t sustainable and I started to look at other processes. I discovered this array of natural fibres that I didn’t know anything about, and I began working with local weavers. The pineapple fibres are really fine and I realised they could be turned into a mesh.
Which part of the pineapple do the fibres come from?
They are extracted from the leaves, which are the waste of the harvest. You have 30-40 leaves surrounding the fruit that we eat. They are actually a pest when you have a big plantation. The material is a bi-product from agriculture. The fine fibres are very flexible but strong. We can turn them into a non-woven substrate.
Where did the notion of transforming fibres into a new material come from?
Leather is a skin of an animal and its all about fibres. I asked myself: ‘What if we use these fibres the same way as our skin?’ Our skin is not a woven material. It’s non-woven, an inter-locking of fibres. That gave me the idea for the non-woven process.
How did you get from the Philippines to the Royal College of Art?
It has been a long journey, about 12 years. When I started working with the weavers I realised I knew nothing about the process, so I went back to college to learn. Then I did a masters degree to really understand the natural fibres I was working with. But I needed industry and a completely different way of thinking, because this has never been done before. A friend of mine suggested the best place to go was the RCA. I came for an interview and after five minutes they got it. That was my PhD, which took six years to finish.
What stage are you at now?
People have already made prototypes that have been shown at trade shows and we are selling, which is wonderful. Puma, for instance, is making prototypes. It has been very well received – from furniture to shoes to accessories.
What kinds of things have inspired you throughout this process?
A couple of things have been important to me. I’ve got a friend in Ireland, the artist Sonja Landweer, and when I began all this she suggested that I start drawing. She showed me how to draw using chunks of charcoal, to draw space and look at the natural world. It was difficult, but a complete breakthrough for me because I started to view things differently. I did a couple of hundred drawings throughout a few months that influenced my way of seeing. It was a prelude to understanding nature and how to look at things.
And when did your interest in sustainability begin?
The penny dropped when I was working in the Philippines with the weavers – taking this idea that products start in a field and not at a trade show. The full supply chain became a reality and a responsibility. And then I discovered the book Cradle to Cradle which was a big thing for me. Its author, Michael Braungart, actually assessed my PhD! What I was instinctively doing, he made it a real platform to work from.
Is there work in other fields you admire?
Oh yes, of course! There is an ethnic group in the northern part of the Philippines called the Igorot and they make the most extraordinary baskets. They are a work of art. I also find Jomon pottery fascinating. I was in Tokyo and saw an exhibition of pots and I’ve never been so impressed in my life. So what does it do to you? It just moves you. It’s like a storm inside you when you see certain things.
And does that feed into your work?
How this translates into my work? I don’t know but somehow it does. Maybe not in what you see today because that’s the beginning of a new material in its rawest state, but it will come about. I’m sorry it’s not very direct, but this is how it is for me.