Anna Neklesa: Living Cotton
Words by Nikki Stefanoff
Photos supplied by Anna Neklasa
This profile is published in Mini Matters.
A self-described “haute couture alchemist”, Anna Neklesa’s work focuses on closing the gap between design and science.
When Anna Neklesa left behind her successful interior design business in Russia to study at London’s prestigious Royal College of Art (RCA), she had one thing in mind: to open up new ideas around material design. And, in particular, to see if she could bring textiles to life. Inspired by the works of the ‘grow your own clothes’ fashion designer, Suzanne Lee, material manipulator, Bart Hess, and the inventor of Spray-on fabric, Dr Manel Torres, Neklesa studied alchemy looking for ways to create a material that was soft and natural yet could be digitally manipulated.
She eventually decided to base her research around the idea of phygital, where something that exists in the digital world can be physically sensed. “There is no proper way of linking these two realities together,” she says. “So, I began by wondering if a chemical formula could stand for a digital code and asked the question: ‘What if an atom could stand for a pixel?’”
This idea that one matter could take millions of forms became the poetic epigraph to her project, yet at the very beginning she struggled to find someone to help her bring her idea to life. “I was constantly looking for a chemist to collaborate with,” she says. “Unfortunately, I found that there is often a lot of misunderstanding between designers and scientists. Designers are quite often scared of working with scientists and put off by the lack of communication in professional language. And scientists can find a designer’s process too different to what they’re used to.”
Nevertheless, she persisted (as all great women do) and after a year of searching found someone she could work with. “By the time I found Professor Ben Davis, from the University of Oxford, I was quite desperate and had started experimenting with chemicals in my own bathroom, which was dangerous and I strongly advise against it,” she says. “However, during this time I got lucky and made my first successful sample of ‘living cotton’. It was skin reactive and I wanted to understand why. I first approached Ben with a small video showing him my work and he invited me to join a group of PhD students who helped me learn more about the material I had developed.”
Neklesa’s living cotton is made purely out of dissolved cotton and is molecularly tailored to create a fabric that can actually respond to human skin and moisture. This paper-thin material is beautiful to watch in action as it dances and moves from flat to bent and back along two perpendicular axes, as if breathing on top of the skin.
Living cotton is soft to touch and visually mesmerising, but it’s delicacy makes it hard to imagine in situ. However, Neklesa has greater plans for the material than simply seeing it on future catwalks. “Depending on how you treat it, this cotton can stay soft or be as solid as plastic,” she says. “I can see living cotton being used in the upcycling process, which would give us a solution to textile waste or, because of its antibacterial properties, it’s possible that it could be used within the field of medicine.”