Denimaize uses biological design to redesign denim. We utilize wasted and diseased corn husks and process them to extract their cellulose fibers. The durable, stiff corn fibers are spun with soft flax fibers and woven in a twill pattern. The fabric is then colored with microbial dye and relaxed with cellulase enzymes. Denimaize is a response to the dominance of the corn crop in the U.S. and the waste it generates, as well as the vast pollution in the denim industry. Denimaize is proposing a biological (albeit corny) alternative to the old way of denim processing.

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Prototype of a denim jacket.

Prototype of a denim jacket.

Close-up of Denimaize’s fabric.

Close-up of Denimaize’s fabric.


Making your favorite pair of jeans likely used about 2,000 gallons of water. They were processed abroad with harsh chemicals and unsavory labor conditions before they reached your closet. The average American woman owns seven pairs of jeans. Denimaize’s solution to America’s denim obsession is grown here at home — corn. 250 million tons of corn waste piles up in the U.S. each year, in the form of corn husks.
Our denim is made from retted corn husk fibers, colored with microbial dyeing, and relaxed with enzymes. Denimaize is reweaving the future of denim.


Redesigning Disease

Our fabric uses husks "diseased" with Corn Smut, a fungal infection. By weaving diseased husks together in one functional fabric, we hope to question what is considered “waste.”

When Corn Smut infects a corn plant, kernels grow bulbous and discolored. These infected crops are often destroyed on the farm, even though the infected galls are safe, and even edible. In Mexico, smut has been valued for millennia as the delicacy, huitlacoche.

Though eating huitlacoche hasn't caught on in the United States, we hope that our denim will recast corn smut as a useful bioresource, not waste.


  1. Water Waste. Jeans are mostly made of cotton, a highly water-intensive crop. Relaxing jeans often requires repetitive washes. Stretch jeans, blended with elastane or rayon, release plastic residue into water.

  2. Chemical Coloring. Indigo and synthetic dyes are toxic, and pollute aquatic life. Denim is also faded with sandblasting, which creates permanent respiratory and gastrointestinal illnesses for its workers.

  3. Long Supply Chains. Most jeans are made in countries with fewer labor restrictions. The lengthy transport from factory to American stores lowers producer costs at the expense of energy consumption.

Our solutions?

  1. Corn Husk Denim. Diseased corn husks, an agricultural waste product, could be turned into textile fibers, which allow for a more efficient use of cropland and water. By separating lignocellulose fibers from the husk and spinning it into yarn, we can transform this natural waste into a viable alternative for cotton and other traditional fabrics in denim.

  2. Bacterial Dye Process. Corn farms are fertilizer-intensive and runoff leads to eutrophication of nearby rivers and lakes. Common pathogens in soil produce vibrant natural pigments or are easily transformable to produce unique colors. These vary by corn's soil, providing a broad range of colors.

  3. Localized Supply Chains. By collecting diseased corn husks from American farms, transportation costs will be kept at a minimum. Sourcing raw materials from local fields ultimately works towards lowering our carbon footprint. This enables better forecasting, consistent production, and more effective use of resources.

Our Process

Thread Production

To facilitate the separation of the cellulose fibers from the husk, we soaked dried corn husk in a solution of sodium hydroxide (NaOH) and hot water. The chemical solution breaks down the husk and leaves us with corn fiber. The fibers are then rinsed with water, neutralized with 20% acetic acid, and finally left to dry.
Once the fibers are separated from the husk, they can then be spun into thread, and woven using a hand loom.


Microbial Dyeing

We cultured bacteria, including S. marcescens and C. violaceum, that were both natural and genetically engineered to create diverse colors from light pink to navy blue. We shocked the bacteria in both ice and heat, to trigger a transformation, then put the cells on an agar plate to incubate. Finally, we transported the bacteria in ethanol and extracted the pigment and dye. This process reduces two existing problems in the traditional denim-making process: excessive water waste and chemical coloring. Microbial dyeing also ties back to our slogan of “redesigning disease.” Here, bacteria, a traditionally “gross” concept, is used to provide beautiful, aesthetic value.

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Cellulase Post-Processing

Finally, we softened our denim material using cellulase, an enzyme that breaks down plant fibers. The cellulase naturally softens the fabric and makes it less rigid. This process imitates stone-washing, but it uses far less water and acids, like pumice. Productivity increases by 30-50%, as small doses of enzymes can replace dozens of pounds of pumice. Pumice dust also poses a massive danger to employees – by exposing them to particles that cause respiratory damage. Thus, our cellulase post-processing procedure can prevent this toxic exposure.

TEAM MEMBERS: Julia Bell, Saif Khawaja, Cecile Zhang, Natalia Cabalceta

Denimaize took part at the Biodesign Challenge 2019, where it was a Top 9 Global Finalist and was presented at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). The Biodesign Challenge is a competition for students at top universities to take part in imagining the future of biotechnology. Received recognition in an article by Forbes. Denimaize will also be exhibited at the 2019 London Design Festival, a week-long festival that promotes London as the design capital of the world, at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A). The project was also selected by University of Pennsylvania curators to be a part of the inaugural exhibition of the newly-branded Stuart Weitzman School of Design, honoring world-renowned shoe designer and Penn alum Stuart Weitzman.