From Fish Scales to Functional Fibers

Tainan’s Textile Industry Goes Green
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2018 / August

Lynn Su /photos courtesy of Jimmy Lin /tr. by Phil Newell


The textile industry and fish farming would seem to be very remote from each other. But in Tai­nan, a bastion of both aquaculture and textiles, there is a third generation of textile industry entrepreneurs who are boldly innovating to connect the two. They have taken the milkfish scales that are a ubiquitous byproduct of aquaculture, and used biotechnology to extract “collagen peptide.” This material is turned into “bionic” fibers, which are then transformed into fashionable clothing. This sterling example of applied innovation has opened up new commercial opportunities for these traditional industries.


“At first, it was just a simple idea: We wanted to create more commercial value for the company and bring in more income for fish farmers,” says James Hou, general manager at Camangi Corporation.

Born into the third generation of the “Tai­nan Gang,” an informal but tight-knit group of business families from Tai­nan, Hou comes from a family that has had a long relationship with the Tai­nan Spinning Company, a textile industry leader. His academic studies were all related to biotechnology, so when the time came to launch a business of his own, Hou, who was then a PhD candidate in the Institute of Fisheries Science at National Taiwan University (NTU), naturally linked together these two industries. His company takes fish scales, previously seen as having no economic value whatsoever, and through exclusive technology, transforms them into “UMORFIL® Beauty Fiber.”

It takes persistence

From raw materials, to spinning, to fabric weaving, to dyeing and finally the finished garment, behind each piece of attire there is a complete industrial chain, with close relationships and mutual influence between the upstream and downstream segments.

As a textile fiber developer, James Hou stands at the most upstream point in the textile industry value chain. With Umor­fil, he has created enormous commercial opportunities for the whole of this tightly linked industry. It is not only Taiwan firms that place orders; even frontline international clothing brands are his customers. But since the brand was created, he has devoted ten years to making a success of Umorfil.

Back then Hou, who was still studying for his doctorate at NTU, saw the Japanese using collagen extracted from sharks as raw material for food products, and got his inspiration from that. He decided he would apply collagen to the textile industry, and as a native of Tai­nan, he first started working with the flourishing milkfish industry there. He purchased waste milkfish scales from fish farmers and processed them into collagen peptide. Today, Umor­fil requires ten to 20 tons of fish scales each month. Besides milkfish, another major source is the widely farmed tilapia, but by now the operation has reached the point where the supply of fish scales from Taiwan cannot meet demand, and Hou’s company has extended its purchases to overseas.

Processing the fish scales is quite a complicated affair. They must first be washed, dried, and ground up, after which enzymes are added to break them down into individual amino acids. After purification, unwanted amino acids are discarded, while the desired amino acids are retained and recombined into peptides. Then the peptides undergo “supra­molecular ­polymer­ization” with various other raw materials. This patented technology leaves a distinctive imprint that is not easily replicated by other means, giving Umor­fil fiber its unique texture.

Green fiber, global market

The collagen peptide amino acids that Umor­fil contains give it a delicate softness to the touch and make it highly skin-friendly. The high quality and functional properties of Umor­fil are the keys to why designers flock to it and specify it as a fiber of choice.

The functional groups contained in the amino acids can neutralize odors produced by the body, then gradually release them. Therefore even if you don’t immediately wash your clothes after exercising there will be no bad odors. Furthermore, Umorfil’s moisture capacity of 16‡18% far exceeds that of cotton (8%) and polyester (0.4%), making it outstandingly effective at preserving moisture. Besides helping to slow the loss of moisture from the surface of the skin, it inhibits the buildup of static electricity. In addition, the polymerization process permanently attaches the collagen peptide to the fiber, so that unlike coated fibers, its effectiveness is not reduced even after repeated washing.

Camangi is actively developing international markets for Umorfil. Being made from a fish farming waste product, the fiber embodies the concept of the circular economy, and so it had its first success in Europe, where people tend to be more environmentally conscious.

Take for example the twice-yearly Première Vision Paris, the textile industry’s leading trade show, which is famous for its rigorous selection criteria. Exhibitor companies must both be forward-looking and be indicators of future trends. When Umor­fil first took part, it was little known and drew little attention. Today it is a permanent fixture at the show, and can stand on equal terms with major international companies. Besides the opportunity to network with manufacturers and designers, as Taiwan’s only fiber supplier exhibiting at the show, its Made-in-Taiwan products can showcase the capabilities of Taiwan’s textile sector at the front lines of the industry.

Cooperation between textile companies

Because there is a high degree of division of labor in the textile industry, even when his product was in the research and development stage James Hou took advantage of Tai­nan’s dense industrial cluster, working with a number of yarn and fabric makers to spin his fibers into yarn, weave the yarn into cloth, and test the results.

One of the firms that works with Umor­fil, the Her­Min Textile Company, is similarly located in the major milkfish-producing region of Tai­nan’s Qigu District.

Although Her­Min mainly does contract manufacturing, it has a clear market profile as its sophisticated production capabilities enable it to make challenging woven plaid fabrics. Many famous international clothing brands rely heavily on this firm as a partner. Positioned as it is at the top end of the market, Her­Min tends to work with natural fibers like cotton, linen, wool, or silk. This orientation fits right in with Umor­fil’s characteristics of refinement and biodegradability.

Because every different yarn has its own unique features, the task of fabric makers is not merely to weave yarn into cloth, but rather, by skillfully combining different fibers and weaving methods, to fully bring out the advantages of each type of yarn.

When Her­Min began to work with Umor­fil yarn, they first experimented with weaving it in a mixture with silk. But because Umor­fil is already five times the price of ordinary yarns, when combined with expensive silk, although the texture was stunning, there were concerns the fabric would be too dear. As for linen and wool, these fibers’ own rather rough textures made it impossible to detect the soft and smooth texture of Umor­fil in the mixes. “In the end it was best to match it with cotton,” says Her­Min junior vice president ­Chuang Ching­-lien.

Technical fabrics add value to fashion

By a happy coincidence, in 2014, when in the face of stiff market competition Her­Min was looking to create its own brand in order to move away from doing purely OEM work, Umor­fil yarn came along at just the right time to help pave the way to a successful transition.

Tony Chen, manager of the clothing brand “Weavism” and part of the third generation at Her­Min, defines his brand as a mid-priced, well-designed brand with functionality and travel as its themes. Besides using Her­Min’s own production lines, the brand also makes deft use of Tai­nan’s textile industry cluster by working with other firms. Of course, Umor­fil is one of these.

About one-fifth of the clothes made by Weavism use fabrics that include Umor­fil. Tony Chen sees lightweight scarves as the product through which people can best experience collagen peptide yarn. Besides having no size limitations, when used in the summer, one can feel the cool sensation that the material brings. Especially when one considers that many women neglect to take care of their necks, since collagen peptide has a moisture-preserving effect, the scarves perform well whether one is outdoors in the hot sun or indoors in dry air-conditioned spaces.

Weavism’s T-shirts, printed with images of black-faced spoonbills or milkfish (both representing Qigu), as well as their loose-fitting sports shirts, best demonstrate the deodorizing effect of Umor­fil. Chen says, “A lot of sportswear is made from polyester, but while polyester fibers don’t absorb water, they do absorb oils, and if garments are worn for a long time then body oils will penetrate the fibers and give off a bad odor. Cotton doesn’t have this problem, but it easily develops a ‘stink’ created by moisture.” He compares his own company’s clothing: “Our clothes have the handfeel of natural fibers, yet they will not develop an odor even if worn for a long time.”

Although Umorfil has received great reviews from all sides, James Hou modestly says that the reason it has been able to make such a splash on the market is in large measure a matter of fortuitous timing. In the end, in an era of intense competition in a globalized market­place, functional fibers’ high value-added can create more commercial opportunities for brands.

Even though sales of Umor­fil have spread around the world, Hou, who is deeply rooted in the textile industry, insists that the knowhow must be kept in Taiwan, so that this traditional industry that once led the way in Taiwan’s economic take-off can maintain the competitiveness brought by innovative value. He says with determination; “The US has American cotton, Austria has Tencel, but for Taiwan, it’s Umorfil!”

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台南紡織業綠實力

文‧蘇俐穎 圖‧林格立

紡織業與漁業,乍看距離千里之遙。不過,在同樣屬於養殖漁業與紡織業重鎮的台南,有著紡織產業的第三代勇於創新,將唾手可得的虱目魚鱗,以生物技術萃取出「膠原蛋白胜肽」,

做成仿生纖維,再經由設計,製成時尚服飾,不僅成為農創應用的典範,也為傳統產業開闢出新藍海。

 


 

「一開始,只是一個簡單的想法,想為公司創造出商業價值,也為漁民帶來收入來源。」博祥國際總經理侯二仁這樣說。

出身台南幫第三代的他,家族與紡織龍頭企業「台南紡織」淵源甚深。由於求學過程,一路所學,都與生技相關,來到創業之際,當時在台灣大學漁業科學研究所攻讀博士班的他,自然而然連結起兩種產業,將過去總被視為毫無經濟價值的魚鱗,透過獨家技術,做成兼顧手感與機能的紡織纖維「UMORFIL®美膚纖維」。

十年磨一劍,來自台灣的纖維

從原料、紡紗、織布、染整到成衣,每一件服裝背後都意味著一個完整的產業生態鏈,上下游關係緊密、相互影響。

作為紗線纖維的研發者,侯二仁站在紡織產業的最上游,憑著Umorfil,創造出與整個產業鏈千絲萬縷的龐大商機。他說:「公司年營業額約2~3億元,到下游的布料商,約擴大成10倍,也就是20~30億元;成衣則約是布料的5~10倍。這意味著每年創造出十幾億的產值,相當驚人!」不只台灣買單,就連一線的國際服飾品牌,都是他的客戶。

不過,紡織業界人人都知,每一種新的紗線問世,背後無不是漫漫長路的研發過程,為了成就Umorfil,從品牌成立至今,也已是荏苒十年。

彼時,還在台大漁科所就讀的他,看見日本人從鮫魚中萃取膠原蛋白作為食品原料,由此激發靈感。侯二仁認為,膠原蛋白的萃取過程,常有汙染的問題,若製程不乾淨,吃了對人體未必有益;至於坊間常見的膠原蛋白美容保養品,用量相當有限,對漁民幫助不大。

因此,他將膠原蛋白運用在紡織工業上,加上本身是台南人,先從台南盛產的虱目魚開始著手,向漁民收購廢棄的虱目魚鱗,加工成「膠原蛋白胜肽」原料。現在,Umorfil每個月都有高達10~20噸的使用量,除了虱目魚,常見的台灣鯛也是主要來源,甚至連台灣魚鱗都已供不應求,擴大從國外收購。

要加工的魚鱗,處理程序相當繁瑣,必須先洗淨、乾燥、打碎,再加入酵素作分解;再經過純化,成為小分子胺基酸,淘汰不要的,取其要用,進行重組,成為胜肽。再將胜肽分別與不同原料進行「仿生高分子聚合反應」,這一套難以仿效的專利技術,就像獨特的印記,為纖維寫下屬於Umorfil才有的質感。

Umorfil共分為3種,與木漿結合的「再生纖維」(美膚纖維®),親膚性最高,適合做成貼身的內衣褲;與聚酯纖維結合的「化學纖維」(UMORFIL®T),質地剛韌耐用,適合做成登山、休閒等戶外運動服飾;與尼龍結合的「尼龍纖維」(UMORFIL® N6UTM),柔軟度最高,尤其適合講究彈性、服貼的瑜珈服。

憑著3種纖維的特質,再與其他不同纖維搭配,加上不同的織造方式,千變萬化的程度,就足以符合廣大成衣市場的多樣需求。

綠色纖維,打開全球市場

除了具有寬廣的應用性,Umorfil的高品質與機能性,更是許多設計師趨之若鶩、指定使用的關鍵。

由於纖維中含有膠原蛋白胜肽胺基酸成分,具有細緻柔軟的手感與高度的親膚性,侯二仁說,Umorfil就像「second skin」,即便是敏感肌膚的人也可穿著。

而膠原胜肽胺基酸具有的官能基,可中和身體產生的臭味,再逐步釋放掉,因此就算運動完後衣物沒有馬上洗滌,也不會有臭味。加上高達16~18%的含水量,遠高於棉花的8%、聚酯纖維的0.4%,保濕效果優異,除了幫助減緩皮膚表面的水分散失,也具有抗靜電的效果。且經由化學反應的膠原蛋白胜肽,將會永久聚合在纖維上,相較於以塗層的加工方式,可確保效果不會隨著洗滌次數遞減。

積極打開國際市場的Umorfil,由於以廢棄食材作原料,具有循環經濟的概念,首先受到重視環保的歐洲人好評。除了2015年米蘭世界博覽會,受法國村邀請參展,傳達食物與人的聯繫,也分別在2015年、2017年法國巴黎國際發明展奪得銀牌。

又以紡織產業中最具代表的「法國第一視覺紡織展」(Première Vision Paris,簡稱PV)為例,一年舉辦兩次的PV展,以嚴格的篩選標準著稱,參展廠商必須同時兼具前瞻性與指標性,Umorfil從第一次參展的籍籍無名,乏人問津,到如今成為PV展的固定班底,可與國際大廠平起平坐,除了與廠商、設計師交流心得,因著是台灣唯一一家參展的纖維廠商,在眾聲喧嘩的產業前線,以MIT之名,展現台灣紡織產業的實力。

由於使用到動物性胺基酸,Umorfil也在2012年取得清真認證(Halal Certification),是全球唯一一家取得清真認證的纖維產品,因著不少國際服飾品牌的工廠都設在土耳其,獲清真認證,也有助於打開中東市場。

紡織廠合作,完美詮釋紗線特性

由於紡織產業作業分工細膩,因此,還在研發階段,侯二仁便活用台南產業聚落密集的優勢,與多家紗廠、布廠合作,將研發出來的纖維捻成紗、織成布,再來測試成果。

Umorfil其中之一的合作廠商「和明紡織」,同樣坐落在虱目魚的主要產區台南七股,成立於1976年的和明,是一間以梭織起家的織布廠,產品以西裝、襯衫等正裝的面料為主。

和明雖然以代工為主,但市場區隔明確,具生產精緻化、高難度的格子布的能力,是許多國際知名服飾品牌,如Ralph Lauren、Tommy Hilfiger、Burberry倚重的合作廠商;由於立基高階市場,在材質上,和明較偏好使用棉、麻、毛、絲等天然纖維。這些特色,與Umorfil所強調的精緻度、可生物分解的特質不謀而合。

由於每一款紗線的特性不盡相同,織布廠的任務,不僅是把纖維織成布料而已,還要透過不同原料的配比、織造的方式,適切且充分地傳達出每一款紗線的優勢。

在取得膠原蛋白胜肽紗線以後,和明便著手投入研發。工務協理莊清煉表示:「這一款紗線比較柔軟,但一來,工廠過去都以生產硬挺的西裝布料為主,二來,膠原蛋白胜肽紗線價格較高,所以我們嘗試把這款紗線配上其他原料。」

Umorfil搭配上蠶絲,是雙方的第一次嘗試,但由於Umorfil的價格已是一般原料的5倍,再配上昂貴的蠶絲,雖然手感驚艷,卻有價格過高之虞;至於麻、毛,由於本身質感較刺,搭配後無法詮釋出Umorfil的柔滑質感,「還是以棉的配合度最好。」莊清煉這樣說。

不同材質的最佳配比,是每家紡織廠獨門技術所在,待紡織成面料,必須再針對強度、穩定性進行測試,從研發到成熟可製作成衣的階段,還需半年以上的時間。

機能布料,為時尚品牌加值

巧合的是,當2014年和明面臨市場競爭壓力,想由代工轉往經營自有品牌,Umorfil的紗線,就像來得及時的一陣東風,幫助轉型之路順利啟航。

「很多代工廠都會嘗試做品牌,但多是運用現有產品規格,主打布料厲害、價格實惠;但和明算是小廠,客戶也是以高階品牌為主,所以訴求大眾化的平價服飾並不合適。」和明紡織第三代、服飾品牌「Weavism織本主義」經理陳璽年說。

從母公司的定位作延伸,陳璽年將Weavism定調為以品牌作為導向,具有設計概念,以機能、旅遊為主題的中價位設計品牌。而這個服飾,除了使用到和明本有的生產線,也活用台南紡織產業的群聚效益,擴大連結其他廠家,包含紗線、布料、織帶、數位印花、印刷等,當然,Umorfil也在行伍之中。

Weavism的服飾,約有五分之一採用含有Umorfil成分的布料,「我很在乎運用的『合理性』。」陳璽年強調,「不是把同一種布料運用在所有商品上,而是針對不同的產品,從需求去選擇原料。」

絲巾是陳璽年認為最能體驗膠原蛋白胜肽紗線的一項商品。除了沒有尺寸上的限制,在夏日使用,除了感受材質所帶來的冰涼感,尤其脖子是許多女性常忽略保養的部位,而膠原蛋白胜肽又具保濕效果,不論是炎熱的戶外或是乾燥的冷氣房,都不成問題。

至於印著象徵七股的黑面琵鷺與虱目魚圖案的T恤,以及版型寬鬆的運動上衣,最能詮釋消臭效果。陳璽年說:「很多運動服飾會使用聚酯纖維,聚酯纖維雖然不吸水,但會吸油,穿久了油脂滲透到纖維裡,就會發臭;棉雖然沒有這個問題,但容易有濕氣造成的『臭曝味』。」他比了比自家的服飾:「這些衣服,可以同時擁有天然的手感,穿久了又不會有味道。」

雖然受到各界的好評,但侯二仁仍謙虛地表示,Umorfil能夠在市場上發光發熱,也是時勢造英雄之故。

畢竟,隨著全球化市場的激烈競爭,機能纖維的高附加價值,也能為品牌帶來更多商機,即便業務早已拓展至世界各地,與紡織產業淵源甚深的他,堅持knowhow一定得留在台灣,讓曾經帶領台灣經濟起飛的傳統產業,在今日仍保有創新價值的競爭力,「美國有美國棉,奧地利有天絲棉,那台灣,就是Umorfil。」侯二仁堅定地說。

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