Photograph courtesy Orange Fiber
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Italy's citrus industry wastes an estimated half of the 500,000 tons of citrus it produces each year. Two designers want to turn some of that into thread to make clothing.

Photograph courtesy Orange Fiber
The Plate

In Fashion, Oranges May Be the New Black

Italian designers are eagerly spinning wasted citrus into silky threads that could one day make our garments shine.

Picture a Hollywood awards show in the not-too-distant future. Celebrities dot the red carpet, while reporters chase them down to fawn over their couture. But instead of asking the classic, “Who are you wearing?” the question posed instead is, “What are you wearing?”

If Sicilian designer Adriana Santanocito has her way, the answer might be, “I’m wearing citrus.”

Welcome to the small-but-growing world of sustainable fashion. (See Turning Food Waste Into a Fashion Statement.) In the same way that consumers have become more conscious about where their food comes from and how its production impacts the environment, some innovative fashion designers are thinking about how to create eye-catching garments and accessories that are both high-end and low-carbon footprint.

Case in point: Santanocito and her business partner, Enrica Arena. At their Catania-based startup, Orange Fiber, they’re turning citrus waste into satiny fabric and silky, colorful yarn destined to be stitched into dresses, scarves, and more.

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These dried orange peels may make their way into your wardrobe someday.

Santanocito formed the idea in 2011 when she was working on her thesis in fashion design at the Afol Moda Fashion Institute of Milan. Driven by the desire to make a positive contribution to her Sicilian homeland, Santanocito found herself researching citrus—one of the region’s most iconic, yet wasted, foods.

“Because of imports and other issues, a lot of Sicilian oranges are not harvested,” says Arena, and estimates published in the journal Agriculture suggest that every year in Italy the citrus juicing industry uses roughly 500,000 tons of fruit, more than half of which ends up going to waste.

Realizing an opportunity to put all those scraps to good use while simultaneously pulling together her final project, Santanocito developed a process—which is now patented—for extracting cellulose from citrus peels, leaves, and seeds and then spinning that cellulose into an innovative, eco-friendly textile the women call Orange Fiber.

“It’s very similar to silk and viscose,” says Arena, “with a soft, light feel, similar to twill.” The company has also produced a lace-like fabric blended with silk, and another blend that Arena describes as “more similar to satin.” “These are just examples of the infinite possibilities that our yarn can develop,” she says.

Clothing and accessories made from Orange Fiber aren’t commercially available yet, but according to Arena, the company is currently working with a well-known fashion brand and hopes to have some products on the market by the end of this year.

“We continue to dream big,” she says. “Our wish is to replicate our model in every country where citrus juice is produced.”

Catherine Zuckerman is a staff writer for National Geographic magazine. Her proudest moment to date? Watching her one-year-old daughter devour her homemade bolognese. Find her on Twitter.