Agar Illuminated

Agar Illuminated

Textile florist Yi Hsuan Sung describes how she uses agar, derived from red seaweed, to create luminous material for garments, accessories, and lamps.
Published on Thursday, June 10, 2021. This article appears in the Summer 2021 issue of American Craft Magazine.
Author Yi Hsuan Sung
Artist Yi Hsuan Sung with lampshades made from agar

Yi Hsuan Sung showcases a variety of her agar textile work, including floral lamps, sequins, and a braided mat. Photo by Fei Sun.

As a former fashion designer, I used to love the endless choices of materials that modern technology has brought to us. However, witnessing the process of mass production and the rush of fast fashion, I became aware of our urgent need to design in more environmentally friendly ways.

While taking a traditional Chinese costume construction class as an undergrad, I learned to use rice paste to glue fabric together. It was a very ancient way of garment finishing. I have been curious about the usage of starch, or anything found in the kitchen, in garment and textile making ever since. Today I’m using agar to create sustainable textiles, including yarn, sequin snaps, and flower shapes, that allow me to make a range of garment embellishments and objects.

Red seaweed

Agar is derived from red seaweed. Photo by Fernando Sanchez Cortes/Shutterstock.

Meeting Agar

Agar, an ingredient commonly found in Asian cuisine, especially desserts, is a high-strength gel mainly extracted from two types of red seaweed. I first encountered it on the northeast coast of my homeland, Taiwan. Every year from late spring to early summer, residents swim around the bay and gather the red seaweed by hand and turn it into iced jelly as a cooling summer dessert—a gift from nature. However, most people know agar from science class; it’s the growing medium in petri dishes. Nowadays, small-quantity seaweed foraging still exists, but industrial cultivation has become the main source for obtaining agar.

To make agar into a strong material for textile creation requires only two other ingredients: water and glycerin. Agar is usually sold in powder form, then reconstituted with water into a shapeable substance through boiling and cooling. Glycerin helps increase the material’s flexibility after drying by locking in certain amounts of water. Many material designers would categorize this mixture of agar, glycerin, and water as a bioplastic. Because it is a thermo-softening polymer, making things with agar is always reversible and zero-waste. By simply adding water and heat, every mistake and tiny scrap can be turned back into a liquid form and cast into a new form again.

Sample of agar cooked with mica powder and cooled

Agar solidified, cooled, and colored with mica powder. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Bio Sculpture to Bloom

Cooking agar to the desired consistency requires a fair amount of water. As a result, during the dehydration process, the material shrinks significantly, which creates lively waves on its edges. I call this miraculous phenomenon bio sculpture. After discovering this special characteristic of agar, I started playing around with how the material shrinks during dehydration, and a thought came to my mind: “Wow, this material could become beautiful flowers!” This was how I embarked on this world of agar flowers.

Flowers made from agar on a lightbox

Each petal acquires unique venation details once dehydrated. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Mold Study

I deeply examined the dehydrating process of agar and explored ways of utilizing these natural waves for flower making. I learned 3D modeling and 3D printing in order to design special molds for agar casting. I ended up developing a mold-making system by creating 2.5D molds which are flat overall, and as thin as 2 to 3 mm in casting depth. The molds make the casting process more efficient and capture the agar textile’s most delicate details.

Digital rendering of a flower-shaped bold
Agar poured into flower-shaped molds

Sung begins with a 3D rendering of a flower’s shape. She then pours agar into digitally fabricated molds. Photos courtesy of the artist.

The key to making agar flowers is the maker’s sensitivity to nature’s forces of air and water. After being cast and removed from the digital-fabricated molds, the material dehydrates to about one quarter the size of the mold. Every single petal is uniquely bio-sculpted during this dehydration process, even though they are cast from the exact same mold. I love how nature effortlessly brings agar flowers to life and gives each of them a different personality.

Searching for Colors

As a textile maker, I am always looking for colors, and the source of colors. While living in the big city, the easiest and most natural way to find them is in the kitchen. I started by mixing orange peels with agar, which creates colors ranging from bright yellow to dark brown depending on the control of the pH levels. Then I tried other kinds of food waste, such as onion skins, avocado pits, carrot leaves, and rotten berries. Fun facts: Sometimes I consume a lot of red onions just to get the right amount of dye for green. Sometimes my work is all about yellow just because it is orange season! It is a pleasure to see how living according to the seasons influences and benefits my work as a maker, and vice versa.

Flowers made from agar on a light box

Petals are colored with food waste such as (clockwise from top left) carrot leaves, orange peels, mixed berries, and red rice. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Illuminated lampshade covered with flowers made from agar in a dark setting

The translucent flowers in Glorious Dreams (2020) were colored using only food waste. They disperse light when illuminated. Photo courtesy of the artist.

In addition, I frequently use natural mica powder, a gloss pigment powder usually used in cosmetics, to achieve a silky look for the flowers and another layer of shine. Agar flowers colored with food waste usually take on a shade of brown over time, but agar flowers dyed with mica powder have better color stability.

Illuminating Properties

Among all of its potential applications, from woven mats in home décor to handbags and sequins in fashion, I’ve found agar textiles particularly suited for designing lamps. The regular exposure of the material to heat from lamp lights keeps moisture away, protecting it from breaking down as can happen in very high humidity. And agar flowers, because of their organic textures and colors, diffuse light uniquely and brilliantly. The translucent flowers gently illuminate any space in which they’re placed. In this way, decorative beauty comes both in the form of the flowers themselves as well as through how they disperse light.

Warm-colored mat braided from strands of agar

Made only from mica powder and agar, Sunset Mat (2020) consists of braided 1-inch-wide strips.

Agar floral lamps are constructed in two main steps. First, I knit a bell-like 3D textile base with cast agar yarns. Then, I arrange and fasten agar flowers onto the base by tying them with agar yarns. The whole process of lamp shade construction is through linking and tying, which makes it a totally reversible system. If certain flower arrangements are out of style, the lamp shades can always be rearranged.

My ultimate wish is for us to rethink how we make the artificial plants and faux flowers used in fashion accessories and frequently found in public spaces. My hope is that eventually we will reconsider the overuse of petroleum in favor of this type of flower-making system inspired by a natural material, agar.

yihsuansung.com | @yihsuan_sung

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Cover of Summer 2021 issue of American Craft