Pine trees are an important source of timber—600 million are chopped down each year in the EU alone. But while the trees are harvested for their wood, billions of pine needles go to waste.
Or, they could be used to make Forest Wool, a new material designed by Tamara Orjola. Orjola, who grew up around pine trees in her native Russia, was inspired to develop Forest Wool after realizing that needles, which account for 20% to 30% of a pine tree's mass, are an underused and often wasted natural resource. For her final project at Design Academy Eindhoven, she spent a year developing a technique to extract and refine pine needle fibers so they can be transformed into textiles, paper, and a composite building or insulation material.
"I knew that [the] pine tree has much more to offer and in old days it used to be used as food, remedies, to build homes, furniture, and other purposes," she says. "There is a lot of knowledge and awareness we used to pass from generation to generation which [was] forgotten due to development of mass production."
Orjola refined standard industrial processes like "retting," a technique used with other plants like flax and hemp that involves using microorganisms or moisture to dissolve undesirable parts of the plant. Her techniques also extract essential oil and natural dye from the needles. It's is a new way of thinking about how an entire tree can be consumed, from timber to wool to essential oil that smells like Christmas.
Forest Wool itself is a flexible material that can end up soft or hard, depending on its intended use. While it lacks that distinctive pine smell, because the resin is removed during the fiber extraction process, its aroma is of the forest where its life began. Orjola envisions vast possibilities for the material, especially because so many trees are harvested every year. For her project, she created two stools and a small rug to show its versatility and the stylish look of the material. The material could work as an alternative to fibers like coir, jute, and cotton—and as a construction material, could even decrease the demand on wood itself. Orjola hopes to develop the material further and is looking for industrial partners.
While there are a lot of new and exciting materials that designers are just beginning to play around with—like flexible batteries, Velcro metal, and conductive inks—Forest Wool manages to take one of our oldest natural resources and create a material that's just as intriguing.