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Crystal Maths

Where others see bodily waste products, Alice Potts sees new materials: ‘One day we will be able to grow our own accessories on our skin’. Meet the young designer creating a new kind of beauty from human sweat.

How did you discover sweat’s aesthetic possibilities?

I’ve always been into sport. I love how sweat creates intricate patterns on the body and stains the clothing that we use. If you look at people who’ve finished a hard session in the gym you can see white marks on their backs, and if you were to look at these under a microscope you would see tiny sodium crystal structures. I got obsessed with how I could make these bigger. I spent six months collecting sweat until I grew my first crystals.

Six months collecting sweat? That’s pretty hardcore.

When I made my first sweat crystals. I hid them. I didn’t know how people would react. I was at the Royal College of Art studying fashion and I wasn’t making clothes the way the other students were. I was taking old, used clothes and footwear and creating another material from the sweat soaked into them.

Certainly not the usual way to make accessories.

I had this little secret sweat lair at home. It was only last December, halfway through my MA at the Royal, that I had the courage to show everyone at the school.

How did they react?

They loved it. Zowie (head of fashion at the RCA) told me to focus just on sweat from now on. That suited me because I was obsessed.

The sweat crystals are a visual representation of that person

How did you discover how to grow the crystals huge like this?

I allowed the sweat to do what it wants. That’s what so beautiful about it. We don’t have to control and dominate nature. We can just show these natural processes for their own beauty. I never know what the outcome will be with someone’s sweat. Each sweat sample has different quantities of lactic acid, sodium and urea. It might be more dilute or more concentrated. Factors like diet and lifestyle influence how it will behave. In the end, the sweat crystals are a visual representation of that person.

The crystals are actually growing in the shoes and bursting through?

Yes, I use objects naturally seeded with sweat, and when the crystals grow they come through the fabric. The garment and the person become fused into one.

Yeah like hybrids of human and object. And it’s strange that it’s the human element of these hybrids that looks abstract, mathematical. The shoes look rather human: old, damaged, stained. Whereas the sweat crystals have a highly structured beauty, a kind of crystal maths.

Everything evolves from maths. Our bodies are structured according to equations perfected over hundreds of thousands of years. The way our cells grow and our bodies work is all down to maths. Maths designed us.

I actually started out doing maths. But then I became interested in processes where you don’t know the outcome. That pushed me towards art and fashion. Fashion was something I had no experience of. I didn’t know who Alexander McQueen was, I’ve never bought a Vogue in my life. But I made a radical change and applied to do a BA in womenswear at Norwich University of the Arts.

A step in the dark.

I knew nothing. I didn’t understand the rules of fashion, that a garment has to have a sleeve head, or a front and a back. I was lucky they accepted me.

Did you retain a mathematical turn of mind?

Yeah, I was into material manipulation through mathematics. I have always been obsessed with quantum numbers and cosmology and how you can use calculations like the golden ratio to create pattern structures.

For my final collection at Norwich I gridded out the body and created base patterns where someone could buy a couple of squares of fabric and make a garment themselves. The squares could be combined into trousers, jackets. It all slotted together, nothing was sewn.

Is your interest in fashion essentially a kind of maths?

For me it’s about a combination of interests I’ve had through my whole life: maths, chemistry and my sports background - I spent my childhood summers playing in tennis tournaments. When it comes to fashion, I’ve always been more passionate about the body than the influence of design. Clothes are a second skin to us, much more part of us than any fitbit could be. And yet we don’t think about them in that way.

For me it’s not about how I can turn a butterfly into a print, it’s about how I can turn a person into a butterfly

You don’t limit yourself to ‘I’m a fashion designer’ or ‘I’m an artist’ or ‘I’m a maths person’. And you seem to thrive on being in a position where you are in the dark?

I like going into a new area and not knowing what the outcome will be. I’m always scared of researching on the internet because, especially with fashion, all those images can sub-consciously influence what you are creating. So I don’t look at images of fashion. Instead I think about how I could use different disciplines – chemistry, biology – and use them to change how fashion can be.

How can chemistry and biology change fashion?

Take a butterfly. Some people might think about the colours of butterflies and how they can use them in their designs. I’d rather think about how a butterfly changes colour, what is it on the surface of its wings that allows it to refract the light in certain ways. For me it’s not about how I can turn a butterfly into a print, it’s about how I can turn a person into a butterfly.

How did you end up at the Royal College?

My tutor at Norwich saw that I would struggle in the fashion industry. She pushed me to continue with research and suggested the Royal.

And this is when you got into working with sweat?


You experimented first with sweaty tops from your local gym, but soon you were working with ballet shoes. How did that happen?

I was looking for a good source of sweat in the area, and the ballet school was next door. I knew from dancer friends about the punishment ballet shoes take and how frequently they get discarded. So I went over and asked if I could work with them.

How do you begin a conversation that’s going to end with you collecting their smelly old shoes?

At first they didn’t understand what I was asking. They said ‘Absolutely not, we don’t lend out our dancers for shoots’. And I was like, ‘I don’t want the dancers, I want their old shoes’. The expression on their faces... But then they realised that they throw bags of these things away every week, so why not?

I have a vision of you as a cross between Caractacus Potts and a medieval alchemist, with rows of ballet shoes bobbing about in flasks of boiling liquids, and drips of solution coming out of squiggly bits of glass tubing. That’s probably not how it’s done...

It’s close enough. My flat is full of containers of people’s sweat and piles of used clothing.

How do you store sweat?

Normally I keep it in buckets in the fridge. I didn’t always do that at first though.

What happens if you don’t keep it in the fridge?

Not much for a long time. But I had this one sample I’d left for a long period of time and it went off. It turned black and smelt foul. I mean rank. I think external bacteria had got into it.

How did your flat-mates cope with all this?

I tried to be open and ask if it would be OK for me to be doing this in the kitchen. And savouring it.

Anyone leave?

It was really hard to find someone to share with to be honest.

What was the reaction to your work at the RCA final show?

Really positive. It has been good to show people that there is another way of working with materials that isn’t mass-produced or controlled by technology.

And people responded to the poetry of the ballet shoes. The crystals make visible the way the blood, sweat and tears of dancers is transmuted into something of surpassing beauty.

Sweat from famous athletes was one of the most expensive things in ancient Greece

Your work has just been exhibited at the Athens Biennale and I understand that you have just moved to Athens?

Yes, I have been offered a fellowship at the Onassis Foundation. It’s great to be in Greece because Olympia was the beginning of athletic culture. And sweat was such a big thing in ancient Greece. They worshipped their athletes and they used to cover them in oil, make them sweat, and then scrape it all off and collect it. Sweat from famous athletes was one of the most expensive things in ancient Greece. Women used it as a beauty product.

You’re kidding me?

No really. There were people called sweat-collectors who used to go round the gymnasiums scooping up the sweat and then selling it on.

Prototypes of you.

Ha! I guess so. Trust the Greeks. They did it all thousands of years ago. Guess I’ve landed in exactly the right place.


Susan Irvine

Susannah Baker-Smith