From Fish Scales to Functional Fibers

Tainan’s Textile Industry Goes Green

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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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。



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。

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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。














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