Can microbial save the dyeing industry ?

In China, runoff from the dye and finishing industry accounts for 80% of the total wastewater generated by the entire textile industry. Colorant producers and textile manufactures are looking for alternative dyestuff, not only because of environmental reasons, but also for business need.

Synthetic dyes are extracted from petroleum. Their prices are hard to predict because of  various external factors such as government regulation and the price of other raw materials, such as cotton. Smart business owners understand that petroleum is a finite resource that cannot be relied upon in the long run. 

This project explores a textile dyeing technology that sources colors from microbes. I used it as an example of Design with Life and investigated how it can inspire new approaches to garment design, material sourcing, business development and consumer communication.

Goals

  • Identify the potential benefits and risk to humans and the environment when using and producing biological materials. 
  • Develop a practical strategy that can help designers make decisions in a material-centric approach and display the possibilities that this kind of approach suggests, both in terms of design processes and of outcomes
  • Generate a sustainable business model and communication strategy for bio-based products.

Challenges

  • Difficult to produce on an industrial scale as the microbes require a very specific growth condition and are slow to cultivate. 
  • Difficult to achieve color consistency as the yield can be affected by unexpected mutation.
  • No detailed test has been done to measure the quality and biodegradability of the microbial dye. Bio-tech companies are not transparent about their production and business strategy. 
A sample of the living dye

Methodology

  • Identified research questions and set up metrics. Outlined the key steps to take, while discerning how to evenly and effectively distribute my time for each step
  • Collaborated with 3 Community labs, 2 scientists, and conducted 70+hr experimentation
  • Interviewed experts and gained feedback on my project. Consulted fabric producers regarding textile production process and helped me to do test runs

Project principles

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Production

Culture the microbes in a petri dish that contains nutrient agar, and keep them in an incubator with a temperature  of 28C. It usually takes 72 hours for the microbes to reach their maximum growth rate. When the dye reaches the desired yield, I remove the textile from the petri dish, and sterilize it in a pressure cooker for 40 minutes.

Serratia Marcescens

Widely present in non-potable water in underdeveloped countries due to poor chlorination

Micrococcus Luteus

Found in the human mouth, mucosal linings of the upper pharynx, and respiratory tract.

Sarcina Aurantiaca

Typically lives inside human stomachs and in the air and soil

Design

“The more technologically advanced our society becomes, the more we need to go back to the basic fundamentals of human communication.”

– Angela Ahrendts

I wanted to emphasize the connection between science and humanity, finding ways to make the wearer emotionally connected to the living dyes and the garments by storytelling. 

In this case, I told the story of the loss of my grandmother, someone to whom I’ve never said goodbye. By juxtaposing biotechnology with personal memory, I noticed the peculiar relationship between the new and the old, between technology and memory. I want to explore this connection, using the Living Dyes to preserve the memory of my grandmother in a visual way using colors and forms. ­

Sketches and prototypes

Textile repurposing

I used AI to trace a photograph of my grandmother, laser cut it on fabric scraps, then pieced them together and stabilized them with stitches.

Technical Drawings

Lookbook

Photo: Hong Yu 
Model: Lena Domas 
Assistant: Manu Varas

Reflections

Nature has a slower time clock compared to the fashion industry. A bio-tech product usually takes ten years or more to develop, during that time, numerous tests, analyses, and discussions are performed in order to fully understand the impact to humans and to the environment. This work pace runs counter to the idea of fashion, which always celebrates the “new” and the “exciting” without questioning the long-term effects. The consumers are extremely inpatient and constantly changing their demands. In the future, more needs to be done to assess the product’s life cycle. Bio-tech companies need to balance between ensuring that the developing products bring long term ecological benefits, and pleasing the fast-changing consumer market.