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

  • Research
    Identify the potential benefits and risk to humans and the environment when using and producing biological materials. 
  • Design
    To develop this project into 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
  • Business
    To investigate if microbial dye can generate a sustainable business model and communication strategy. 

Challenges

  • Scalability
    Difficult to produce on an industrial scale as the microbes require a very specific growth condition and are slow to cultivate. 
  • Lack of Information
    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. 
  • Commercialization
    Difficult to achieve color consistency as the yield can be affected by unexpected mutation. Challenging for the public to accept the use of microbial on garments.
A sample of the living dye

Methodology

  • Project planning, identify research questions and set up metrics
    After reading 20+ scientific papers and blogs on similar research, I grasped the scope of this project and outlined the key steps to take, while discerning how to evenly and effectively distribute my time for each step.
  • 3 Community labs, 2 scientists, and 70+hr experimentation
    The labs helped me to source microbial dyes, provided experiment facilities, and most importantly, engrossed me into the scientific community of Berlin, while teaching me how to think like a scientist. Together with scientists, we conducted lab experiments to identify the right sterile process, growth condition, fabrics, and mordant. 
  • 5 Conferences and trade shows and 2 fabric producers
    I attended events to interview experts and gain feedback on my project. Fabric producers who sponsored my projects are transparent about their textile production process and helped me to do test runs.

Project Principles

Overview presentation v7_Page_02
Overview presentation v7_Page_01
Overview presentation v7_Page_03

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. ­

Persona

To identify my target group, I studied two major bio-tech market analyses, and conducted surveys to determine  the key information surveyed individuals look for when making the  decision to purchase a new bio-tech product. Based on the findings, I  created:

Gertrude the Professor – a 50 year old who never stops challenging the norm. The busy metropolitan lifestyle means she is often caught up by many things, but she never stops looking to elevate herself both spiritually and physically by mingling with the younger crowd, going to social parties or museums.

“I like special, carefully edited and curated collections that enable me to express uncertainties, fears and contradictions, and I am interested in meaning and memory” 

– Lyn Slater

Sketches and Prototypes

Laser cut and embroidered fabric scraps

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

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.