For millennia, men and women have used natural pigments – extracted from plants, fungi, minerals or animals – to dye textiles. Until, in 1856, English chemist William Henry Perkin patented the world’s first synthetic dye, a violet pigment called “aniline purple” or mauvein. This invention paved the way for the dye industry as we know it today. In fact, much of the clothing or makeup on the market is dyed with petrochemical derivatives – direct descendants of the pigment synthesized by Perkin – which are very harmful to our health and the environment, responsible for 3 percent of the global carbon emissions and 20 percent of the water pollution for which the textile industry is responsible.
However – as Phil Patterson, consultant and director of Colour Connection, argues – returning to natural dyes is no longer a sustainable option: in addition to being expensive and requiring large quantities of raw materials, organic dyes rely on a supply chain that risks, in the long run, compromising our planet’s natural resources – particularly plant-based where the pigment is extracted from plants, and mineral-based in the case of dyes such as ochre or cobalt blue. According to Patterson, the solution would thus be found at the intersection of natural and synthetic, a hybrid space where nature’s patterns lend themselves to human implementation.
Developing sustainable pigments, obtained from renewable processes, is the joint challenge to which designers, researchers and companies are devoting themselves, combining biotechnology and design with results that promise to change forever the way we dye our garments and beyond. Designer and biomolecular scientist Jesse Adler has identified fungi as the ideal resource to further this mission. Her project Alchemical Mycology, presented at the latest edition of Dutch Design Week, explores the potential of these creatures in reducing or eliminating our dependence on dyes from nonrenewable resources. “Collaborating” with the mycelium world – of which she considers herself an “alchemist” – Adler has developed a line of make-up products in which the dyes are extracted from fungi, lichens, yeasts and molds, in addition to tinting eyeshadows and lipsticks in shades ranging from light blue to red to ochre, reveal characteristics worthy of the best skincare products: from antioxidant properties to UV protection.
Adler, a graduate of Central Saint Martins in London with a master’s degree in Material Futures, is already thinking of future developments in her color extraction method that could represent a breakthrough going far beyond the makeup world.
“My goal is to extract the organism from nature once, and then cultivate and reproduce it in the lab so that the ecosystem can function normally without any interference from me” the designer explains about her research, which is constantly evolving. Last September, Adler began a five-month residency at the Jan van Eyck Academie in Maastricht, in collaboration with Central Saint Martins, to research other applications of these pigments.
Among the Jan van Eyck Academie’s initiatives is the Future Materials Bank project, an open source index of hundreds of new bio-based and sustainable materials. Within the platform, there is no shortage of projects proposing alternatives to industrial dyes: from Color Amazonia, which aims to safeguard natural pigments and dyeing methods typical of the Amazonian land, to projects such as If a Tree Falls or Bark Pigment, which exploit bark as dye, and finally to systems for dyeing textiles from bacteria.
With Moving Pigments, designer Charlotte Werth – also a Central Saint Martins with an MA in Material Futures graduate – proposes an automated and scalable system for producing textile pigments from cultures of live bacteria, achieving a delicate, and not always predictable, tie-dye effect.
In 2018, Werth built a microbiological laboratory to experiment with these organisms in the production of textile dyes. The result is a device similar to a traditional loom, where the fabric, sterilized before and after the dyeing process, goes through four dye baths, that is, a liquid substance already inoculated with bacteria. “These microorganisms need oxygen to grow and produce pigments. “Feeding” the fabric through these dye baths creates lines and shades of color: thus the bacteria grow directly on the fabric, creating unique patterns and designs.”
“The coloring process can be strictly guided, but not completely controlled, which means that small irregularities occur in the design process” Werth explains, describing a sort of collaboration with microorganisms that take an active part in the design process. A co-design that embraces the unpredictable and imperfect in nature by opening up new scenarios in textile design and introducing new aesthetic values that challenge the standards of uniformity demanded by the mass market.
Werth is not the only one who has sought in bacteria an alternative to polluting chemical dyes. There are also those who, like Britain’s Colorifix, have made a business out of “sustainable color science.” Leveraging the principles of synthetic biology, Colorifix produces natural pigments in the laboratory by “growing” them through on-site fermentation of bacterial colonies in a process that researchers liken to brewing beer. By genetically (but ethically) modifying organisms, Colorifix develops palettes inspired by nature’s colors through a system that is replicable and, therefore, sustainable. “The first step is to find a color created by an organism in nature, be it an animal, plant, insect or microbe. Through online DNA sequencing (therefore never done on a physical specimen) we identify the exact genes that lead to pigment production and translate the DNA code into our microorganism. The resulting engineered microorganism is able to produce the pigment just as it is produced in nature.”